BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Harrismith camp was one of the smallest and least significant of the camps but its location, on the Natal border, gave it a unique character. The Ladies Committee thought that it was ‘beautifully situated’ in one of the three healthiest localities in the world!1 The camp was probably formed in early January 1901 – by 8 January Emily Hobhouse noted that it had 700 inmates.2 This seems an overestimate for the monthly report for April 1901 gave only 271. By October 1901 the camp had reached 1 500 people, still considerably smaller than most other camps. Blacks were swept up into Harrismith camp along with the whites. Numbers are uncertain but in July 1901 Lord Kitchener made the decision to clear the Harrismith area of all blacks and at least 500 people were brought in at that point. In October the black camp was passed into the management of the Native Refugee Camp Administration and we have no further information about its plight.3

The camp attracted little official attention in the early months and the superintendent’s reports were cursory. At first there were the usual problems of poor accommodation and rations. As late as July 1901 head office was recommending that the superintendent build huts of sun dried bricks since tents were not available to house the people. Food may have been better than in most camps, however. Since Harrismith was somewhat isolated, the superintendent was given some licence in obtaining rations, provided he remained within the contract price of 9d per person for whites and half that price for blacks. Until November 1901 Harrismith camp had one great advantage, for an enterprising Indian trader, Mr Cadova, imported fish and vegetables from Durban, undercutting the regular contractor in the process – to the great advantage of the camp inmates, the superintendent explained. Jealous local shopkeepers, unable to compete, combined to have Cadova removed on the grounds that, under the old Free State law, Indians were not allowed in the Free State. Racism counted for more than the well-being of the Boer families, it appeared, and Cadova’s store was closed on the grounds that ‘Coolie immigration’ was unacceptable.4

Some of the inmates were also able to augment their rations by working in the local town. When the camp authorities tried to put a stop to the practice, claiming that it led to friction between camps and towns, the superintendent urged that such a measure would only contribute to poverty and unemployment. There was no friction of any kind, and never had been, he assured head office. With the backing of the local British commandant, the camp authorities agreed to make an exception in the case of Harrismith.5

Morality was a matter of constant concern to the authorities and the Harrismith camp was investigated on several occasions. Soldiers were not allowed into the camp except to quell riots, the superintendent was warned in November 1901. He was also questioned about an illegitimate birth, the father given as Dr Eastwood or Earlewood. Miss van Jaarsveld had been living with the doctor in the town and was ‘in the family way’ before she entered the camp, the superintendent explained.6

Despite the enthusiasm of the Ladies Committee for the location, Harrismith was not a healthy town. Typhoid fever [enteric] was rife and the local district commissioner had to beg for money to combat the disease amongst the townspeople. The disease soon spread to the camp and, by November 1901 a resident camp doctor was needed urgently. (This is surprising since most of the camps had their own doctors by then). The Ladies Committee, which visited Harrismith at the end of November 1901, was particularly concerned, fearing that the camp, which had so far been remarkable healthy, was on the brink of a major epidemic. A hasty investigation by the local military medical staff revealed that the camp had become extremely scruffy and the camp doctor, Dr Beor, had been unable to get the superintendent, Mr Arthur Bradley, to attend to his complaints. The military staff feared that the camp was a threat to the health of the soldiers and the town – where the epidemic probably started. A later inspection of Harrismith camp revealed that water was in short supply and the camp site was ‘impregnated with typhoid’.7

The graphs for Harrismith demonstrate the significance of measuring the death rate. The graph below suggests that, even at its worst, mortality in Harrismith camp was below average. But Harrismith was a small camp so numbers don’t tell the whole story. Nevertheless, it is clear that the measles epidemic, which struck Harrismith late in 1901, was the major cause of death.

The graph showing the death rates makes it clear that the measles epidemic was more severe than mere numbers suggest. Nevertheless, measles came late and the camp was not affected by the summer scourge of typhoid.

Dr C.J. Rossiter (fresh from Britain) and additional nursing staff were hurriedly appointed, but the problems were not immediately solved because Rossiter did not get on with Bradley. A struggle ensued over the doctor’s demand that all enteric cases be sent to hospital. Bradley defended himself indignantly, describing the case of the dying Swartz child, ordered into hospital. He explained that ‘The child was absolutely terrified at the idea of being moved, and I never remember seeing such a pitiful sight, as I saw on the attempted removal and which resulted in the death of the child, before the bed sent for it [the child] was clear of the tent’. Bitter words passed between Rossiter and Bradley over this incident. The people were contented, Bradley felt, obeying his orders and working well, ‘and a lot more can be effected with them by kindness, than by the use of harshness, and I don’t want to see them lapse back into the old discontented state’. Dr Rossiter felt that he was in the right. The family had been insolent and the superintendent rude and overbearing. ‘We have a very unruly lot here and if the SRC is going to interfere with MO work in this manner, especially when the camp is so unsanitary the situation is impossible’, he declared. Enteric cases must be removed to hospital, he urged, since the camp people resorted to quack remedies. He cited Mrs Fourie who had been giving her children dog’s blood.8 The conflict was resolved by redeploying Rossiter.

This episode is a fascinating example of the tensions arising in the camps, which led to much later misunderstanding. From the medical point of view, Rossiter was undoubtedly right if more deaths were to be averted, but his manner was profoundly alienating to the camp people. Bradley, on the other hand, was an example of the kindly but inefficient superintendent, liked by the people but failing to stem the tide of mortality.

Rossiter may have been partly right about the ‘unruliness’ of the Harrismith camp inmates. In January 1902 another storm blew up when Boer families made ‘unseemly and exultant demonstrations’ during the funeral of one of the British soldiers. Lord Kitchener was particularly incensed and ordered that three or four hundred ‘irreconcilables’ be sent to Ladysmith in Natal.9 In the end, in fact, the entire camp was sent over the Drakensberg, a large number to Ladysmith; in April others were sent to Wentworth camp in Durban.

Whatever the deficiencies of Harrismith camp, the inmates preferred the devil they knew. When the families from Reitz were threatened with removal to Heilbron camp in August 1901, they protested vigorously. ‘Thus far we are indeed happy to be here’, they declared. The treatment was good and the health very good. Moreover they had gone to considerable trouble and expense to make themselves comfortable, buying stoves, erecting kitchens and collecting furniture. Their children were well settled at school. They did not want to move.10

The families renewed their protests when they heard that they were going to Ladysmith. They were thoroughly satisfied in Harrismith, they petitioned. They liked the superintendent and had made themselves comfortable. The number of deaths from typhoid were negligible compared with other camps. (They were right about this. The official records list only twelve enteric deaths out of a total of 190. If there was a healthy camp, this was it!) ‘Oh what pain’, they said, ‘what inconvenience, what failing breasts there would be on leaving a second home!’. Their appeals were to no avail and the entire camp was removed to ‘Tin Town’ (old military barracks) in Ladysmith towards the end of March 1902. All the same, when the people arrived there one, at least, thought they were better off, as a young girl wrote to her teacher. ‘We have certainly made a great change for the better, inasmuch as we are now in nice comfortable houses, with decent windows and floors. One feels quite another being since one can walk and sit straight again in a nice high room’.11 Harrismith camp was taken over by the British army.


J.H. Balme, To Love One’s Enemies (Cobble Hill, Hobhouse Trust, 1994).

E.H. Hobhouse, The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell (London, Methuen, 1902).

CO and SRC files in the Free State Archives Repository [FSAR].

CO files from the National Archives, United Kingdom [NAUK].

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893 pp. 104-109.

1 Cd 893, p.104.

2 Balme, To Love One’s Enemies, p.69.

3 FSAR, SRC 6/1742, 1 May 1901; SRC 14/5502, 7/10/1901; SRC 15/5728, 21/10/1901; CO 29A 2742/01, 30/7/1901.

4 FSAR, SRC 9/3231, 9/7/1901; SRC 2/280, 16/2/1901; SRC 15/6771, 2/11/1901.

5 FSAR, SRC 17/6704, 27/11/1901.

6 FSAR, SRC 16/6143, 26/11/1901.

7 FSAR, CO 7/450/01, 20/3/1901; SRC 34/A388, 29/11/1901; SRC 35/A519, 1/12/1901; SRC 18/6996, 8/12/1901; SRC 18/7125, 11/12/1901; SRC 18/7183, 13/1/1902.

8 FSAR, SRC 17/6922, 27/12/1901.

9 FSAR, SRC 19/7199, 8/1/1902; NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 4506, 10/1/1902.

10 FSAR, SRC 11/4315, 12/8/1901.

11 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, pp. 301-302; FSAR, SRC 19/7498, 11/2/1902.

Acknowledgments: The project was funded by the Wellcome Trust, which is not responsible for the contents of the database. The help of the following research assistants is gratefully acknowledged: Ryna Boshoff, Murray Gorman, Janie Grobler, Marelize Grobler, Luke Humby, Clare O’Reilly Jacomina Roose, Elsa Strydom, Mary van Blerk. Thanks also go to Peter Dennis for the design of the original database and to Dr Iain Smith, co-grantholder.