BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Klerksdorp was a somewhat contradictory camp. It seems to have been well run but, despite this, there was a good deal of disease and a mortality rate which was considerably higher than the average camp rate. The result was that Klerksdorp had a poor reputation amongst Afrikaners in the twentieth century. One explanation may have been the camp’s propinquity to the town which was unhealthy.

It is not clear when Klerksdorp camp was formed but Emily Hobhouse believed that it was in existence by the end of 1900. By 22 March 1901, after the civilian administration had taken over, there were 456 people recorded in camp. Such a small number suggests that the camp had not, in fact, been established for very long and the lack of documentation indicates that it was a very minor camp at this stage. The camp was located just south of the town and was tidily laid out in the neat rows the British preferred. It was unfenced until almost the end of the war and the fences were erected only to keep out marauders. When Dr Franks visited the camp in August 1901, he commented favourably on the organisation of the routines. All tents were cleaned out before 8 each morning and clothes, blankets and bedding were aired outside when the weather allowed, until midday. The tent skirts were rolled up to make certain that the tents were adequately aired. Regular inspections, under the management of Mr Jooste, ensured that all these regulations were properly followed. As a result, the inmates looked ‘clean, healthy and happy’, Dr Franks believed.1

Numbers increased rapidly from May 1901, with nearly 1,000 arriving in that month, brought in by columns operating west and north-west of Klerksdorp. H. Howard, the first camp superintendent, commented on the ‘deplorable’ condition of most of these arrivals, with tattered clothing and few possessions. The troops with the convoys claimed that the people were ‘improvident’, failing to load up the wagons when they were collected but later arrivals were equally destitute, and the superintendent felt that the people had not been allowed enough time to collect their possessions. A few, however, brought pianos and organs which ‘might well have been left behind’. One woman, apparently a widow, was able to retain her sewing-machine, the source of her livelihood. In the camp it was gave her an invaluable income.2

Food was relatively better in Klerksdorp than in many other camps. The stock was driven less far so the animals were better nourished. As late as August 1901 the camp had enough cows of its own to provide the hospital with fresh milk. Unfortunately the camp store was unable, for some time, to obtain many goods. Later this seemed to improve, for Dr Franks noted on his visit that £30 to £40 of goods were sold each day. As early as August 1901 the camp superintendent had put some 9 acres of land under cultivation. About three quarters of the ground was used for barley to feed the cows, while the remaining quarter was used for vegetables. Dr Franks was astonished to see about 8,000 lettuces growing. Raw coffee was issued, since the Boers preferred roasting and grinding their own, an extra meat ration was provided when necessary and mealie meal was supplied in lieu of rice (most camps received neither at this stage in mid-1901). Later on cabbages, onions, tomatoes, radishes, beetroot and potatoes were all available to the camp inmates.3

As in most camps, health was relatively good in the beginning but, as winter approached, the incidence of influenza, respiratory ailments and dysentery increased. And, the MO observed ominously, measles had appeared in the district and ‘sooner or later we may have to combat the same in our camp’, although he would do everything he could to prevent its spread. His fears were realised because, by the first week of July 1901 the disease had struck and mortality rose rapidly. Unfortunately the outbreak coincided with a flood of arrivals into the camp and it became impossible to isolate new inmates, as Klerksdorp had done up to then. No-one was allowed to leave the camp, however, until they had been passed as medically fit. Unlike some camps, such as Mafeking, where the attack was sharp but short, Klerksdorp struggled to get the epidemic under control, despite the high standard of the camp. The MO attributed the reason to the inclement weather and the extremes of temperature but, he noted, proportionately more people were affected in the town and the mortality rate there was at least as high as in the camp.4

By September the epidemic seemed to be declining, to the MO’s relief. Careful nursing and attention to individual requirements, he believed, had helped to reduce the number of deaths. But enteric (typhoid) was increasing as summer approached, he noted uneasily. He had reason to be concerned for, by October, the number of typhoid cases had shot up to over 100. The MO struggled to establish the reason for the outbreak. He did not feel the water supply was at fault but the recent heavy rains had, perhaps, carried the germs into the water supply, especially after the dry winter months of the western Transvaal. As one woman noted, not only did they have to struggle against hunger, sickness and death, but against the elements as well.5

However, Dr Russell acted briskly, setting up a separate enteric hospital in marquees and instituting careful sanitary procedures. Measles and typhoid were not the only diseases which beset Klerksdorp camp in early summer. There was scarlet fever in the town and the entire camp was quarantined to prevent that disease spreading. Whooping cough, chicken pox, rheumatism, influenza, pneumonia, diarrhoea and dysentery were all prevalent as well, although the number of cases was small.6 The graph below illustrates clearly the twin peaks of measles and typhoid but, once preventive measures had been established, mortality declined. Adults were as vulnerable to typhoid fever as the children, although their mortality was lower, as the graph also shows.

The death rates tell us that health in Klerksdorp camp was significantly worse than in the average Transvaal camp. Interestingly, the pattern of mortality rates is rather different from the pattern of deaths, with the second epidemic being significantly worse than the first, especially for adult men.

Initially the hospital was not in tents, as was the case in most camps, but was housed in the Stock Exchange building, which served its purpose ‘admirably’. Moreover, it was relatively well staffed from the beginning, with two trained nurses and a number of young Boer women as assistants. Although the Klerksdorp camp inmates evinced the usual aversion to going into hospital, this seems to have been less of a problem than in many camps.7 As disease spread, Dr Russell set up a series of additional ‘hospitals’ in tents – for enteric, for measles, for marasmus and for cancrum oris. This unusual step made it possible to give special nursing to those who needed it most. This was important for children suffering from ‘marasmus’ (malnutrition) and ‘cancrum oris’, a form of gangrene of the jaw which was usually fatal. Both diseases were the aftermath of severe measles or, occasionally, of typhoid. The malnutrition was caused by damage to the intestine and the inability of the children to digest their food. The usual treatment was a milk diet, much misunderstood by the Boer mothers who believed their children were being starved. Russell’s action may have saved a number of lives, especially as the nursing staff was also increased considerably with over 50 young Boer women employed as ‘probationers’ by early 1902.

The Ladies Committee visited Klerksdorp camp in early October 1901 and they, too, found little to criticise. They were particularly enthusiastic about the school, although it was run by a German with notably anti-English wife. He was, they observed, an enthusiastic teacher and the children looked healthy, clean and intelligent.8

Unusually, the Committee put in two special reports for Klerksdorp camp. One, by Kathleen Brereton, described the morning work of the camp matron. The other, by Lady Knox, who seems to have made very little other contribution to the work of the Committee, was on the camp matron’s work. It is worth quoting in part for it illustrates vividly the way in which class-ridden values shaped anti-Boer attitudes. Lady Knox described a visit to a woman who had asked for underlinen. Miss Moritz (Maritz), the camp matron, demanded that the woman show what she was wearing. This included ‘a scarlet flannel petticoat, a petticoat made of a thick white blanket and a dark stuff petticoat’, all worn in temperatures of 70o to 80o. In her box were

shifts, rags, dirty kappies, more petticoats, books, a handkerchief full of coffee beans, and another full of sugar. A big sack was next opened; it contained a dirty cotton dress, more underlinen, dirty, but with much embroidery, and a large bundle of men’s coats and trousers, which she said belonged to a father-in-law long since deceased’.

In another tent there were boxes with

rags belonging to a deceased baby sister, five straw hats trimmed with artificial flowers, cotton and silk blouses covered with lace, a length of broad black satin ribbon, bead trimmings, a candle, two impossibly ragged pairs of boys’ trousers, some new material, including lining for a blouse, some books, a very gorgeous empty cigarette case, and any amount of tawdry rubbish’.

The four boys who lived there were ‘filthy and ragged to a degree’ and, she thought, ‘had never been anything else’.9 The detritus of these people’s lives, exposed to aristocratic taste, may have seemed dirty and tawdry to her but we are left with different impressions. What were the books, found in both tents? The embroidered underclothes, the hats and the bead trimmings hint at young women with a longing for some brightness in their lives. While we, too, may flinch at the idea of wearing three thick petticoats in Klerksdorp’s summer heat, they suggest a Victorian respectability which affluent Lady Knox ignored.

At the same time, while Lady Knox was a culture-bound imperialist, reflecting the sanitary values of a Britain in which cleanliness had acquired virtue, the Boers often espoused the values of a pre-industrial society which was frequently misinterpreted later on. The women’s testimonies suggest that Klerksdorp was a particularly uncaring camp although we know this was not the case. Mrs Dorothea Jones, Afrikaans despite her name, claimed that people died because they were given poison and died. Starving, when they asked for food, they were given only condensed milk and beef tea. When they complained, the response was ‘Die, then there are fewer to care for’. In reality, in this typhoid-ridden camp, patients hospitalised for the disease were given a limited diet lest their intestines perforate, a common problem with such people. Dr Russell, said Mrs Jones, was a good doctor but he was sent away for being too kind and was replaced by Dr K (possibly Dr Cussens or Cousins, who died of pneumonia in September 1902 and was described as much loved); as a consequence no-one survived in the hospital. In reality Dr Russell was with the camp from its inception until the end of May 1902, when disease had been eradicated almost entirely and few people went into hospital. The superintendent, probably Howard, was described as ‘a real friend’.10

Despite the sickness, life in camp was not entirely grim. Sport was a prominent feature with tennis, croquet, cricket, football and skipping all being played. King Edward IV’s coronation was celebrated ‘pleasantly and successfully’ with a picnic for the schoolchildren, a dinner for the older people and a dance for the young adults. A sports day was also held ‘with music’ – the pipes and drums of the Seaforth Highlanders and the fife band of the SWB (whatever that may have been). The children provided a concert and the day opened and closed with the British National Anthem. Unlike some camps, the Boers seem to have participated willingly.11

One aspect of Klerksdorp camp which was rarely mentioned in the records was the presence of black people. There was, in fact, a black camp in Klerksdorp as well as black servants living with white families. One woman had a ‘meidjie’, Doortjie, with her. Since the movement of black women was not restricted, she was used to send letters and clothes to the Boer commandos. Unfortunately Doortjie was betrayed by a black spy, arrested and sent out of the white camp. One hopes she did not go to the local black camp which had a particularly bad reputation for health, not surprising given the way in which the white camp struggled with disease.12

Klerksdorp camp was one of the last in the Transvaal to be closed, at the end of December. As one might expect in a well-conducted camp, repatriation was carried out efficiently and caringly. The camp superintendent went so far as to visit some of the families who had left the camp, at Hartbeestefontein, just outside Klerksdorp, in July and concluded that they were doing well and working hard, sowing, ploughing and rebuilding their homes. When Lord Milner visited Klerksdorp in September 1902, he spent some hours in the camp and was presented with an address from the inmates, expressing ‘welcome and gratitude’ and signed by the heads of all the families. However one might interpret such an action, it is another indication that Klerksdorp was a more contented camp than some. By November repatriation was taking place rapidly although there were still over 1,000 camp inmates at the end of that month. Orphans and widows with no home to go back to were sent on to Potchefstroom camp and, by the end of December, the camp had been emptied. The camp was finally closed on 7 January 1903.13


L. Boshoff-Liebenberg, Moedersmart en Kinderleed, of 18 Maande in die Konsentrasiekampe (Pretoria, Noordelike Drukpers, 1921).

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

M.M. Postma (ed), Stemme uit die Vrouekampe Gedurende die Tweede Vryheids Oorlog tussen Boer en Brit van 1899 tot 1902 (Potchefstroom, 1925).

S.B. Spies, Methods of Barbarism? Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics January 1900-May 1902 (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1977).

Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp.16, 33, 66-68, 129-132, 245-248 ; Cd 853, pp. 70-73; Cd 902, pp.77-80.

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

Dr Kendal Franks report, Cd 819, pp.199-201.

Ladies Committee report, Cd 893, pp.133-139.

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

PM files in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository [PAR]

1 Spies, Methods of Barbarism, p.149 ; NASA, DBC 12, Apr 1902; Cd 819, pp. 16, 33, 199.

2 Cd 819, p.66, 131; Boshoff-Liebenberg, Moedersmart, pp.10-14.

3 Cd 819, pp. 67, 131, 199,.200, 246; Natal Mercury, 28/5/1902.

4 Cd 819, p.132, 199, 247.

5 Boshoff-Liebenberg, Moedersmart, p.21.

6 Cd 819, p.361; Cd 853, p.72; Cd 902, pp.78, 79-80.

7 Cd 819, p.67, 246.

8 Cd 893, p.136.

9 Cd 893, pp.138-139.

10 Postma, Stemme uit die Vrouekamp, pp.15-16; NASA, DBC 13, Sep 1902; Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.283.

11 NASA, DBC 12, Apr 1902; DBC 11, Jun 1902

12 Boshoff-Liebenberg, Moedersmart, pp.38-40; Spies, Methods of Barbarism, p.230; Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.351; NAUK, CO 879/73/682, 11767, 22/4/1902.

13 PAR, PM 35/3651/02, GSBC 2657/01, 1/12/1902; NASA, DBC 11, Jul 1902; DBC 13, Sep, Nov 1902; DBC 14, Dec 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.