BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


The Natal camp system was somewhat different from the Transvaal and ORC systems although the majority of the inmates came from the Boer republics. Howick was one of the oldest camps, established originally by the military to take families from northern Natal. Certainly it was in existence by March 1901 when the military reported that there were 705 inmates, all housed in marquees. The sick were cared for in a separate ward in the general Howick hospital. The Rev. van der Horst ministered to the inmates and taught at the school. The camp was not fenced but the inhabitants and their friends needed passes to visit since the country was under martial law.

Reports were scrappy, providing only the barest information but the camp appeared to be run reasonably well and the people were healthy, apart from a few cases of typhoid, bronchitis, pneumonia and rheumatism. Numbers increased slowly – at the beginning of August 1901 there were still only 648 white inmates and 13 black, while a handful of people had reported sick. There were no deaths at all. In August, however, three families arrived from Klerksdorp, one of them with measles. Although the case was isolated, it was an ominous trend. At some stage the superintendent, Mr Caldecott, was subsequently replaced by Dr Hunter.1

Only on 1 November 1901, a full year after the Transvaal and ORC camps, was Howick camp handed over to civilian management. This coincided with the removal of families from the Transvaal camps and a month later it was reported that there were now 3,383 people in Howick camp, when it was full. With the Transvalers came disease and an epidemic of measles was followed by scarlet fever. Mortality rose although it was never as great as that of the Transvaal and ORC camps. Nevertheless, when the Governor of Natal, H.E. McCallum, visited the camp in February 1902, he found it in good condition, largely because of the efforts of Dr Hunter, he believed.2

The Ladies Committee had a somewhat different impression when they arrived in Howick on 2 December 1901. They considered it a somewhat haphazard camp. It was divided into two sections with a marshy depression separating them. The older camp consisted mainly of marquees while the newer had bell tents, most of them squalid and neglected. In almost every respect, they considered, the second camp was inferior to the older establishment.3 Towards the end of the period many of the residents were moved out of tents into huts. This was a relief when a gale in June 1902 ripped through the camp, destroying most of the tents.

Although the camp was not bad, it made a poor initial impression on the new inmates from the Transvaal; many remembered only the misery of arriving in the pouring rain. Mrs Sue Nicholson from Pietersburg, who had some descriptive powers, described their plight.

In the afternoon a train of open trucks would pull up at the siding, and its freight of draggled human beings, wet to the skin, would be disgorged with all their belongings as saturated as themselves. These poor women, some walking with the aid of a stick, or with children in their arms and children clinging to them, would be marched along the muddy roads, knee deep in the slush. Some were barefooted, for their shoes refusing to be withdrawn with the foot from the sticky mud, remained buried there. Children nipped with cold and crying with hunger, the mothers dumb, trudging on, only clasping their babies closer to their breasts to infuse a little warmth, were it possible. . . .’

Mrs Nicholson herself had more positive memories. She had nothing but praise for the superintendent, Dr Hunter (as did others). Her family included two ‘native servant-girls’ who were not rationed but she had some money and was able to supplement her rations from the stores in the camps, at a cost of £12 a month – an astonishing amount of money to spend on food, but vegetables were expensive with onions at 9d a lb. This additional nourishment, she believed, enabled herself and her children to survive the diseases which attacked them. These were numerous. Mrs Nicholson, apart from giving birth shortly after arriving in the camp, suffered from typhoid fever, while her children were infected with whooping cough. The new baby was sickly but, to everyone’s surprise, survived on a diet of extract of beef and French brandy. She speculated on the virtues of the Dutch medicines as opposed to modern scientific practice. Coming from the Zoutpansberg district, where there were few doctors, she had recourse to traditional remedies but, she believed, properly administered by experienced people, they always worked and she used them regularly for minor ailments.4

The Natal government, when it took over the camps, was determined to show that they could run the system more cheaply than the military had done. Consequently they produced a comparison of costs which gives us some idea of the economy of these camps. By far the most costly item in Howick camp was the meat, 46,386 lbs in January 1902 for about 3,000 inmates cost £942 4s 7d, while bread, 73,278 lbs, was the next most expensive item at £381 13 3d. £1736 7s 3d had been saved in that camp alone, the Governor proudly told Milner.5

While the food was monotonous, it was certainly far better than that of the inland camps. Dr J.B. Haldane, a pro-Boer who analysed the camp rations after conditions in the camps had become public in 1901, considered that the Howick inmates were did not suffer from serious nutritional deficiencies. On the whole the government analyst, Dr Sidney Martin, agreed although he considered that none of the inmates received an adequate ration of calories.6

As in the other camps, the British seized the opportunity to inculcate imperial values into their new subjects. The Natal Mercury, reported proudly that a course of lantern slides had been shown to the camp inmates. ‘It is an excellent notion to give the Boer adult some perception of the vastness of that Empire of which his country now forms a part’, it stated.7

At the end of the war there was a moment of excitement when the camp was visited by some of the Boer leaders, including Schalk Burger, to explain the terms of surrender. The Natal camps were closed down rapidly at the end of the war and by August 1902 Howick had only two families remaining. Because it was used partly as a transit camp a few people lingered on, however, into November when the camp was finally closed.8


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

E.H. Hobhouse, War Without Glamour (Bloemfontein, Nasionale Pers, 1924).

Published camp reports, Cd 819, pp. 38-39, 187, 204, 285-5; Cd 902, pp. 129-131.

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

Ladies Committee report, Cd 893, pp. 25-30.

1 Cd 819, pp. 38-39; 187, 204, 284-5.

2 Cd 902, pp. 129-131; Hobhouse, The Brunt of the War, pp. 138, 268, 282-3; NAUK, CO 879/77/687, 10691, 21/2/1902.

3 Cd 893, pp. 25-30.

4 Hobhouse, War Without Glamour, pp. 48-56.

5 NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 14336, 15/3/1902.

6 NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 45124, 2/12/1901; 882, 6/1/1902.

7 NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 23971, 22/5/1902.

8 NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 32805, 19/7/1902; CO 879/77/697, 39306, 25/8/1902; 49460, 7/11/1902.

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.