BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


At the start of the war refugees from Griqualand West flowed into Potchefstroom. Although the British were forced to evacuate the town shortly after their arrival, when they returned they found the disruptions had created a substantial refugee population for which they had to provide. A camp was probably established quite early; certainly it was in existence by October 1900. A black camp was probably created alongside the white camp, although little is known about it.

The camp, which had been run by Mr Duncan under the supervision of the military, was turned over to civilian administration in February 1901. At that point there were over 4,000 inmates, about half in tents and the other half living in the town. Some had started to build reed houses with tarpaulins for roofs. An Afrikaner burgher, Mr Jacob Swart, was appointed superintendent. By March the camp had risen to over 5,500 inmates. When Dr Kendal Franks visited the camp in August 1901, he noted that the camp was divided into four, with a water furrow, which supplied both the camp and town, winding its way through the middle. As late as this there were still 3,651 people living in the town on rations, in addition to the 5,000 camp people, making this a very large camp.1

Throughout the life of Potchefstroom camp accommodation seems to have been a problem. Not only was there always a shortage of tents but the quality of the canvas seems to have been exceptionally bad. New stocks, often rotten themselves, were used only to replace those which had disintegrated entirely. As the Potchefstroom residents began to return to the town in April 1902, pressure on lodgings increased since a large number of camp people still lived in the vacated houses. The new superintendent, Mr R. Duncan, insisted that those on rations live in the camp but a number opted to fend for themselves and remain in the town, ‘thus proving that they were able to sustain themselves’, he noted. Still, as late as May 1902, at the end of the war, there were over 1,000 camp inmates living in Potchefstroom town.2

In August 1901 the camp was moved to a new site on sloping ground with better drainage. At the same time, people were continually moving in and out. In September there were over 600 new arrivals. Superintendent Swart had hoped to house them all in the camp but the tents he received were too worn to use and many people still had to live in the town. At the same time, the deportation to Natal of families whose men were still on commando, began. They went quietly, Swart reported, some even coming to say goodbye and expressing their gratitude for what had been done for them.3

Many of the families pouring in were severely debilitated. Some brought measles with them and others were so weak that they soon fell prey to the disease, or to influenza which affected almost all the adults. Mortality shot up, reaching its peak in June 1901 after which it declined rapidly. The gravity of the disease was marked by a number of cases of cancrum oris (noma), an aftermath of severe measles, ‘a kind of local gangrene affecting the cheek or jaws of a child’, painless but usually fatal.

Confronted with high mortality and strange diseases, rumours often ran wildly through the camps. Potchefstroom camp was visited by Mesdames A.H. Bosman and H.S. Malan, who reported to the general superintendent in Pretoria that a number of children were suffering from scurvy and urged that vegetables be supplied. The camp authorities responded indignantly and defensively to their mild criticisms, denying that there was any scurvy. W.K. Tucker, the general superintendent, wrote to the military governor, complaining that the two women had not raised their concerns with the superintendent and they offered no suggestions for the social welfare of the Boers.

If these ladies had been actuated solely with the benevolent desire to do all in their power to add to the comfort of the families in the Camps, and to assist the authorities in their endeavours to bring the Camps to the greatest state of efficiency possible, it is reasonable to suppose they would have made earnest representations to the officials in charge of the Camps, and would have lost no time on returning to Pretoria to place their services at your disposal.’

He urged that ‘visitors of this class’ be denied access to the camps since they were only ‘carrying on a propaganda of hostility and distrust of the British Authorities’.4

When Dr Franks visited Potchefstroom, he unhesitatingly diagnosed the cases of scurvy as cancrum oris. The early symptoms, he pointed out, were very similar. He was interested to observe that there was even more sickness in the town and he blamed the ‘ignorance, perverseness, and dirty habits of the parents’ for the severity of the epidemic. Although the epidemic ended quite soon, the disease did not die out entirely for it was fuelled by new arrivals, some of whom brought measles with them while others had not yet acquired an immunity. Fortunately, these later cases were not of a serious type, the superintendent reported.5

It is rare to have patients’ accounts of illness, but one of the most vivid descriptions of cancrum oris was recorded by Elizabeth Neethling. The account gives us an insight into the confusion and fear which this dreadful disease caused:

When we were in the Potchefstroom Camp I was very ill and taken to the hospital, my little girl of four years old was with me. She was not ill but had slight diarrhoea. I asked Dr. B. to give her some medicine. He gave me a prescription which the chemist made up, a pinky coloured mixture, a teaspoonful every three hours. After my child had taken the second dose, I noticed that her gums seemed to be drawing up from the teeth and becoming white, after another dose we discontinued the medicine. On the morning of the fourth day we found in her bed three little teeth that had fallen out during the night. From that time, by degrees, all the teeth fell out, also a part of the jaw. A month later the other part of the jaw came away. Blue spots began to show on either side of the nose. Next the flesh which had grown black fell away from the nose, but no bones came out of the nose and there was no bleeding. Afterwards the palate was gone too, so that the uvula and the tongue were quite exposed. The poor little sufferer lived for two months and a half after taking the medicine. When at its worst the doctor insisted on isolating us, as he declared that the disease was infectious. I told him that I thought his medicine had done the mischief, as just after my child had taken it she began to get ill’.6

It was not, of course, the doctor’s medicine which caused the cancrum oris but, for people in the hostile environment of the camps, it was easy to link the two.

Swart’s reports were brief and to the point, giving little indication of daily life in the camp. One is grateful, therefore, for inspection reports which were more descriptive. Occasionally, however, he gave glimpses of the problems he confronted. There was no place of worship, he reported in June 1901, so people attended churches in the town (although the main church had been converted into the camp hospital). Open-air services were sometimes held in the camp, however, and a number of women from the town ran Sunday School classes.7

Meat was an issue in all the camps, especially in the dry winter months. Swart’s explanation is worth quoting for he described the problem with unusual clarity:

The pasturage has become very dry and scanty, as is usual at this season of the year, and grass fires have denuded thousands of acres of all food for sheep and goats. In addition to this circumstance, the animals have been driven long distances, and been kept close penned at nights to prevent them from straying beyond the picket lines and falling into the hands of the enemy’.8

Swart wisely granted an extra ration to make up for the deficiency. He was also one of the first superintendents to encourage gardening. By June 1901 land was being ploughed for barley and potatoes and other vegetables were planted. Unfortunately the crops were blighted but the camp was able to sell some of its potatoes in the Potchefstroom market. Later crops were more successful and, by September 1901, all the inmates were receiving fresh vegetables and there was enough fodder to feed the transport animals as well.9

Dr Kendal Franks visited the camp in August 1901. He reported that. although hospital patients were well fed, with fresh milk and eggs ‘in abundance’ – a rare luxury in any of the camps – the hospitals were uncomfortable places and seem to have suffered some curious deficiencies. The church hospital was badly ventilated, smoky and cold. The beds were mere planks and Dr Franks found at least one patient suffering from bed sores. The matron appeared to have no thermometers or measuring glasses. There were other shortages, too. Medical comforts had run low and there was no butter or jam.

Dr Frank’s report raises the question of cleanliness and how this should be understood. Towards the end of his report he wrote:

The camp is not as clean as it might be. The inside of many of the tents, and the outside of most of the inhabitants, might be described as filthy, and they did not seem the happier for it. Cleanliness is not a Boer virtue as seen in the camps, and the people resent any interference in this direction, but I consider that it should be enforced nevertheless. I suggested this to one of the doctors, and he replied:- “If you tried to wash them, you would cause an insurrection in the camp.” I do not think so’.10

There were two issues involved. British wartime propaganda frequently blamed Boer sanitary habits for the high mortality. Scapegoating is extremely common in epidemics and the same rhetoric had been applied by the British to the Irish, the Indians and Africans in Cape Town. Modern medical practice usually takes care to avoid this kind of ‘othering’, for it leads to misunderstanding in the management of disease, as occurred in the early days with homosexuality and AIDs. In later years Afrikaners were angered by the suggestion that the Boers were dirty. Women like Emily Hobhouse and Elizabeth Neethling (see Pietermaritzburg camp), and their successors, sought to present the families as middle class and respectable. But there remains the fact that the British reports left many precise and unpleasantly vivid accounts of Boer sanitary practices. Most of the doctors were young middle-class men. Even if they had experience of British industrial slums, they had almost certainly not had daily intimacy with a rural peasantry and they were often shocked by what they found. There is a distinction between the immediacy of these young men’s reports and what the politicians did with the material and this needs to be understood. But their accounts should be valued for, despite the distastefulness of the subject, they provide a rare insight into Boer daily life. What we have here is a exceptional glimpse of a pre-industrial people, before the age of the sanitary revolution, almost unique in South African history.

But, secondly, there was also the question of how the camp superintendents managed the Boers. The great insight of the public health revolution of the mid-nineteenth century was that clean water, efficient sanitation and uncrowded, dry accommodation did reduce infectious diseases in the new industrial cities. The establishment of the camps unwittingly dragged the Boers into the industrial era and many of the camp authorities recognised that a Boer peasantry had to endure a rapid education in hygiene. While the Boers preferred a more tolerant regime, ‘firmness’ was usually more effective in reducing mortality. Dr Franks’ shrewd criticism of Potchefstroom camp should be seen in this context:

On the whole I consider that this camp is not as well managed as it might be. All the officials from the Superintendent downwards seemed very anxious to have everything right, and to do the best they can, but they seem afraid of taking responsibility upon themselves, and of incurring blame, by enforcing measures which it must be clear to them would be for the benefit of the whole camp’.11

The Ladies Committee visited Potchefstroom camp at the end of September 1901, shortly after it had been moved to the new site. First impressions were favourable. ‘The surrounding countryside is green and garden-like. It is well-watered, and all kinds of garden produce were growing in abundance’. This pleasant impression did not last long. The Ladies soon discovered that the water supply was polluted with the bones and skulls of oxen, tins, boots and other rubbish. Women filled their pails and did their washing in this murky water, although they were not supposed to do so. The disposal of the rubbish was also ineffective, smelly, with bits of meat and offal scattered round the dumps. The latrines were dirty, the seats were too high for small children and too little disinfectant was used. The superintendent said defensively that it was a pity that the Ladies had not visited a week later when the finishing touches had been given to the new camp and the whole place looked neater and cleaner. Despite all these adverse comments, Swart was not moved until the new year, perhaps because the camp was fairly healthy.12

October 1901 was a difficult month for the camp. Supplies were short; storms ripped apart the aging tents and the party collecting wood was attacked by the Boers. A boy of fourteen escaped to join the commando, while two others were captured but allowed to return to the camp. The military were taken by surprise, losing all their transport while the camp lost its tools. As a result of this escapade, no-one was able to collect wood, which was also running short. Storms destroyed more tents in November, along with most of the vegetables, although the potatoes escaped.13

Unusually in the summer of 1902 a swimming bath was built for the women. It was well patronised, superintendent Swart reported, ‘so much so that fixed hours had to be allocated to the different sections of the Camp’. Evidently the children also took advantage of the pool, for Swart reported in March that there was now hardly a child in the camp who could not swim.14

There have been many debates about the impact of the camps on the ending of the war. Although the women were usually regarded as the bittereindes, cherishing the hope that somehow they would be ultimately victorious, superintendent Swart reported that, in terms of a recent proclamation, many of the camp women had written to their husbands to lay down their arms. A few men had done so and, listening to them, he believed that more would soon do so. ‘They also appear to dislike the idea of their wives being sent away, and, in my opinion, this has more to do with their coming in than anything else’.15

Superintendent Duncan appears to have been an even more complacent man than Swart. As peace approached he noted in his comment on the attitude of the people:

The majority of inmates of this Camp are so contented and comfortable that I am afraid when peace is declared and the time comes for them to go home, that we shall have the greatest difficulty in getting them to leave the Camp. The bulk of them know that they were never better off in their lives before’.16

Although he was so thick-skinned, Duncan left a particularly lively account of the excitement which prevailed when the surrendered burghers began to come into the camp:

This month we have had rather an exciting time of it, and one which none of us is likely to forget. When the 635 surrendered burghers of this district arrived in camp the excitement among refugees was terrific. To keep order among and correct records of, all the new arrivals which, including women and children, amounted to 1100 odd, it was necessary to close the gates and keep all refugees in camp (about 5000) until the burghers had passed through our office one by one. One whole side of camp was simply packed by women and children about 20 or 30 deep. The surrendered Burghers lined themselves up outside the wire fence, all of them remaining on horseback until their Veld Cornets read out an address to the people in camp. The addresses were simple and to the point, the essence of same being, that they had fought for their country like men, had got the worst of it, and now intended to do their best to be true British subjects and as loyal to England, as they had been to their own country. The meeting broke up after about an hour’s singing of hymns &c’.17

Repatriation was slow. The scale of the task was considerable and at the end of January 1903 the superintendent noted that he had repatriated over 10,000 ‘souls’. The more affluent left quickly but the return of prisoners-of-war and those sent to Natal meant that, for some time, numbers increased rather than decreased. Duncan had been particularly concerned about the repatriation of landless bywoners. The problem was partly solved when the Potchefstroom and Klerksdorp Farmers Association offered them land on favourable terms. The superintendent was grateful, noting that this venture deserved all assistance possible from the government. In December, when most camps were closing, Potchefstroom was still taking new inmates, largely from other camps. many of them indigent and ‘helpless women and children’ The land settlement schemes provided for some but the widows were finally settled only in the new year.18


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

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

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

Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp. 23-24 75-77, 147-149, 264-265, 377-379; Cd 853, pp. 90-92; Cd 902, pp. 98-100

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

Kendal Franks report: Cd 819, pp. 196-198.

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 128-133.

1 Cd 819, pp.16, 23-24, 196; Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.157, 192; Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, pp.47-48.

2 NASA, DBC 12, Apr 1902; DBC 11, May, Aug 1902.

3 Cd 853, p.92.

4 NASA, MGP 121, 1 & 2, 2/8/1901.

5 Cd 819, p.77, 196-198; Cd 853, p.91.

6 Neethling, Should We Forget?, pp.112-113.

7 Cd 819, pp.148, 196.

8 Cd 819, p.76.

9 Cd 819, pp.76-77; Cd 853, p.92.

10 Cd 819, p.198.

11 Cd 819, p.198.

12 Cd 893, pp.128-129; Cd 902, p.99.

13 Cd 902, p.100; NASA, DBC 14, Nov 1901.

14 NASA, DBC 12, Jan, Mar 1902.

15 Cd 819. p.378.

16 NASA, DBC 12, Apr 1902.

17 NASA, DBC 11, Jun 1902.

18 NASA, DBC 11, Jul 1902; DBC 13, Nov 1902; DBC 14, Jan 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.