BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War

Port Elizabeth

Port Elizabeth was never part of the main camp system. In some respects it was the ‘first’ camp in that it was the first to be formerly established, rather than one which ‘just growed’. It was always run by the military and never passed into the hands of the civilian administration. For this reason it was not visited by the Ladies Committee and its reports and statistics were not included in the general reports on the camps although some were published in the British Blue Books (Cd series). The existence of Port Elizabeth camp was awkward for, located as it was in the Cape Colony, the Cape government was extremely touchy about infringements on its independent rights and disliked any independent authority in the Colony (see East London camp).

Port Elizabeth camp came into existence shortly after the invasion of the Free State, as a result of a hasty decision by the military, confronted with the problem of removing families they considered particularly undesirable in the field of conflict. In this sense, unlike most other camps, it was a ‘punishment’ camp rather than a ‘refugee’ camp. To some, this may seem like semantics, but the difference is fundamental to an understanding of how the camp system worked. At the same time, although there was no welfare element to the establishment of the camp, because it was located at the coast, at a major supply centre, there was never a problem with accommodation, rations, or any of the other shortages most camps suffered.

When Emily Hobhouse first heard of the camps, Port Elizabeth was the only camp known with certainty to exist. It seems to have been established about October 1901 (Dr Kendal Franks stated that it was started on 13 December 1901 but this appears to be incorrect). Originally sited on Port Elizabeth racecourse, by March 1901 it had been moved to higher ground, two miles north-west of the town. Unusually, the sexes were separated for there was a small camp for men and a second, larger area, for women, both heavily fenced and guarded. Dr Franks believed, probably wrongly, that the sentries were there for protection, especially against ‘natives’, rather than to incarcerate them. Nevertheless, once initial suspicions died down, passes were granted fairly freely to visit the town and the cemetery; even a week’s leave from the camp could be obtained.i

Most of the inmates came from Jagersfontein and Fauresmith in the Free State. They had been rounded up and sent south because the military believed that they had been aiding the enemy, the women even, perhaps, bearing arms. The publicity that the early inmates received, however, was because they included the wife of Judge J.B.M. Hertzog (later prime minister of South Africa), who had been visiting her sister in Jagersfontein, where the latter’s children were sick with measles (this is the first mention of measles in connection with the camps). Although attempts were made to arrange for the two women and their children to go on parole to family in Stellenbosch, this was refused. Only two-year-old Albert, the future Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, was allowed out. The rest were sent, instead, to Port Elizabeth. There, Albert’s eight-year-old cousin died of measles shortly after his arrival in the camp, the first recorded death by measles.ii Lionel Curtis, who encountered the families at Edenburg, on their way to the coast, described their plight vividly:

Their things were done up in bundles and battered tin boxes . . . Most of them had been crying. There were mere girls and women so old that I wondered that they could be moved. Very many of them had children in arms and there were several who it was plain to see were near their confinement. There was one magnificently handsome woman with a face exactly like Cruikshank's picture of Madame Defarge in the Tale of Two Cities. I have never seen so much hatred in a woman's face before’.iii

The presence of these Boer women in the Cape Colony made them a focal point for the resentment of rebellious colonial Afrikaners. The magistrate of Uitenhage, C.G.H. Bell, wrote to his departmental head, warning that relatives were ‘displaying their sympathy’. ‘I have no definite information on the subject’ he wrote, ‘but I can safely state that the fact of the women being detained in Port Elizabeth is causing considerable unrest in the district, and there is a possibility of matters assuming a serious form at some later period, more particularly so if a further detachment is sent down’. Tales of the brutal treatment of the women at the hands of the soldiers were spreading rapidly, he explained later, and ‘unrest was growing daily in intensity’. The prime minister of the Cape Colony, Sir Gordon Sprigg, ever touchy about constitutional rights, chimed in. ‘As a further consideration Ministers desire to point out that grave questions may arise as to the legality of the forcible detention of non combatants in any part of this Colony, and more especially in a district where martial law does not prevail’.iv

The agitation surrounding the deportation of the Hertzog families greatly disturbed the South African High Commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner, who was struggling to prevent Cape Afrikaners rising in support of their republican kin. He telegraphed Lord Roberts, urging that no-one else should be sent down to the Cape:

There is, as I fully expected, the greatest possible trouble in the Colony over the women and children who have been sent down from the ORC. They are the object of vehement demonstrations of sympathy on the part of the Boers, and there is now a general agitation to have them let out to stay with their friends in different parts of the country. I object absolutely to this, as the experience of the paroled prisoners has shown me that every person let out is a focus of unrest and sedition. I hope you will uphold me in this, and that, while doing what we can for the health and comfort of the refugees in camp, they will not be let out. The incident shows that sending down persons other than regular prisoners of war to the Colony only disseminates mischief. And it seems to me that they can do much more harm in the Colony than in either of the ex Republics’.v

Roberts admitted that the women had been sent to the coast without his knowledge and he would ensure that this would not be repeated. The result was Roberts’ decision to form camps in the two republics instead.vi

The rounding up of these women also led to considerable adverse publicity in England. Consequently this was the first camp Emily Hobhouse visited after her arrival in South Africa. She admitted that, despite the conditions of incarceration, the families had been made as comfortable as possible.vii

For most of the time Port Elizabeth camp was tiny, with about 300 inmates. They lived in three wood and iron buildings, divided into separate rooms. These were well furnished with hospital beds and full bedding. Rather than rations, meals were served in a dining room and food, compared with the camps, was lavish. Breakfast on the day of Dr Franks’ visit included porridge and milk, salmon fritters, bread, butter and jam. For dinner they were served vegetable soup and Irish stew while the children all received milk. The women, preferring the Boer style of cooking, took turns to produce the meals.viii

One early pro-Boer description of the camp survives, deliberately emotive with its comparison with Ireland:

We went up the sandy hill on to an open healthy common. Half a mile's walk brought us to a group of tents for the English soldiers on the one side of the road, and entrenchments with barbed wire entanglements on the other. Beyond these were two or three rows of corrugated iron cottages, like evicted tenants’ huts in Ireland, and occasional tents with one or two larger buildings. There was barbed wire fencing to a considerable height all round, and sentries with their rifles on at least three sides of the square. We went to the entrance. A soldier with fixed bayonet called out to the guard tent inside, and a sergeant appeared. I handed our pass. He said doubtingly, ”The Commandant is not here.” I explained matters, and, after reading the three documents, he produced a roll to be signed, and we were free of the camp. As we wended our way across the sand, occasional weeds, etc., which take the place of grass, the matron of the camp, a sensible Afrikander woman, came to greet us. She took us into a hut. The iron walls were bare, and the room resounded with the voices of the infants in the adjoining shelters. Chairs are scarce, but neighbours lend willingly, and boxes are gracefully tendered also. There are 330 souls within the wire fence, 80 of them are mothers, 10 of them are persons of culture and means, the rest being absolutely destitute. The needs for the body are fairly met. They have clothing for the present, but the problem is, and will be, to keep the mind healthy and occupied and free from self brooding in this life of enforced idleness. In the hospital to day there were only two mothers and two newly arrived infants. Any news we could give was drunk in most eagerly. One person with whom we conversed had heard nothing of her husband for many months, and evidently yearned for tidings’.ix

The sensible Afrikaner woman was Miss Hauptfleisch, the camp matron. In the absence of a male camp superintendent, in this very gendered male environment, she was able to exercise an unusual influence in the running of the camp and she did so extremely well. Emily Hobhouse considered her a role model, urging that someone of her calibre be appointed in all the camps.

What is needed is a lady in each camp, holding the position of Miss Hauptfleisch at Port Elizabeth, who has enjoyed the entire confidence of the military, and whose womanly tact and power of organisation has had a success attested by all who have seen the camp under her control’.x

The camp commandant, Captain Charles Piers, noted in March 1901 that he could not speak too highly of Miss Hauptfleisch. ‘She has managed the camp and the inmates with a wonderful tact and skill, and the present efficient state of the camp is entirely due to her exertions, and sacrifice of her time and health to help her sisters in distress’. Piers was replaced by Captain Fenner, who, Dr Kendal Franks considered, took a keen interest in his duties, combining firmness with compassion and winning the affection and esteem of all the inmates. But he also acknowledged that the good quality of the camp was due largely to the capable management of Miss Hauptfleisch.xi

Fenner’s reports, although regular, are so brief that they give little clue to life in the camp. The food was adequate, health was generally good (between October 1900 and July 1901 there were only 12 deaths) and his reports consisted of brief lists of the numbers of boots supplied and such like. In August 1901 he noted with satisfaction, ‘I am glad to say that the people in camp appear to be very grateful’.xii

Despite a superficial air of contentment, the women retained a core of hostility to the British. Although Dr Franks claimed that the women were so comfortable that few wanted to leave, when he interviewed the women, he received a rather different response. In the recreation room he found them ironing, doing needlework and writing letters.

To one of these I spoke, and found she was writing to her husband, who had taken the oath of allegiance, and was in govt employ in Natal. I asked her, why was she there? She replied she did not know (they all said that), but she supposed because she would not take the oath of allegiance. I said I didn’t suppose she would ever be asked to take it, but what was her reason for objecting to it when her husband had taken it   she gave no answer, but only repeated, crescendo, ‘Never, Never, Never’.’.xiii

By September 1902 the camp was closing down and the families returned to the Orange River Colony.


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

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).

Cd 819, pp. 41-44; 182-184, 286; Cd 853, pp.7-8.

National Library, Cape Town [NLSA], SABP 77, A South African Diary. The Boer Women and Children's Camps. Prisoners of War. (By an Englishman in South Africa). No 70. (London, South African Conciliation Committee, 1901).

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

i NAUK, CO/879/77/697, 8622, 7/2/1902; Cd 819, pp.42-43.

ii Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.151; van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, pp.35-36; Balme, To Love One’s Enemies, pp.68-69; NAUK, CO 879/71/665, 10324, 21/3/1901..

iii Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.151.

iv NAUK, CO 879/70/663, 41025, 28/11/1900.

v NAUK, CO 879/70/663, 41025, 28/11/1900; CO 879/63/611, 40182/S, 21/11/1900.

vi NAUK, CO 879/70/663, 41025, 28/11/1900.

vii Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.309-340.

viii NAUK, CO/879/77/697, 8622, 7/2/1902; Cd 819, pp.42-43.

ix NLSA, SABP 77, A South African Diary, pp.1-2.

x Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.132.

xi Cd 819, p.43.

xii Cd 819, p.286.

xiii NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 8622, 7/2/1902.

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.