BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Pietermaritzburg was one of the earliest camps, established in August 1900, originally to provide for the Afrikaners of northern Natal who had lost their homes in the early offensives of the war. Pietermaritzburg is a pretty town and the camp was well placed, not in the sultry ‘sleepy hollow’ of the valley, but on the high slopes to the north, which are much cooler. One visitor described it as ‘a vast space, almost like a deer park, on a slope, with much long, coarse grass’.1 Nevertheless, at the height of summer, in February, and in the depths of winter, the climate can be extreme. Almost everyone in the camps complained about the Maritzburg summer heat.

The camp was never large, with about 2,500 people for most of its existence. Because it was located in a relatively well-developed town, there were few problems with water and sanitation. Initially about half the people were housed in tents, but these were gradually replaced, first with canvas rooms, and later with more solid housing. For much of the time there was no hospital, for the sick were treated at the military hospital at Fort Napier. Only towards the end of the period was a canvas hospital introduced. The Natal authorities prided themselves on their economical running of the camps and complaints about the food may have been partly due to this, for the expensive fresh meat the military had supplied was replaced in 1902 with frozen meat, at a saving of about 1d per lb. Since Maritzburg consumed about 1,000 lbs a day, the difference was fairly considerable (£336 15s 7d was saved in January 1902) but the Boers disliked the frozen meat.2

The most outstanding feature of Maritzburg camp is the number of inmates, visitors and staff who have left accounts of life there. The Natal camps took in Transvaal Boers, not only to reduce the size of the camps, but because Kitchener wanted to remove ‘irreconcilables’.3 These included the wives of some of the Boer commandants, most notably Mrs de Wet, the wife of General Christian de Wet, and most of the families sent down had men who were still on commando. For these women, deportation was a bitter punishment. Pietermaritzburg was, therefore, unusually full resentful women.

Often it was the journey and the arrival which people remembered. A visitor to the camp described the influx of one group, in hot mid-February:

In an hour the new prisoners came. A few soldiers first, who looked good natured, and as if not particularly relishing their work, then a long, straggling procession, broken often into clumps. Mostly mothers and children, many babies in arms, many toddling alongside, clutching gown or hand, most of them weary, sad, grave, a look of destitution imprinted on faces and clothing alike. One little lad of seven or eight was so tired that he lay down twice in the grass, and was made to go on. All down to the infants had some little thing, presumably the most precious or necessary in one hand, a water bottle, a kettle, a small bundle of clothing; here and there a bag with a few provisions; one lone woman was cherishing a cat. One old woman, with a little child beside her, came in a ricksha; the rest were all on foot and with no umbrellas against the sun. The general effect was very sombre and infinitely sad’.4

The impassioned appeal of a clergyman to Stellenbosch sympathisers, written in December 1900, a full nine months after the main battles in Natal, probably refer to Transvalers sent down to the coast. Many, he said, were almost naked, taken from their homes in what they were wearing when the troops arrived on their farms. While some had money, most had nothing. They arrived at camp in the rain and then had to endure the burning heat. The food was too little to survive on.5 Such an account presents problems. Was Pietermaritzburg really hotter than the Transvaal? People who were wearing so little when the troops arrived, and had no money at all, suggest people who endured hard lives at all times. Was it not, rather, stress, fear and unfamiliarity that was the issue? There is plenty of evidence that Pietermaritzburg was quite a comfortable camp and the Natal rations were wholesome and could be easily supplemented, for inmates could earn good money in the town.

The camp people could visit Maritzburg freely without passes. The war brought labour shortages to loyalist towns in the Cape and Natal, and many men in the camp were able to obtain relatively well-paid jobs on the railways, breweries and other businesses, considerably supplementing their incomes. Women, too, worked as seamstresses or occasionally in domestic labour.6

Mrs Murray’s account of her arrival at the camp (she came from Bethlehem), which Emily Hobhouse describes as the earliest description of Maritzburg, certainly suggests that people were relatively well off:

On arrival at Maritzburg they found tents ready for them, but nothing else. Before evening however, blankets and food were supplied. The tents were the large oblong tents with double canvas, one for each family. The furniture consisted of iron stretchers with straw mattresses, five blankets to each person, a table and two benches, a tin basin, a bucket, and a camp kettle. The food was prepared by the women themselves, a shed with good water had been put up for the purpose. The great drawback was the intense heat, and there was no shade for the children to play outside. The women were allowed to go out visiting their friends in the town or to go shopping’.

Like many of the women in Pietermaritzburg camp, Mrs Murray herself was allowed to go to friends in the Cape Colony after a couple of weeks.7

Elizabeth Neethling, who collected and published many of the women’s testimonies after the war, was an inmate of Pietermaritzburg camp, which she described as the best in Natal. Elizabeth Neethling’s writings (see below) have been central to Afrikaner understanding of the sufferings of the camps for they emphasised the hardships of camp life. Without wishing to minimise the misery, Neethling needs to be read with caution. Not to put too fine a point on it, she was a snob, intensely class conscious. She herself was one of the Murray clan, educated Afrikaners, who surely did endure the discomforts that she described. But such middle-class people were not typical, for the vast majority of camp inmates were bywoners. She shows her colours when she complained about the children.

The situation was very trying to those who realised the necessity of careful moral training [of children]. Herded together as they were, with all sorts and conditions, the little ones, to their mothers’ infinite pain, picked up objectionable language and habits, and became unruly to a degree’.8

The ‘all sorts and conditions’ were, of course, her fellow countrymen. Neethling objected to the fact that ‘ladies’ like herself had to live cheek by jowl with ‘unrefined’ families; that they did not have half a dozen black servants; that they sometimes had to work to earn money to supplement their food. Of course this was hard, of course they were angry and resentful but the Maritzburg people had good food, decent accommodation, a well-run camp, freedom to work or shop in the town and, above all, a low mortality rate with little typhoid and a brief measles epidemic. But Neethling wrote:

Think what it must be for a lady of refined feeling to live in one room with an unrefined family. To eat, sleep, dress, sew, write   all in that one apartment. No privacy, no quiet. What is spoken in one room can be heard in the next. From five o'clock in the morning till ten at night an incessant din. Absolute misery to a lady who had lived on her own farm, in a house commodiously built of stone, containing six or eight rooms’.9

No doubt this was true for a few but the hardships for the majority were a little different. The close proximity of so many people may well have been trying to those who were used to the isolation of the veld but the frame houses were far better than the tents they had left in the Transvaal camps, though they were poorly insulated against the extremes of the Maritzburg climate. It was the unfamiliarity of an alien regime with its endless rules and regulations which others found so hard. Quite simply, the British imposed on the camps a bureaucracy which the Boers found very difficult to live with. The Rev. N.P. Rousseau explained, in December 1900, about the problems of issuing clothing in Maritzburg:

We have a Ladies’ Committee which cares for the clothing and shoes for the most needy. The military authorities have offered help in this respect also; but there is so much red tapeism about it, and they want each one to sign for what he or she gets so as to pay back after the war, that they do not wish to avail themselves of this help. . . .’.10

The presence of such women as Elizabeth Neethling and Mrs de Wet meant that Maritzburg camp probably had some of the most politically sophisticated inmates. Mrs de Wet was an object of journalistic curiosity. In February 1902 she was interviewed by the Natal Witness. She was living in a small house and attended by a ‘Hottentot damsel’. On the walls of her room hung the arms of the Transvaal and Free State, along with photographs of Kruger and other Boer leaders. ‘It did not look conciliatory in the least’, the Witness commented. She told the reporter that she wanted a house in town, as Mrs Isie Smuts had. Her husband, she said, would never surrender and she would sooner be dead than see him do so. The report reached Chamberlain in London and the Governor of Natal explained hastily that Mrs de Wet was treated no differently from the wives of other Boer generals, although the superintendent had agreed to put flooring into her house.11 These women were alert to any slights and were quick to protest, for instance, when a letter to a Natal newspaper suggested that the Boers lived better in the camps than on their own farms.12

Boers who surrendered voluntarily, hendsoppers, were held in contempt in the camps and later. Their voices are silenced but Mrs Dickenson, a pro-Boer Australian journalist, interviewed Mrs Fourie, a storekeeper, whose husband was a hendsopper:

‘”When she knew the English were coming, she packed her waggon full of stores and locked it up, so they brought her and her family down in their own waggon. She had an oil cooking stove, and they were not obliged to cook out of doors when it rained.” Mrs Fourie seemed so cheerful and contented, that I began to think Maritzburg Camp must be singularly well managed; but it occurred to me to ask if she and her husband were taken prisoners or surrendered. “Oh, I made my husband surrender,” she said. “As we had to lose the home, we might as well take all we could.”’.13

However, even the most recalcitrant usually made some compromises. While most probably cherished their republican ideals, they were not averse to a little fun. Pietermaritzburg, of course, was in the heart of loyalist Natal, and the townsfolk threw themselves heartily into royalist celebrations. When the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York visited the town, locals turned out in droves to wave their flags in welcome. But the camp children were there as well, as a report explained:

The children turned up under one of the men of the camp, and are reported to me by my NCO in charge of our school children, to have voluntarily waved the flags and to have joined in the welcome to their Royal Highnesses. They were most orderly and were in every respect well behaved. I had informed the residents of the camp generally, that I would endeavour to assist all their children to see the procession, but could not promise that there would be room in the bays. As for themselves, I looked upon them as citizens and that they were free to come and go where they wished throughout the streets’.14

One of the most outstanding features of Pietermaritzburg camp was the education. The school was headed by P.R.N. Vermaak, a Natal Afrikaner with loyalist sympathies. Whatever his political views, the camp people appreciated the school he established.15 While most of the teachers were Boers, a handful of young Englishwomen were imported to teach in the camps as well. In Pietermaritzburg Lily Rose and Charlotte Hose arrived at the end of February 1902. Lily Rose’s brief diary and extensive correspondence with her mother have survived, giving a unique glimpse of a young teacher in the camp, her relationships with her pupils and the Boers, and her social life.

Lily Rose appears to have been a sensible, capable and attractive young woman. A staunch Anglican, she attended church regularly, sometimes up to three times on feast days. Shortly after her arrival she was asked to take over the disorganised kindergarten classes and she threw herself wholeheartedly into the project. Her affection for the children, her ‘little chicks’ comes through clearly and her feeling was obviously returned for she was regularly inundated with little presents of flowers, sweets and cookies. She formed limited friendships with the Boer teachers and, when the camp was closed, she received numerous invitations to visit the farms. But she never took up any of these offers. Although she clearly got on reasonably well with the camp people, she never really understood them. Her account of the peace illustrates this. She, herself, was clearly intrigued by the panoply that went with the declaration:

I went down to Church alone on Sunday as Charlie Hose was in bed with a severe cold, I noticed as I went down Church St. that a good many Union Jacks were flying, and as I neared the Town Hall the chimes were playing “God save the King”, so I guessed something extraordinary had happened – when I got into Church I noticed the Governor and his aide-de-camp sitting in the front pew, and as the old Dean came in he had a telegram in his hand, which he read aloud as soon as he reached his seat – then the organ pealed forth the national anthem, and the people joined heartily.’

The Boers received the news very differently.

When I reached the camp I heard the Governor was coming up to the Camp in the afternoon – crowds gathered up by the “ration-tent” and when the Governor spoke he was received (or rather his announcement) in stolid silence, next day the teachers in the k’garten were fearfully apathetic in their work.’

Most heart-rending was the response of Miss Pretorius ‘the nicest girl in the camp’. Lily asked her what she thought of ‘peace’ and she said, ‘Well Miss Rose, I just feel as though I have no interest in life now’.

When Schalk Burger visited the camp a few days later to explain why the Boers had come to terms,

the men listened in silence but the women interrupted a good deal – of course he spoke in Dutch but the Matron interpreted for me – he said that it had been almost an hopeless war for the last 18 months, then shouted out one woman “Why didn’t you give it up 18 months ago”, the women you must know have all the “go” the men none. When he had finished speaking the women crowded round his carriage arguing with him, but he said to them “It’s peace now, you mustn’t quarrel with me”.

Lily Rose concluded optimistically, ‘I quite believe that all the bitter feeling will die away in time.’

These young women were a magnet to the many men who had come to South Africa during the war. Charlotte Hose was engaged twice in the year she was in Pietermaritzburg. Lily Rose entertained droves of men, from Rudyard Kipling’s father to the young Australian lieutenant, Joe Vardy, to whom she eventually became engaged. Their off-duty hours were filled with dinners, theatre, picnics, long walks and ‘serious’ talks. Although Lily wrote yearningly of her family in England, South Africa brought her experiences she could never have enjoyed at home. It is hardly surprising that she did not return. She extended her stay to teach in Pretoria and, presumably, eventually left for Australia. The South African War changed her life forever, but it brought her opportunity, not suffering .16

Pietermaritzburg camp was one of the last in Natal to be closed, probably towards the end of November 1902.17


J.H. Balme, To Love One’s Enemies (Cobble Hill, Hobhouse Trust, 1994).

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

E. Neethling, Should We Forget? (Cape Town, HAUM, 1902).

G. Russell, A-B War Concentration Camps in Natal: Aug. 1900-Jan. 1903, (Durban, The Author, 1988).

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

On Elizabeth Neethling see L. Stanley, Mourning Becomes . . . Post/Memory, Commemoration and the Concentration Camps of the South African War (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2006).

GH files in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository [PAR].

PAR, A 49, Correspondence and diary of Lily Rose.

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

National Library of South Africa [NLSA], SABP 77, A South African Diary.

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 30-33.

1 NLSA, SABP 77, p.2.

2 Cd 893, pp.30-33; PAR, GH 553/G456/03, 11/6/1902; NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 13272, 14/3/1902; CO 879/77/697, 14336, 15/3/1902.

3 Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.224.

4 NLSA, SABP 77, p.3.

5 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, pp.70-71.

6 Russell, AB War Concentration Camps in Natal; PAR, GH 1230/153/01, 24/6/1901; Cd 893, p.32.

7 Balme, To Love One’s Enemies, p.77.

8 Neethling, Should We Forget?, p.81.

9 Neethling, Should We Forget?, p.77-78.

10 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.70.

11 Natal Witness, 15/2/1902, p.5; NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 10686, 19/2/1902.

12 NAUK, CO 879/71/668, 32705, 5/11/1901; PAR, GH 209/245/1901, 8/11/1901.

13 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.209.

14 PAR, GH 550/G957/01, 15/8/1901; GH 1231/223/01, 21/8/1901.

15 PAR, GH 1230/202/01, 3/8/1901.

16 PAR, A 49.

17 NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 49460, 7/11/1902.

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.