BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Middelburg camp presents a problem in trying to understand why so many people died in the camps. It was the largest camp in the Transvaal system, reaching over 7,000 inmates at one point, and the reports of Dr Kendal Franks and the Ladies Committee suggest that it was very badly run. Dr Franks was critical of the layout of the camp and complained that the administration was ‘lax’, while the Ladies Committee thought it ‘one of the most unsatisfactory we have seen’.1 An intake of over 3,000 in May 1901 brought in desperately impoverished and debilitated people, which precipitated disease. By all these criteria the mortality in Middelburg ought to have been amongst the worst in the system, yet this was not the case, as a comparison with Mafeking camp shows. Indeed, apart from the May peak (a pattern which appeared in almost all the camps) mortality was little worse than the camp average, which was a record few camps achieved. How does the history of Middelburg camp help to explain this anomaly?

When E.R (or C.R.). Gardner, the first superintendent, claimed that new arrivals were in a poor state, he was probably not exaggerating for Middelburg was known to be a district inhabited by impoverished bywoners. Some eked out a living in the ‘Mapochsgronden’, tiny plots of land which had been set aside for the poor by the republican government; many wintered regularly in the lowveld where they frequently contracted malaria at some point. Well before the British arrived, the Boer government had to provide substantial relief, so it is not surprising that Kitchener gave instructions in December 1900 that a camp should be formed in Middelburg; in the meantime families were to be housed in the town and some remained there for many months.2

By the time the first report was submitted in May 1901, there were already over 7,000 inmates in Middelburg camp, with more than 3,000 arriving in that month alone. Many were ‘the worst type of Boer, hailing from the poorest and most fever-stricken districts of the Transvaal, and commonly known amongst their fellow countrymen as “Mapochers”’. The new arrivals were often so destitute that some families had only one blanket amongst them, hundreds of children were without shoes and some girls had only one garment. In addition, many were ill with malaria. Apart from the Boer women and children, men who had voluntarily surrendered and had taken the oath of neutrality, were also drafted into Middelburg camp from Cape Town and Ladysmith. Not surprisingly, tents and provisions ran out, as did cooking utensils and bedding.3

Despite the crisis, Gardner’s first report does not give an impression of panic. On the contrary, he appears to have been a resourceful man. He called on local merchants and the Army Service Corps to supply the shortfall in food. The quality was not too bad, he noted, apart from the ground coffee and he decided to requisition for coffee beans in future, since the Boers preferred to roast and grind their own. At this stage pasturage had not yet deteriorated so the meat was reasonable, coming mainly from captured stock and the local butcher. The water supply, so often a problem, was excellent, for Gardner had sunk ten wells, six of them in May, and had carefully protected them from pollution. Fuel was a greater problem for, in this treeless landscape, the supply of coal ran out and cattle droppings had to be used, ‘a substitute for coal well understood by all dwellers on the open plains of South Africa’, Gardner explained to his British readers.

Health was bound to be an issue with such a large number of debilitated people but, to judge from his careful report, the MO, Dr H.A Spencer, was a conscientious man. Like most British doctors, he commented critically on old-fashioned Boer medical practices but his remarks were tempered with an understanding of their situation. Children’s deaths from diarrhoea, he explained, were ‘due entirely to the rough and often careless feeding of young children, and the difficulty of obtaining a constant supply of milk. In most cases women, owing to the hardships they have had to endure, are forced to wean their children too early, and condensed milk is obtainable in far too small a quantity and too irregularly to meet absolute necessities.’ Coughs and bronchitis he attributed to the cold weather, the stuffiness of the tents, and ‘the great need of fatty food, such as butter’. Purulent ophthalmia was very common earlier in the month but was declining as the flies died off. Older people suffered from rheumatism and debility, while indigestion was widespread amongst all ages. Almost uniquely in these camps of women, for women’s ailments are almost wholly absent from medical reports, Spencer also noted that amenorrhoea was a regular issue for his outpatients. ‘Want of exercise in the open air, and of incentives for such, and of outside interests, will account for most of these cases’. But the great influx brought measles with it, and this the doctors could do little to prevent, for isolation was almost impossible with such numbers and at this early stage of the camps.4

Mid-winter, the lack of clothing and blankets and, the doctors believed, the failure to keep the children in the tents for the full thirteen days, all contributed to the number of deaths. While measles attacked the children, the adults were carried off by influenza, and those convalescent from measles followed for, ‘with their constitutions still weak, mucous membranes scarcely healed from the eruption of measles’, they fell easy prey to ‘what is ordinarily not a dangerous disease’. The greatest difficulty, Spencer believed, was to teach the parents how unusually susceptible the lungs were after the rash had faded. For this reason he wanted more Dutch-speaking staff, but with ‘English instincts’. The measles epidemic was fuelled by new arrivals for, by July it was they who succumbed to the disease. ‘Those who have been longest in your camp have shown a higher resistance to these epidemics, those who were the last to arrive showing the least’, Dr Spencer observed. Both the superintendent and the MO were convinced that Boer medical practices also hastened the deaths. The hospital was fenced in to prevent ‘a lot of old officious women who were constantly trying to dodge past the nurses with a handful of dried peaches or a bag of Boer biscuits, which would have meant certain death to some of the patients had they been allowed to take these things’.5

These remarks should taken in their context. While the British doctors were undoubtedly inclined to attribute their own inability to stem the mortality to Boer customs, it is very probable that the bywoners of Middelburg camp did, indeed, resort to the medical practices which they had trusted through the long years of the trek and settlement in the isolated wilds of the north. In doing so, they would be typical of most rural, pre-industrial societies in which experience blended with magic and superstition in the healing of the sick.6

Where Middelburg camp was strikingly different from Mafeking was in its medical staff. As early as May 1901 there is no suggestion of the shortages which still plagued the latter camp in October. There were three doctors, two dispensers, four matrons and ten ‘probationers’. There were ten marquee hospitals and an efficient system for visiting the sick in their tents. Other aspects of the camp administration spoke of good sanitary management. The toilet arrangements, though they were never ideal in the camp, consisted of the pail system rather than trenches, and special seats were provided for the children.

Dr Kendal Franks visited Middelburg on 22 August 1901. By this time the camp had been slightly reduced in size since Balmoral had been established to take the surplus population, but there were still about 7,000 inmates. The camp was divided into nine sections, partly indicative of the origins of the people although they were not distributed regionally – Middelburg, Belfast, Ermelo, Roossenekal, Pretoria 1 and 2, Carolina, Vermaak and Joubert. Some families still lived in town. There was, in theory, a methodical system for keeping the camp clean but the collection of rubbish was not done efficiently.

The difficulty entirely consists in the irregular way in which the camp is pitched. The streets, if they can be called streets, are too narrow, the tents are too close together and too irregular to allow of wagons [which collected rubbish] passing with ease between them. In some of the crowded streets I found tents pitched in the middle of the street. Of course, with this want of order and arrangement, the wagon . . . is of little use. Consequently I found dust heaps which I was told had been accumulating for three or four days, but which looked nearly a week old, obstructing the lanes and alleys of the camp in every direction.’

Franks had other criticisms as well. He saw no evidence of the police who were supposed to prevent ‘nuisances’. The rule that tent flaps should be raised daily to air the tents was widely flouted. The tents and their inmates seemed dirty and uncared for. The Boer probationers were inept, undisciplined and ignorant. The hospital was the one redeeming feature of the camp. ‘I think the doctors and the nursing staff deserve great credit for creating this centre of cleanliness and order in the midst of such disorder and dirt’, he commented. He concluded, damningly, ‘There is no discipline, no order, no control to be found. The work may be too much for one man; from what I have seen in the other camps it should not be so; but a camp like this requires a man of exceptional administrative ability and energy’.7

Nearly two months later, on 14 October 1901, the Ladies Committee arrived in Middelburg camp. They found their visit an equally disillusioning experience.

It [the camp] is one of the most unsatisfactory we have seen, and the task of inspection was rendered equally troublesome and perplexing by the impossibility of obtaining accurate statements as to matters of fact from the Superintendent, or any definite information as to who was responsible for the carrying-out of the details of camp work. There is complete want of order, method, and organisation, and there is hardly one department of camp life which can be reported on as being in a satisfactory state.’

And there was, indeed, little they commented on positively. Water was in short supply because, of the ten or twelve wells, only six were useable. The washing place was filthy, there were no bathrooms. The latrines, though well-built and arranged, were badly kept. ‘It is impossible to say whether the bad condition of the latrines was due to an insufficient staff or to their not being made to do their work properly. On asking Mr. Gardner for details about his sanitary staff, the statement he gave us at one time differed from that he gave us on another.’ And so the story went on. The system for visiting out-patients was equally unmethodical and problematic. Three doctors (including Spencer) were supposed to work with three nurses but the sisters, the Ladies Committee discovered, were issuing not only sick comforts, but stimulants and medicine. ‘One old woman, in a tent to which two members of the Committee were taken by the sister in charge, was distinctly intoxicated’, they noted. Only the hospital, recently taken over by Dr Cockerton, was in relatively good order.8

What is one to make of this? The reports raise a number of questions. Had Gardner been covering up his incompetence all along? His evasiveness in the face of the Ladies’ questions would suggest this, yet effective systems for the management of the camp seem originally to have been put in place. Had he been overwhelmed by the scale of his task and simply given up? And why had the head office authorities taken no action when they received Franks’ damning report, for nothing had changed before the Ladies Committee arrived? Or, in spite of the bad appearance, was the camp better run that it seemed to the visitors? Had Dr Spencer been holding the whole place together? The relatively low mortality rate suggests that this might be the case. Or was it sheer good luck that a major catastrophe did not occur? Whatever the explanations, Middelburg shocked the authorities and this is partly why they decided to set up the coastal camps and reduce the size of places like Middelburg.

The August 1901 report gave no indication of the disorder Dr Franks had commented on. Gardner sounded confident, well able to cope, while Spencer’s was even more positive. The children, he noted, looked well-nourished and healthy, playing games like football and there was an atmosphere of contentment, well-being, even of cheerfulness. He praised the nursing sisters, particularly, women of refinement who were the source, he believed, of this happier feeling. From quite early the British saw the camps as a means of instilling British values and the nurses were one tool for accomplishing this goal. These women were well aware of their role, as one woman, quoting the Middelburg MO, explained to the anti-Boer nursing journal, The Hospital Nursing Mirror:

I have often seen our sisters feel inclined to put their hands to their heads and run away anywhere, but a moment more and they are forgetting themselves and their feelings in useful work. They never did more useful, more blessed work, in any hospital in their lives, and though few but the doctors and those in charge of these camps appreciate the value of their work, and very, very few feel a grain of gratitude for it, they will, most of them, live to see the fruits of it, I feel sure.’9

During September and October 1901 Middelburg camp was gradually reduced in size and the camp itself was concentrated and moved to a new site on the banks of the Oliphants River. Gardner was finally replaced in October by George Stevens and Dr Cockerton was brought in as Principal Medical Officer. Mortality, however, was on the rise once more, the three most important causes of death being infantile diarrhoea (often a summer disease) and whooping cough, together with typhoid. A special inspector’s report on the camp in November was uninformative, largely describing the new site. ‘The new Superintendent is starting under the most favourable conditions, but at present it is not possible to state anything more’, N.J. Scholtz commented. Stevens did not entirely agree with this verdict, ‘for a more hopeless confusion of tents covering a tremendous expanse of ground I have never seen’, he wrote but he was relieved to find the camp much cleaner than he had expected. Cockerton was unable to explain the rise in enteric cases but he hoped that a new water supply would help. The children’s diarrhoea he attributed to the unsuitable diet in people accustomed to ample fresh fruit and vegetables. Soup kitchens and fresh milk would remedy the problem, he believed. By January mortality had dropped considerably and the large supply of fresh vegetables may, indeed, have helped, although both the superintendent and doctor considered that the new site was the main explanation.10

In February Stevens was replaced by Captain Robert Johnstone, VC, previously of the Imperial Light Horse (he won his VC at the battle of Elandslaagte and was also a rugby player of note). The reports which followed suggest an active, well-managed camp in which the men were occupied in boot-making and carpentry and the children in school. By March there were choral and debating societies, while cricket was played every afternoon. A concert room had been built where musical and lantern slide entertainments were held regularly. An estimate of the attitude of the people was that ¼ were actively well disposed to the British, ¼ passively well disposed, ¼ were indifferent and ¼ were irreconcilables, the last ‘usually uneducated’.11

Johnstone, however, was an unenthusiastic superintendent.

I regret to state that the great majority of the inhabitants of this Camp are under the impression, which nothing seems to shake, that they are fully entitled to everything that is done for them, and that we could not do otherwise. There is not the slightest spirit of gratitude that I have been able to discover’.12

The attitude of the people improved, however, he thought, after the end of the war, largely because of the ‘good feeling’ of the surrendered burghers coming into the camp. Repatriation was a slow and methodical process but, by December 1902 there were still 600 people in camp. One reason for the delays was the fact that Middelburg was used as a depot for families returning from Natal. The camp was finally closed in January 1903.13


J.F.W. Grosskopf, Rural Impoverishment and Rural Exodus (Stellenbosch, Carnegie Committee 1932).

A.N. Pelzer, Die 'arm-blanke' in die Suid-Afrikaanse Republiek tussen die jare 1882 en 1899’, Historiese Studies, 2, Jul 1940-May 1941, pp. 123-203.

E. van Heyningen, ‘Women and disease. The clash of medical cultures in the concentration camps of the South African War’ in Writing a Wider War. Rethinking Gender, Race, and Identity in the South African War, 1899-1902 edited by G. Cuthbertson et al (Athens, Ohio University Press and Cape Town David Philip, 2002), 186-212

The Hospital Nursing Mirror, 2/11/1901.

Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp.79-82, 133-7, 251-254, 307, 329-333, 366-9; Cd 853, pp.76-8; Cd 902, pp. 51-2, 84-6.

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

Dr Kendal Franks report, Cd 819, pp. 329-333.

Ladies Committee report, Cd 893, pp. 145-151.

1 Cd 819, p.331; Cd 893, p.145.

2 NASA, PMO 70, P 29, 22/12/1900; Grosskopf, Rural Impoverishment, p.120; Pelzer, ‘Die “Arm-blanke” in die SAR 1882-1889’, p.131.

3 Cd 819, p.135, 307.

4 Cd 819, pp.79-82.

5 Cd 819, pp136-137, .252-253, 366, 368.

6 van Heyningen, ‘Women and disease. The clash of medical cultures’.

7 Cd 819, pp.329-333.

8 Cd 893, pp.145-151.

9 Cd 819, p.368; The Hospital Nursing Mirror, 2/11/1901, p.67.

10 Cd 853, pp.76-78; Cd 902, pp. 51, 84-86; NASA, DBC 14, Nov 1901; DBC 12, Jan 1902.

11 NASA, DBC 12, Feb, Mar 1902.

12 NASA, DBC 11, May 1902.

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

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.