BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War

Norvals Pont

If there was a model camp in the ORC system, it was Norvals Pont. And, if anyone could be described as the hero of the camps, it was Lieutenant St John Cole Bowen, the first civilian superintendent. Norvals Pont was one of those camps, like Aliwal North, Kimberley and Orange River Station, which was in the Cape Colony, although it formed part of the ORC complex. It was located on the banks of the Orange River, South Africa’s longest river, which ensured an ample water supply and plenty of wood from the bush on the river banks. As the name suggests, Norvals Pont was a crossing on the Orange River but the camp, although on the railway line, was isolated from any towns.

Norvals Pont was probably established about November 1900, in order to relieve the overcrowded Bloemfontein camp with its dire shortage of water The first superintendents, both military men, seem to have been capable people; Lieutenant Wynne of the Imperial Yeomanry was described as the ‘Father of the Camp’ and he was succeeded in January 1901 by Major du Plat Taylor of the Grenadier Guards, who instilled ‘firm military discipline’. At the end of February 1901, when the camp passed into civilian control Cole Bowen was appointed. He was of Irish extraction, a fact which may have given him some sympathy for the Boers.1 His ability ensured that he did not remain at Norvals Pont and Cole Bowen was later appointed as a travelling inspector. Almost everyone who encountered him commented on his calm efficiency. Emily Hobhouse wrote later that Cole Bowen possessed ‘marked administrative powers; his rule was firm, just and kind and he seemed possessed of unlimited resources’.2 After the war Cole Bowen became a resident magistrate in the Free State, spending his life amongst the Boers whom he had served in the camps.

It was not that Norvals Pont lacked the problems of the other camps. On the contrary, the measles epidemic struck early and was followed by scarlet fever and diphtheria. Families poured in without warning and tents and blankets ran out. And, with all these struggles, Cole Bowen had to contend with an unpleasant medical officer. Some people deserted and Cole Bowen was forced to fence in those who were a ‘bad influence’.3 Nor did Cole Bowen show overt sympathy for the Boers. When Miss Malherbe was sent to run the hospital, he considered her a troublemaker.

Immediately on her arrival, she at once took up the cudgels on behalf of the refugees, and insisted on the fact that they were most cruelly treated in all Refugee Camps and went out of her way to go down the lines to persuade them of this fact. She used her influence to persuade people not to allow their children to come to hospital, and to have no confidence in the Medical Officer. She even informed Dr Scarlett upon her arrival that she had better take great care of how she treated her (Miss Malherbe), as she said that she (Miss Malherbe) had power to make the people love her or hate her (Dr Scarlett) at will. Further, she did everything in her power to insult and annoy Miss Broers, and I felt that some strong decisive measure was necessary.’

Miss Malherbe was promptly removed. Cole Bowen wrote to head office:

I feel quite confident that you will approve of the action under the circumstances as this woman simply came up here to see what circumstances might be used, as tending to increase the present discussion and abuse concerning the treatment of refugees’.4

Despite his determined loyalty to his employers, the Boers of Norvals Pont presented a number of testaments to head office and to Cole Bowen himself, affirming their satisfaction with the camp. S.D. Poign provided a long statement describing their lives in considerable detail He concluded:

With these few suggestions, I, a person brought here against my will, and wish [to] beg to attest, that I have no reason to object in any manner over the way in which I have been treated while in this camp, neither have I any reason to complain that the authorities have not treated me with that courtesy which I as a man and a gentleman could expect under the peculiar circumstances under which I am placed.’

The chaplain, the Rev. A.P. van der Merwe, asserted that everything possible was done for the comfort of the people. J.D. Naude of the farm Landplaats in the Winburg district wrote:

I find nothing to complain of here in every respect. I have nothing to complain of either of the Superintendent or of any of the officials under him. I have always received kindness and every consideration from them all. The camp here, I am of opinion, is second to none in South Africa regarding cleanliness, order, sanitary arrangements and wood and water supply. We have also a very good doctor, several experienced nurses in Hospital especially our Head Sister in Hospital, who was sent from Holland to us. Every morning we get good fresh meat, either mutton or beef, then, of course, we get our daily rations of groceries, and milk &c. We have also four shops here where we can get any kind of luxury etc, then we have also a greengrocer's shop supplied with fresh vegetables and fruit. We have also a very good school here accommodating about 500 children.’

Sister Broers, one of the volunteer nurses from Holland, testified in some detail. ‘I cannot judge of other camps but I believe this is one of the best’, she wrote.5

Norvals Pont was one of the camps which Emily Hobhouse visited early in February 1901 and she described it in some detail. It was, she wrote, surrounded by hills, with a pretty stretch of the Orange River visible and the blue hills of Bethulie in the distance. At the time of her visit there were about 1,500 inmates and the camp was beautifully laid out. Hobhouse disliked many English-speaking South Africans. Some of the people were ‘true Refugees’ she commented, ‘generally a very inferior type of inbred English, very pleased with themselves and very scornful of the country and the people as a whole’. The Boers, ‘the people I call prisoners-of-war’, who formed the bulk of population, were kept separate from the British. When Hobhouse returned to Norvals Pont in March, she was forced to share accommodation with an Uitlander refugee who had been sent from Cape Town to teach. She detested Miss Fischer. ‘She is rabid, foolish, narrow, discontented, and one wonders why the Authorities persist in sending up people who hate and loathe the Boers, think themselves so vastly superior and complain all day long’, she said bitterly to Leonard Hobhouse. By this time she was disillusioned with Captain Taylor. There had been much ‘petty tyranny’ under him, she explained. Cole Bowen withdrew the sentries and the people were free to walk down to the river, gather wood and pick flowers.6

At first the camp did not have a resident medical officer but Dr Michie of the RAMC attended the inmates. His services were necessary for, consisting of families from Bloemfontein, Norvals Pont was struck early by the measles epidemic. But Michie was not easy. Cole Bowen considered him extravagant, ordering large quantities of eggs, milk and rice and he refused to put in proper medical returns. Cole Bowen felt he had been placed in an unfair position. ‘I am responsible for a hospital over whom a Medical Officer presides, who does not acknowledge my authority or right of interference’, he complained. Head Office was sympathetic. ‘Mr Cole Bowen is a level headed man and would not complain of him if something was not wrong’, the authorities noted. Hobhouse also disliked Michie – he was an ‘insufferable cad’, she wrote on one occasion. ‘The man has lived six years in Jagersfontein and is of the kind who cannot open their mouths without using invective against the Boers’. Admittedly doctors were in short supply, but head office made no effort to help Cole Bowen, even when the superintendent threatened to resign. It was only when Michie fell ill that he was replaced.7

Even then the staffing problems at Norvals Pont were not over. The most prominent of the women doctors of the camp systems, the Hon Dr Ella Scarlett, took over from Michie. Scarlett became a member of the Ladies Committee but she was always a controversial figure. Her colleague on the Ladies Committee, Lucy Deane, thought her a little mad, like all her family (her father was Lord Abinger, an Irish peer). Undoubtedly she was a maverick, who had an unusual and adventurous career, working as personal physician to the Emperor of Korea, serving in Serbia during the First World War and finishing her days as part of the British ex-patriot community of Florence. At Norvals Pont she met and married Lieutenant Synge, ‘a very good-natured, goodlooking young “Hofficer-man” with not much brains’, Lucy Deane thought. The marriage does not seem to have lasted. She was not popular in the camp system and damaged the cause of women doctors in male eyes. While there was undoubtedly a good deal of male chauvinism in the correspondence about her, Scarlett was clearly not an easy or compliant person. Nevertheless, she worked hard on behalf of the Boers who do not seem to have complained about her.8

Later doctors were equally troublesome. Drs Caldwell and McArthur, both brusque men, did not get on and the latter had to be transferred. Caldwell also quarrelled with the admirable Sister Broers, who was transferred to Bethulie, and he then fell out with Broers’ replacement. Inevitably, such a man was at odds with Dr Ella Scarlett who, he said, was lax and ignored his authority. The correspondence does suggest that Scarlett was wilful but Caldwell had a poor record in his relationships with the medical staff.9

Apart from measles, in April 1901 scarlet fever ran through the camp, followed by diphtheria. Michie struggled to isolate the sufferers, forced to house them with their families, although he knew that the infection was likely to be passed on. Staff shortages may explain some of his irascibility. Neither trained nurses nor civilian doctors could be obtained in South Africa in the early months of 1901, head office explained when Michie appealed for more qualified medical staff. Fortunately the arrival of Miss Broers relieved the situation slightly.10 Yet mortality remained low in Norvals Pont camp.

The graph of the death rates confirms the picture of a healthy camp, particularly for children, for their mortality never exceeded the camp average.

Typhoid reared its head in December 1901, brought in by families transferred from Springfontein and Bethulie and was stamped out with some difficulty, despite the cleanliness of the camp and the ample water supply.11 Sister Broers left an account of her work in Norvals Pont hospital which is particularly valuable, since it elucidates the contentious issue of the feeding of enteric patients.

We rise in the morning at six, and the first thing I do is to note down the temperature of my patients; then I help them to wash themselves, etc., and do whatever else there is to be done for patients suffering from typhus [sic – there was no typhus in the camps], measles, and lung disease. At eight o'clock they get their breakfasts, which, in the case of most patients, consist of warm milk with an egg. Those who may have more food I give first a plateful of gruel, and then some bread, coffee, and an egg, which is quite a sufficient meal for them. At eleven they get a tumbler of milk, and at one, soup, rice, meat, and pudding; at three o'clock, once more a glass of milk; and at six, the same as at breakfast. You'll understand that the patients get sufficient food, though the way in which the other people in the camp (there are 2,000 of them now) are treated is quite different’.12

Given the difficulties with which Cole Bowen had to contend, it was clear that Norvals Pont camp was no different from most camps. Why, then, was it regarded by so many as a model camp? The low mortality rate was, of course, one reason but how did Cole Bowen manage to keep the death rate down?

Cole Bowen was fortunate in inheriting a camp which had been more efficiently established than most that the military ran. Each tent had a bed, a couple of mattresses, a bench, table and utensils, all amenities which were absent for months from many camps. From the start the bucket system was used for the latrines, rather than the awful trenches. Captain Taylor, who was still commandant when Hobhouse arrived, laid out a tennis court – ‘sports of some kind are needed for exercise and to give something to do; the idle life is so demoralizing’, she noted.13

Constant surveillance was an important factor. At 9 each morning fifteen corporals (all Boers) had to report to the superintendent. Each was responsible for two lines of tents; each had to make a return daily of the numbers in the tents, in hospital or just out of hospital, along with the numbers who were sick or had died. These figures were compared with those of the previous day and any discrepancy had to be searched out and accounted for. The corporals then collected all the rations for their two lines and issued them personally, avoiding the long wait in sun and rain which most camp inmates had to endure. Only the head of family was allowed to receive the rations, for the children were apt to spill the flour and eat the sugar, Cole Bowen explained.14

Firmness, combined with an ability to get on with the Boers, helped. The majority of people were bywoners, who were usually considered the most backward of the camp people (see Middelburg camp on this topic). Norvals Pont, however, had a bright, positive air, as the Ladies Committee observed:

There was a much better and cheerful and pleasant spirit in this camp than in any other we had seen. Both men and women had a self-respecting bearing, they were busily employed with their daily work, and were not for ever gossiping in one another’s tents’.15

Another contributing factor may have been Cole Bowen’s ability to inspire his staff. ‘They devote themselves heart and soul to their work, with a result of which they may well be proud’, the Ladies Committee reported. The predikant, Rev. A.P. van der Merwe, who was, according to Cole Bowen, ‘the best Dutch Reformed clergyman I have ever met’, played a substantial role in maintaining a high moral standard, according to the Ladies.16

Cole Bowen was also quick to spot the potential of the camp inmates. The Misses Boshoff seemed unlikely helpers. Emily Hobhouse described them as ‘ladies of good position and education’.

They have been singled out for exceedingly good treatment by the English   extras like jam and biscuits given to them and English papers supplied, etc. They have a bell tent to themselves lined with thick green baize, two beds and all as neat and comfortable as can be. They know where the Boer ammunition is stored and many secrets which the British would fain find out, so they laugh over the jam and biscuits, the officers' daily visits, etc. as all effort to worm from them their information. So they say plainly: "Though you hang us we will not tell you," and they are respected the more, though the jam, etc., is falling off’.17

Yet Cole Bowen appointed one of the sisters as the superintendent of the clothing committee where he commented on her excellent work and the way in which she started sewing classes. They soon had 200 people wanting to attend the sewing meetings.18

Unlike some camps, where returned prisoners-of-war were considered obstructive, Cole Bowen liked these men. He was less happy about men who had been transferred from other camps for he found these lazy and impudent. The Ladies Committee, which visited the camp at the end of August 1901, attributed Norvals Pont’s success, firstly, to the fact that every male adult had to do three hours work daily for the general community; and, secondly, that school was compulsory for all children of school-going age.19

Cole Bowen was often open and pragmatic. He allowed the families to wander freely down to the river. Unlike the Transvaal camps, where Poynton’s had a monopoly of the stores, ORC camp shops were run by a variety of individuals. In Norvals Pont, the Ladies explained, two of the four shops were run by Jews, in competition with one another, with the result that prices were lower than the official amounts (for there was price control under martial law). Products included fresh fruit and fresh fish, sent up from Cape Town or Port Elizabeth and extremely popular.20

After the visit of the Ladies Committee Cole Bowen was appointed a travelling inspector (as Emily Hobhouse had recommended some months before), and he left Norvals Pont.21 Fortunately the camp did not deteriorate under new management. When Cole Bowen reported on his old camp in February 1902, he was pleased to note that the camp was scrupulously clean and he had no complaints from the inmates.22 In June 1902 a severe gale, accompanied by snow, blew down many of the tents and lifted the roofs of the more permanent buildings. There were some ‘marvellous escapes’, superintendent Hemans reported. He issued soup to everyone but was worried that sickness would increase.23

As with many camps, a black camp grew up alongside the white at Norvals Pont. By May there were 500 people living there informally and Cole Bowen telegraphed for instructions on how to deal with them. He was willing to run the camp provided the authorities were prepared to pay for some staff but the military were casting greedy eyes on the men and asked that they be sent to Edenburg, which had become a considerable labour pool. The matter remained unresolved for some time for, in June, Cole Bowen was still asking for instructions of the feeding of the black refugees.24

After the war Norvals Pont was methodically wound down. Negotiations for closing the camp were extensive since Mr Norval, on whose land the camp stood, was clearly keen to get the most out of the transactions. The camp was closed as early as 2 October 1902.25


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).

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

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

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 45-51.

Lucy Deane papers, (Streatfield Collection, LSE 2/11).

1 Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.150. ; Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, pp.121-122; FSAR, SRC 2/381, 28/2/1901; Personal communication.

2 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.122.

3 FSAR, SRC 8/2374, 3/6/1901; SRC 8/2633, 12/6/1901; SRC 9/3185, 6/7/1901.

4 FSAR, SRC 10/3903, 6/8/1901.

5 FSAR, SRC 11/3972, 21/7/1901.

6 van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.84, 85, 59-60.

7 FSAR, SRC 1/201, 23/2/1901; SRC 2/381, 28/2/1901; SRC 3/762, March 1901; SRC 2/283, 7/3/1901; SRC 7/1872, 8/5/1901; SRC 9/3336, 11/7/1901; van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.86.

8 Lucy Deane papers. British Medical Registers.

9 FSAR, SRC 17/6880, 7/1/1902; SRC 18/7015, 4/1/1902; SRC 19/7426, 1/2/1902; SRC 20/7704, 19/2/1902.

10 FSAR, SRC 8/1389, 19/4/1901; SRC 5/1449, 19/4/1901; SRC 6/1775, 29/4/1901.

11 FSAR, SRC 16/607, 9/12/1901.

12 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.194.

13 van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.60.

14 Cd 893, p.46.

15 Cd 893, p.50.

16 Cd 893, p.47, 49, 50.

17 van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.60-61.

18 FSAR, SRC 6/1775, 29/4/1901.

19 Cd 893, p.45, 50.

20 Cd 893, p.47-48.

21 FSAR, Ds NG van der Merwe-versameling, v.2d.

22 FSAR, SRC 19/7426, 1/2/1902.

23 FSAR, DBC 25/8777, 11/6/1902.

24 FSAR, SRC 8/2364, 5/5/1901; SRC 8/2606, 12/6/1901.

25 FSAR, SRC 29/9854, 18/9/1902; SRC 33/10775, 23/2/1903.

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.