BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Johannesburg was an unusual camp in that it was the only urban camp in the entire system. Like Pretoria, from the start of the war Johannesburg had large numbers of refugees who needed help, and these increased when the British arrived. While many people were housed in the homes of the Uitlanders who had left for the coast, some kind of camp probably came into being fairly early, certainly by December 1900. At the end of December 1900, writing to Lady Hobhouse, Emily Hobhouse noted that there were rumours of ‘some sort of prison camps’ in Johannesburg with 4,000 women and children. With its mines and compounds, the town appeared to have plenty of accommodation and, in the early days, some women were housed in the men’s quarters at Robinson’s Deep and Village Deep.1 In the end, however, the camp was located at Turffontein – the Johannesburg racecourse – where the people lived in the grandstands. While they may have been relatively waterproof, the stands were not ideal, being dark and stuffy, and it was not long before the superintendent was recommending bell tents for the inmates. In the meantime, some sheds were built while other people were housed in nearby suburbs, making administration very difficult. Nevertheless, the Ladies Committee was pleasantly impressed by Johannesburg camp when they visited it in September 1901, describing it as being in a ‘charming situation’. They were particularly struck by the quality of the accommodation which they considered better than in any other camp they had visited, and they regarded the superintendent as thoughtful and efficient. Dr Franks, visiting earlier in July 1901, commented that ‘If every burgher camp be as well managed as this one there is very small ground for complaint’.2

The earliest superintendent, Captain Snowden, had been replaced by A.A. Noble when the camp passed into civilian administration in 1901. Noble had a particularly arduous task for he was also responsible for the town refugees on poor relief. Nevertheless, he appears to have been one of the most competent of the camp superintendents. The camp was run, not only efficiently, but with compassion and the Ladies Committee commented that the people greeted Noble with a ‘pleasant smile’ wherever he went.3 Unfortunately the camp reports he wrote were, in general, brief and terse, dealing largely with administrative matters, so it is difficult to get much sense of life in Johannesburg camp.

Johannesburg was not without its problems. In the beginning, health was a major concern. Many of the people were desperately poor. The British authorities described them as ‘low class’, ‘hopeless, helpless, sick and vermin-ridden’. As in Pretoria, measles struck early and very severely and the MO remarked on the virulent character of the disease, complicated by pneumonia. Persistent diarrhoea and sore eyes suggest wider health problems. It was particularly difficult to keep the camps which were close to large towns free of disease, and infections appear to have been rife in Johannesburg. Measles was followed by scarlet fever, whooping cough and mumps, although none had the tragic results of the measles and strict isolation kept the worst effects at bay. The poor health led the Dutch Reformed Church to send a deputation to the authorities to protest against conditions, especially amongst the people at Robinson Deep. The first doctor, Dr Crozier-Durham, was unable to cope and was replaced by Dr Herbert Crook, who had worked previously on the mines. Crook, in turn, was followed by Dr Robert James.4

The scale of rations, that deprived families of men on commando of meat, was immediately abandoned and, in the beginning inmates also received some vegetables. But the quality of the food deteriorated fairly rapidly. By June 1901 the superintendent noted that ‘Flour good, sugar and coffee not, slaughter stock very poor’ and meat ‘uninviting to the ordinary appetite’. Nevertheless, Noble tried to supply an extra ration of meat, having been advised by Dr Crook that fresh meat was an effective preventive against scurvy. The head, plucks and tripe were issued free in rotation to different parts of the camp. Although ovens were provided to bake bread, meat continued to be poor (although that sold in Johannesburg itself was unfit for human consumption). When tinned meat was introduced, the camp inmates complained that it gave them stomach troubles. The superintendent was sympathetic for he felt that the absence of fresh vegetables made the complaint genuine. At the same time the MO noted that dysentery was very prevalent, as was scurvy amongst the children. One amelioration was the existence of a soup kitchen for the children, long before they were introduced into the other camps.5

The onslaught of disease, the strange, stuffy accommodation and the awful food may explain why Hobhouse and others pointed to Johannesburg camp as particularly bad. Indeed, conditions were so critical that Sir Alfred Milner began to ask questions in April 1901, many months before he took an active interest in the camps as a whole. In the same month the Boer women petitioned Lord Kitchener to be allowed to return to their homes, urging that, ‘in all cases without exception they have been deprived of the free, fresh, open air, and the healthy and sufficient nourishment to which they have been accustomed since the days of their birth’. An additional hardship was the MO, Dr Crook, for the Boer families usually reacted strongly to the attitudes of the camp staff. Crook clearly dealt harshly with the camp people, to the point that some claimed that he beat patients in the hospital. Rumour was rife in the camps and there is no evidence to believe that Crook behaved so viciously but he clearly lacked compassion.6

In actual fact, after the onslaught of the first measles epidemic had passed, mortality in Johannesburg camp declined compared with many of the other camps, as the graph below indicates.

The graph for the death rates in Johannesburg camp confirm that Johannesburg was a relatively healthy camp for the average death rate was generally below the average for the Transvaal camps as a whole.

On the brighter side, Noble felt the hospital worked well. He described it as spacious, lofty and airy, while the young Boer ‘probationer’ nurses were particularly satisfactory. The hospital was soon doubled in size, largely to deal with typhoid patients who were always hospitalised, unlike the measles cases, although the disease was described as mild. The doctor made the routine complaints about the filthiness of the camp inmates but in Johannesburg camp there was little resistance to the hospital, perhaps because small children were left with their mothers and the visiting hours were generous (although Dr Crooks had initially ‘used coercion’ to get people into hospital). When scarlet fever erupted in Johannesburg the camp was isolated and the inmates prevented either from having visitors or going into the town. Dr Crook considered this an advantage for ‘our refugees appear to be much more contented than formerly. It is evident that the visitors to the camp cause discontent and grumbling’.7

Despite the poverty of many of the inmates, people were able to supplement their rations for the camp store did well, selling about £50 of goods a day. These included fruit and vegetables as well as cheese, pickles and sweets. The Boers were extremely fond of sweets, the Ladies’ Committee observed. A percentage of the profits from the store was used to clothe those in need.8

As one might expect in such a well-run camp, the school also operated successfully. Dr Franks, when he visited the camp in July 1901, was struck by the ‘healthy, chubby and happy condition’ of the children. Everywhere games were being played to the sound of peals of laughter. In addition, unusually, there was a reading room for the men where such English journals as Black and White, Ally Sloper and The Graphic, were available. The men also played cards and made toys or knitted ties.9

When peace came, Noble reported that the news was well received and the men took the oath of allegiance without demur. Repatriation took place rapidly, with families from other districts transferred to the nearest camps and others able to return to their own homes. By July 1902 there were only 540 people left in the camp. Since race meeting were resumed by August 1902, the remaining 100 or so found themselves living in unusual circumstances surrounded by the activity of horse racing.10 The camp was closed by the end of October 1902.


J.H. Balme, To Love One's Enemies. The Work and Life of Emily Hobhouse (Cobble Hill, Hobhouse Trust, 1994).

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

E.H. Hobhouse, Emily Hobhouse. Boer War Letters, ed by R. van Reenen (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1984).

Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp.23, 28-30, 55-57, 123-126, 241-244, 355-358; Cd 853, pp. 66-69; Cd 902, pp.73-76.

Unpublished camp reports: DBC 11-14 in the National Archives, Pretoria [NASA].

A 2030, v.40 in NASA.

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

Dr Kendal Franks report, Cd 819, pp.167-169.

Ladies’ Committee report, Cd 893, pp.110-115.

1 van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, pp.33-34; Balme, To Love One’s Enemies, pp.82-83; Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.75; Cd 819, p.23.

2 Cd 893, p.110; Cd 819, pp. 23, 169.

3 Cd 893, pp.110, 114.

4 Cd 853, pp.66-69; Cd 819, p.23, 55, 56, 243, 357-358; Cd 853, p.67-68; NASA, A 2030, v.40.

5 Cd 819, p.23, 126; Cd 853, pp.66-69; Cd 893, p.110, 112; Cd 902, pp.75-76.

6 NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 13251, 15/4/1901; Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.222, 191.

7 Cd 819, pp.124, 167, 243; Cd 893, p.113; Cd 853, pp.66-69.

8 Cd 893, p.113.

9 Cd 819, p.168-169; Cd 893, p.114.

10 NASA, DBC 11, Jun, Jul, Aug 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.