BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Few camps can have had as miserable a start as Standerton. The camp was probably begun about December 1900. Before it was handed over to the civilian administration in February 1901, the local district commissioner had put Mr van Musschenbroek in charge but the camp was left ‘(more or less) to run itself’. There were no records of arrivals or departures as families poured in, while some were deported to Natal or transferred to other camps. A small camp which had been started at Platrand was also amalgamated with Standerton, although a black camp remained there. These movements took place in the bucketing rain in which the local black pot clay dissolved into a ‘deep thick glutinous mud’. General Superintendent Goodwin reported in February 1901 that the condition of the people was ‘pitiable in the extreme’. To add to the woes, Dr Leslie, who had been sent from Cape Town, took one look at the camp and refused to take up his duties, causing ‘considerable inconvenience’.1

It was hardly surprising that the Boer families were bitter and Standerton remained a disaffected camp for many months. The people complained that they had been taken from their homes with no time to collect any belongings. Goodwin was sceptical. He admitted that it was probably true in some cases but many families brought a considerable quantity of furniture with them. The people were also incensed about the food, for the system of restricted rations to the families whose men were on commando was at first implemented in Standerton. However, Goodwin took the decision by the end of February 1901 to move everyone in the Transvaal camp system onto Scale A, with Scale B (which lacked meat) used as a means of punishment of the ‘unruly and troublesome’. This, he believed, ‘materially assisted in obtaining a better feeling throughout the various camps, and encouraged both the men and women to be more helpful’. At first W.K. Tucker, a capable man who soon became General Superintendent of the Transvaal camp system, was sent to Standerton as superintendent to straighten things out.2

But Tucker did not remain long. He was replaced temporarily by Richard Moffatt and later by Frank Winfield. Winfield was something of an enigma. His bland, confident reports suggest a man who was in control of affairs, but he was much disliked by the Boers and later inspections of the place revealed a parlous state of affairs. Winfield was not entirely to blame, for Standerton’s harsh climate, relative isolation and heavy clay soil all made for great discomfort. The Vaal river was heavily polluted and Standerton village was dirty and insanitary, contributing to the endemic typhoid which plagued the camp. Throughout its life tents were ragged and in short supply. The place made a poor impression on visitors and Lucy Deane of the Ladies Committee described the place as ‘hideous and simply a Charnel-House! of dead cattle’, many of them scattered along the banks of the river.3

By the end of May Standerton had reached about 3,000 in size and numbers continued to pour in. Accommodation ran short and some families had to be housed in the local Dopper church. Others were allowed to live in the town, much to Moffatt’s disapproval. ‘It is my opinion that many of the townspeople drawing rations are in a position to support themselves, and, if it were made compulsory for all not owning houses to live in camp, there would be a considerable diminution in the numbers of those drawing rations’, he wrote.4

A black camp existed alongside the white. There is little information about it but it was there by the end of March 1901 and it lasted until September 1902, reaching about 2,000 inmates. Even after it was formally closed, some inmates remained for there are references to their existence in later white camp reports.5

Despite Moffatt’s upbeat remarks, it is clear that life in Standerton camp remained miserable. The cold, in this wet winter, was intense. Many of the inmates had no warm clothing and Moffatt was unable to satisfy the demand for blankets, let alone garments. Although there was enough coal, there was little kindling or cow dung fuel to start the fires. Food was adequate, although the first consignment of sugar had been very poor but Moffatt made no mention of meat, usually the primary consideration. It is hardly surprising that there was a ‘considerable amount’ of sickness, mainly enteric and dysentery. The new medical officer, Dr Osborne, while ‘most attentive’, did not live in the camp, throwing a considerable burden on the hospital matron, Mrs Barratt.6

In this bitter winter people began to sicken and die, mainly from pulmonary complaints although the incidence of typhoid fever remained unacceptably high. This was hardly surprising without facilities for boiling the polluted water of the Vaal River which, the new superintendent, Frank Winfield, complained that they persisted in using. A sod hospital was built for the pulmonary cases which, Dr Osborne hoped, would be warmer than the marquees. Fortunately the nursing staff was adequate for the young Boer ‘probationers’ proved successful in Standerton camp and were looking forward to receiving the uniforms they had been promised, the superintendent reported.7

By July the management of Standerton camp seemed to be on a firmer footing. The bitter weather had abated although the dust storms which followed made life almost as unpleasant. But accommodation had improved with the arrival of over 600 new tents. The hospital had been moved and appeared to be functioning well. There was now a resident medical officer, one Dr Fitzg. Blood (replaced by Dr Pearse). Mrs Barrett, the hospital matron, was a capable woman who got on well with the young Boer women who assisted her. Blood thought the state of health in the camp was ‘indifferent’ but the one bright spot was the absence of infectious disease, the great killer in the camps, so that, although people sickened, they did not die. Although many of the families who came in were poorly clad, between the Netherlands Relief Fund, Poynton’s Store and the camp administration, they could be supplied with adequate clothing and blankets. The camp had now been fenced, mainly because a Boer commando had driven off a number of cattle belonging to the inmates.8

The measles epidemic struck in September, brought in by children from a group captured by Colonel Colville’s column. The new medical officer, Dr Pearse, believed initially that the epidemic was mild but mortality shot up in October and he had to revise his view. He struggled to understand why so many children developed pneumonia afterwards. He concluded, above all, that this was a particularly malignant type for even children who were carefully nursed died. But many of the children were poorly nourished and emaciated even before they fell ill. Other contributing factors were the unsuitability of the tents, which were often overcrowded as well, and a tendency to allow the children to get up too early. A steady intake of impoverished families also fuelled the epidemic. One result of the rise in disease was the decision to move the entire camp to higher ground. Apart from the measles, typhoid persisted and it was hoped that better drained, less polluted ground might improve conditions.9

Although it was severe, the epidemic was brief and adult mortality was low throughout the life of the camp, although there was much typhoid. The pattern is that of a relatively well run camp but the story of Standerton was less straight forward than Winfield’s bland reports suggested. ‘Every precaution possible under the conditions is being taken to make the sanitary condition of the camp as perfect as possible’, he wrote on one occasion.10

Dr Kendal Franks visited the camp in September 1901. His report was matter-of-fact and fairly positive. Winfield he considered ‘enterprising and energetic’. By this time part of the camp had been moved to a new site. Some of the inmates of the old camp still lived in wagons and sailcloth tents, overcrowded and dirty, but the new camp fulfilled all the British requirements with neat, straight lines and wide streets. About 80 men were employed in keeping the camp clean and orderly but over 500 remained unemployed and needed occupation, Franks considered.11

The Ladies Committee, who arrived towards the end of November 1901, had a very different impression. They were horrified by what they found. They condemned the water supply. The Vaal River was notoriously foul and the camp inmates still had to climb down the bank to get their water. The water boilers were badly managed and maintained so they were little used. ‘It is evident that the very large majority of the occupants are drinking the unboiled water, which is very foul, and is without doubt partly the cause of the prevalence of enteric in the camp’, they wrote.12

Worse still was the sanitation. Even in the new camp the trench system was still used for the latrines and that for the men had no seats at all. Ragged canvas screens provided little privacy, the ground was fouled and the ‘effluvia’ was ‘horrible’. ‘The Committee feel that, considering the length of time this camp has been in existence, there is no excuse for the disgraceful sanitary arrangements, to which a great part of the illness in camp must be attributed’, they commented tartly. The lack of an efficient sanitary corps reflected on the capacity of the superintendent, they felt. The system for rubbish disposal was equally bad although it was exacerbated by the lack of transport animals, some of which had been seized by the military while others had died of rinderpest.13

The Ladies were not overly impressed by the hospital either. Mrs Barrett was hard-working and spoke Dutch but she did not have enough trained assistance. There were as many typhoid cases in the tents as in the hospital (in the better camps all typhoid cases were hospitalised) and they infected one another so that as many as five in a tent were sometimes sick. Disinfectants were provided but were used in a ‘perfunctory’ way.14

Almost the only thing of which the Ladies approved was the system of issuing rations, which was quick and efficient. But the prevalence of rinderpest meant that the quality of the meat was poor and tinned meat (much disliked by the Boers) was likely to be the fare for some time. Fortunately most of the children received milk (condensed and mixed with water) and soup was distributed as a medical comfort. They concluded that the camp was soaked with enteric and should be moved and the superintendent, who ‘had no grasp of the importance of sanitation’, should be removed.15

The black report of the Ladies Committee precipitated a visit from the travelling inspector, Captain Bentinck in December 1901. He was equally critical. The original camp site had been located in the most insanitary spot in Standerton and even parts of the new camp were unsatisfactory and had to be moved. He thoroughly agreed with the findings of the Ladies Committee. The donga which ran through the camp and its immediate surroundings were ‘a disgrace to any place under British management’ and Bentinck could not understand why the medical officer had not taken action over it. The sanitation was ‘absolutely disgraceful’ and the bucket system needed to be implemented immediately. Part of the problem, Bentinck believed, was that neither the superintendent nor the medical officer properly understood their relationship and the medical officer was failing to take responsibility for the sanitary condition of the camp. He spoke to both ‘strongly’ and hoped that they had now grasped the situation.16

But this was not the case. When Bentinck returned a month later little had improved. The camp buildings had not been moved, the women were still washing in the filthy Vaal River and there was little indication that the medical officer was taking much initiative. Worst of all was the school, of which he had complained previously for attendance was low. Instead, Bentinck found about 150 children at the slaughter poles, scrambling for blood and intestines. A three-year-old was stirring a basin of fresh blood. ‘A more utterly degrading spectacle I have seldom seen’, a shocked Bentinck commented. All in all, the superintendent was slack and the medical officer was apathetic and the inspector urged that Dr Pearce be dismissed.17

Despite these damning criticisms head office was slow to act and Winfield and Pearce both remained for some time. Winfield finally went on 20 January 1902, to be replaced by Lieut P.C. Jonas, but Pearce lingered on until 16 March 1902, when Dr V.G. Alexander arrived. Typhoid persisted in the camp partly, perhaps, because it was only towards the end of January that boiled water could be supplied in any quantity. When Major Anstruther Thompson visited Standerton at the end of January 1902, however, he was able to report that the camp was rapidly becoming a model and its cleanliness was in pleasing contrast to the dirty and insanitary town.18

By the end of March Standerton camp was at last operating smoothly although there were still deficiencies. A trickle of families continued to come in and tented accommodation remained ragged and in short supply. Relatively few of the men worked for there were none of the activities found in some of the other camps, although brickmaking was started in March.1902. There was no vegetable garden. An effort was made to occupy the boys, however, for cricket and football were both introduced and much enjoyed, Jonas reported. As health improved, so did the attitude of the people. There was hardly a family which had not lost someone in the measles epidemic and ‘people got into a dull and sullen state’ but this had now passed away. Perhaps an indication of the greater contentment was the willingness of the families of the National Scouts to remain in the main camp for they lived ‘on very pleasant terms’ with the other camp inmates, or so Jonas claimed.19

After all its vicissitudes, Standerton camp celebrated the coronation with enthusiasm. 800 children attended a children’s fete in the town while a picnic was given for the younger children. A band entertained the very old while adults and staff each enjoyed a dance – separately. The only difficulty in the last months arose from the reluctance of some of the men from the surrendered commandos to submit to camp discipline but Jonas believed that a firm talk had solved the problem and a number had expressed their gratitude at the care of the families.20

Repatriation was slow, partly because Standerton was used as a depot for families returning from Natal The dearth of tents continued and Jonas simply did not have enough to supply the families going back to their farms. A shortage of oxen for transport also hampered the departures. At the end of December there were still over 1,000 people in the camp, with 137 in the black camp and Standerton finally closed at the end of January 1903.21

Standerton achieved some notoriety in Afrikaner camp mythology. One reason was Winfield’s unpopularity. Mrs Grobler of Rensburghshoop in the Bethal district complained that, when they had business at the office they were often uncivilly treated. Winfield’s successor spoke no Dutch but was much kinder and earned the gratitude of the camp inmates.22 For the more educated burghers the business of processing to enter the camp was a humiliating experience. Mrs Liebenberg, the wife of the Bethal predikant, resented the questions about their possession of property and stock. She was able to avoid the camp, living instead in a ‘wagon-house’ just outside. She had some difficulty getting a ration card since she was told that her family looked ‘decent enough to keep ourselves’. Eventually she was able to leave for Cape Town.23

Probably the best known inmate of Standerton camp was Tant Miem Fischer, whose camp diary was first published in 1964. Fischer arrived in Standerton in early June 1901 and was transferred to Natal in mid-September, so her family escaped the worst of the measles epidemic, but she did live through the grim period of shortages and poor administration. It is not entirely clear why she kept the diary nor why it was published so late. Since it was issued in modern Afrikaans, it is not produced in its original form and there is no indication of who edited it. There are also suggestions that some insertions have been made, but when or by whom is not certain. Checks suggest, however, that at least some of the events are reliably recounted.

This is the diary of a bewildered and angry woman who finds herself in an arbitrary world in which the authorities make no attempt to explain their actions and she is profoundly disempowered. Winfield (given as Bloomfield – with a squint eye) is a callous but largely absent figure. Medical attention is minimal. The ultimate humiliation is the use of black overseers in addition to the usual hensoppers. One has to question whether conditions were as casually heartless as Fischer describes, but we do know that there was a considerable gap between Winfield’s confident reports, and the reality of the bitter cold, overcrowded tents, the poor food and the endless ill health. Above all, the diary offers of perspective (blinkered certainly but probably emotionally truthful) of one of the victims of the camps.


M.A. Fischer, Tant Miem Fischer se Kampdagboek (Pretoria, Protea, 2000, originally published 1964).

E. Hobhouse, War Without Glamour (Bloemfontein, Nasionale Pers, 1924).

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

Lucy Deane Papers: Streatfield Collection, University of London, LSE 2/11.

Published camp reports; Cd 819, pp.24-25, 62-64, 149-152, 266-269, 379-381; Cd 853, pp. 92-98; Cd 902, pp. 100-105.

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

Kendal Franks report: Cd 819, pp.300-302.

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 189-193.

1 Cd 819, pp.24-25.

2 Cd 819, pp.24-25.

3 Lucy Deane Papers.

4 Cd 819, pp.62-64.

5 NASA, SNA files; Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.192.

6 Cd 819, pp.62-64.

7 Cd 189, pp.150-152.

8 Cd 819, pp.267-269, 381.

9 Cd 853, p.95, 97; Cd 902, p.101; NASA, DBC 14, Nov 1901.

10 Cd 902, p.103.

11 Cd 819, pp.300-302.

12 Cd 853, pp.188-189.

13 Cd 893, p.189.

14 Cd 893, pp.191-192.

15 Cd 893, pp.190-193.

16 NASA, DBC 12, Jan 1902.

17 NASA, DBC 12, Jan 1902.

18 NASA, DBC 12, Jan 1902.

19 NASA, DBC 12, Mar 1902; DBC 11, May 1902.

20 NASA, DBC 11, Jun 1902.

21 NASA, DBC 11; Jul 1902; DBC 14, Dec 1902, Jan 1903.

22 Hobhouse, War Without Glamour, p.9.

23 Hobhouse, War Without Glamour, pp.71-72.

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.