BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Nylstroom, the main town in the Waterberg district, located on the confusingly named Nile River, was on the northern railway line to Pietersburg. Situated in the lowveld, it was an unhealthy spot in the nineteenth century with both malaria and tsetse fly plaguing the inhabitants. When Dr Kendal Franks visited the place in August 1901, he thought poorly of it. This was not a town, he declared. ‘It is rather a dorp or village composed of widely-scattered houses, some are cottages, some are little better than huts or cabins’. The Ladies Committee had a much more favourable impression of the town, describing the ‘scattered cottages with fine gardens full of fruit trees, and with large crops of vegetables and mealies coming on’ and further on ‘pretty cottages with palms and vines growing in the gardens’.1

The camp itself, though not large, was a jumble of ancient bell tents, sail-covered tents and a marquee. A number of people lived in the little town houses while the gaol was also occupied, as was the church. According to Franks, the camp was started on 31 May 1901, relatively late. By June 1901 there were 1,100 inmates and the superintendent was expecting more. Early reports were optimistic for health was good and the superintendent, Henry Cooke, believed that the people were relatively contented. The camp, he explained, was entirely open and unprotected but no-one had absconded. The doctor, Percy Green, was experienced for he had been seconded from Irene camp.2

Cooke’s reports are terse and uninformative so it is difficult to gain much impression of life in the camp. In this outlying area, however, many of the families were brought in from the Boer laagers and, because they had often fled their homes some months before, they were ill-clad and ‘dirty’. Nevertheless, Cooke noted, they had some spending power for Poynton’s Store took £650 in the first two weeks of its existence.3 The camp population seems to have been mixed. Some actively worked for the common good, such as Mr Steynberg (possibly the same person as Mr Sternbergen who later taught in the school), who took it upon himself to visit the tents, report sickness and distribute clothing. Some of the accommodation was tidy and clean while other homes were not only overcrowded but surpassed in squalor ‘Whitechapel, St Giles and the Liberties in Dublin’ (all noted British slums). The difficulty of interpreting such cultural judgements becomes clear in the following sentences of Franks’ report:

These people seemed perfectly happy and contented, and the Superintendent informed me they were Bywoners, who lived in much worse condition in their own homes, and lived mostly on fruit and vegetables, so that the fare they received in the camp was to them novel and luxurious. Some of the people in the camp had never seen white bread until they were brought into Nijlstroom. These facts, the circumstances under which the different classes of Boer lived in ordinary times, should be considered when trying to estimate the hardships or otherwise of their lot in these camps’.4

Dr Franks visited Nylstroom camp in August 1901. Although he considered Cooke an efficient man, he was not impressed by the accommodation which was unsuitable and often dirty. The corridors of the gaol were hung with lines of drying biltong, the tents were overcrowded and filthy. There are other indications that Cooke was less active than he appeared at first sight. While the daily sanitary work was performed adequately there was an air of disarray in the camp.

In one of the houses in Nijlstroom there were 49 people who kept the place very dirty, and who quarrelled among themselves. Three families were removed from this house and placed in tents after it was discovered that remonstrances were of no avail. Since then the Superintendent has found that attention is paid to any representations he may make, and some effort is made to satisfy his views. I therefore think that more might be done in this camp by a judicious exercise of authority . . . ‘.5

Although the little hospital, in the Dutch Reformed Church minister’s pastorie, was adequate, it was little used. An attempt to persuade the women to come in when they gave birth had failed for, Franks noted, they preferred the services of ‘an ancient and untutored’ midwife. The result was that one woman had already died of puerperal fever while another was convalescing in hospital. (Although the preference of Boer women for their own midwives was widespread, deaths from puerperal fever were rare in the camps). Franks was inclined to forgive the deficiencies of the camp since it was ‘in its infancy’ and had received less attention than older camps.

August, however, saw the arrival of the measles epidemic and mortality soared. The actual numbers were not great, for Nylstroom was a small camp and, at first glance, the record appears fairly good.

The graph of the death rates tells a different story for Nylstroom’s death rate was high compared with the camp average. More than this, adults suffered as well. Dr Green explained the second mortality peak as the result of ‘typho-malaria’, a ‘mixture of Enteric and Malaria, accompanied by extreme cardiac depression, and in many cases great delirium’. He believed that mortality in the camp would always be high since the inmates were ‘saturated’ with malaria.6

Perhaps there were question marks against Cooke for, on 3 September, he was replaced by R. Duncan and the latter’s fuller reports give a little more information. Duncan was less pessimistic than Green about the health of the camp since he hoped that its removal to a better site would be beneficial. Not only was the camp more orderly but people were more active, with a dressmaking class started for the women and a shoemaker teaching his trade to some of the boys. Health did indeed improve under Duncan, who was able to ensure a much cleaner camp, although he agreed that cases of fever would always be prevalent in the Waterberg.7

The Ladies Committee visited Nylstroom camp on 19 November 1901 and were favourably impressed by the administration. Like the camp officials, they were concerned about the general health of the camp. Ninety per cent of the inmates were from the area, they observed, and were saturated with malaria. Despite the gardens of fruit and vegetables, scurvy had made its appearance and they urged that as much ground as possible should be cultivated. ‘There has been much inter-marriage and consequent weakness, and the health prospects of this camp are therefore far from hopeful’, they commented. For this reason they thought that, perhaps, the camp should be moved away from Nylstroom. Lovely though the setting was they considered that, with so much bush, it was also vulnerable to Boer attack. The advantage of remaining was that the men could continue with their traditional occupation of logging. Not only did they keep the camp supplied with fuel; in addition wood was railed to other camps and sold to the military. The income the Boer inmates received perhaps explains why Poynton’s Store did particularly well in Nylstroom, averaging £700 to £1,300 a month. Unfortunately, as the bush around the camp was cut down, the men became increasingly exposed to Boer snipers.8

The problem of supply continued to dog the camp, as the superintendent reported in November 1901. Fortunately the gardens were now yielding enough to feed the hospital and, in the meantime, the MO was issuing lime juice to stave off scurvy. But typhoid continued, along with diarrhoea amongst the children and occasional cancrum oris, the product of severe measles. The MO was particularly worried by the children, amongst whom disease played ‘sad havoc’. Like a number of doctors, he was critical of the mothers and suggested that the offspring of ‘improvident and irresponsible’ mothers be removed to a children’s home. Fortunately, by December the sickness was declining, the result of a better supply of milk and the establishment of a soup kitchen, the MO believed.9

Nylstroom camp residents seem to have been rather less bitter than some of their counterparts elsewhere. A substantial number of the men joined the British volunteer forces and the children participated readily in concerts and coronation festivities. The people longed for the ending of the war and, the superintendent had been informed by ‘influential residents’, ‘a change of opinion amongst the people is most apparent; they are now beginning to realise clearly that they themselves are the greatest sufferers through the continuation of the war, and now feel, in many cases, bitterly opposed to those of their own people still fighting’.10

However settled the people may have been, they had little control over their lives. On 24 March 1902 Nylstroom was evacuated by the military and the camp was removed to Irene. The people were reluctant to go, the superintendent reported, largely because they feared a change in climate, for Irene was higher and colder than the Waterberg. The families had hardly arrived in Irene when Kitchener demanded that they all be sent to Natal. The camp authorities were reluctant to do so since they regarded the people as ‘perfectly well conducted’. They suggested that only ‘undesirables’ be sent away.11 March 1902 was the last report on Nylstroom camp for, from this point, the camp lost its separate identity.

There is one other aspect to Nylstroom camp. Like many other camps there were also a number of black inmates and, unusually, their names were recorded in the Nylstroom camp register. Unfortunately, since such details are rare and precious, most of the pages were excised on 4 August 1911, leaving only those written on the inside cover. Since a note was made of the excision, the act was clearly deliberate, an attempt, perhaps, to cleanse the register of blacks.12


Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp. 141-143, 259, 373; Cd 853, pp. 84-86; Cd 902, pp. 91-93.

Unpublished monthly reports in the National Archives, Pretoria: NASA, DBC 11-14.

Kendal Franks report, Cd 819, pp. 213-216.

Ladies Committee report, Cd 893, pp. 198-202.

1 Cd 819, p.213; Cd 893, p.198.

2 Cd 819, p.213, 142.

3 Cd 819, p.259.

4 Cd 819, p.215, 216.

5 Cd 819, p.215.

6 Cd 853, p.86.

7 Cd 853, p.85; Cd 902, p.93.

8 Cd 893, pp.198-202; Nov 1901.

9 NASA, DBC 14, Nov 1901; DBC 12, Dec 1901.

10 NASA, DBC 12, Mar 1902.

11 NASA, DBC 12, Mar 1902; NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 17321, 27/3/1902.

12 NASA, DBC 63.

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.