BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


The little town of Winburg, located on the march north from Bloemfontein to Kroonstad, bore the full brunt of the British troops after the Free State was captured. The young wife of the Winburg predikant, Margaret Marquard, recorded these early events. In May 1900 hungry soldiers swarmed through the town. Many wanted to buy bread. At first Margaret refused but, by the evening, pity prevailed and she gave them food. Rumour and fear ran through the town – ‘tales of theft and annoyance are not wanting’, she wrote. Petty theft turned to large scale looting.

One’s heart only gets sore over the ceaseless story of bullying going on,   cattle requisitioned away,   the farmers are frightened of coming to town, for fear of their animals and cash or waggon being taken: my great comfort is not that the retribution must come but that when the chastening of the Lord is accomplished with our poor sorrow stricken people, then there will be for them a rich compensation in an abiding spiritual blessing’.1

The women in the town were sharply divided. Mrs Daantje was ‘red-hot’ – ‘there must be tooth and nail resistance’. Mrs de Kok, on the other hand, felt that, as long as opposition continued, there would be no peace and the country would be ruined. ‘She feels all these things most deeply’, Margaret observed. Later she noted that Mrs de Kok queried whether it was God’s will that they should keep the land, and she grieved over the continued conflict. The men also debated about whether they should continue the war. Margaret accompanied a group of Boers to a farmhouse where future strategy was discussed. Sarel Haasbroek boasted that he would invade the Cape and destroy public property. Mr Pienaar grieved that the British did not keep their promises and did not respect the church. Old Izak remarked sadly that it was the women and children who would suffer – thus it was in all wars. Whatever their views, all shared a common contempt for the hendsoppers – those who had surrendered.2

By October 1900 increasing numbers of families were being brought into Winburg and Margaret Marquard listed those who came from around Doornberg, near the Sand River. Their homes, she noted, had been burnt and they had little but a few bags of grain. Some had suffered severely.

The Fourie people were brought to town in one party, on open wagons, without having granted them the opportunity of getting food prepared for the journey. On the road a little tinned beef was given, and once a plate of flour to the women to make something for the younger children: as they were setting about it the alarm was given that the Boers were near, the party must go on, so go on they did: the consequence was that when they got to some bad pools of water there was no restraining the children: they would drink, hungry and thirsty as they were. Of these twenty children nearly every one took very ill with dysentery after reaching town: the only child of Piet Fourie, about 2 years old, died on Wednesday the 3rd. Oct.’.3

One of the worst aspects of the occupation was the arbitrariness of the military. An order went out that country people might not buy in the shops without permits but Mrs Viviers was able to get liberal rations and 10s a week from the British, while old Ockert Schalkwyk, released from gaol, received meat and potatoes daily. By this time most of the families who had been brought in by the troops were entirely dependent on the military for their food and, often, for accommodation as well. In a number of cases they had come to Winburg for daily purchases and had not been allowed to return to their farms.4

From Margaret Marquard’s account it is clear that Winburg camp came into being without planning or forethought. Lieutenant Trefford Lewis of the Cape Mounted Rifles was put in charge of this growing number of ‘undesirables’. A doctor was appointed to care for them, along with a trained nurse, Miss Watson. Early reports were brief, bland and unhelpful but by March 1901 there were 566 people in the camp. Brought in in such a haphazard fashion, most were short of clothing and necessities.5

Winburg is a puzzling camp. It was not particularly unhealthy despite complaints to the contrary. The constant movement of Boer families between Bloemfontein and Winburg made it impossible to prevent the spread of epidemic disease and scurvy had made its appearance by August 1901. The hospital was small and unable to cope with the growing number of typhoid cases and there was no provision at all for children who should be separated from the adults, the medical officers explained. The camps were overcrowded and there was not enough water for the people to wash properly. The children who were coming to the dispensary were filthy, the doctors complained. Then, on 13 July 1901, a large group from Bloemfontein brought measles with them. But the epidemic was dealt with promptly. A separate measles camp was set up, under the care of the admirable Dutch volunteer nurse, Sister Bakkes, with the two doctors alternating weekly in their supervision of the measles camp. This quick response could not prevent the spread of the epidemic through the camp but it may have reduced mortality, for the death rate in Winburg was relatively low.6

But Winburg was a deeply unhappy camp in which many of the inmates were treated with undue severity by the British military authorities. One factor may have been the class of people in the camp. Margaret Marquard’s letters suggest that Winburg had a relatively well-educated community and the Boers may have been unusually vocal. Hester van der Hoven, for instance, wrote to the chief superintendent, complaining about the food and the lack of clothing for the children. Unlike any other camp, women such as Hester were designated as ‘undesirables’ and housed separately in an old showyard in the town, where they were regarded as prisoners. The showyard camp was bitterly uncomfortable for it was small, cramped, and surrounded by a high corrugated iron fence, so that the people had no view but the sky. Not surprisingly, health deteriorated. The one bright note was the arrival of Sister Bakkes. ‘She is a ray of light for the camp’, one of the inmates observed.7

But the showyard people were not easy to manage. The superintendent claimed that the van der Hoven family was one of the most recalcitrant but they were not alone. When a military funeral passed the gate of the camp it was greeted with ‘indecorous’ noises and stones were thrown. The superintendent threatened the perpetrators with a diet of biscuit and water. He warned that:

The few women who may perhaps insist upon being treated as prisoners of war I propose installing in the new wire camp or ‘cage’ until they notify their wish to behave as reasonable beings   at the same time it will not surprise me to have little necessity to adopt this form of coercion’.8

To the anger of the superintendent, now Lieutenant L.W. Graham-Clarke, the local British commandant also insisted in fencing in the second camp on the grounds that men were absconding. Since the military regularly removed men from the camp without consulting him, the superintendent was unable to check on them properly. Major Goold Adams, the Deputy Administrator of the ORC, sympathised but he could not prevent the military from wiring in the second camp. The military imposed other petty restrictions as well. Sister Alma, a Dutch nurse, was prevented from going to Winburg because of her pro-Boer sympathies. Dr Molesworth, the first of the full-time camp doctors, was incensed. Sister Bakkes had been a great success and he wanted another like her.

My experience here among the refugees has convinced me that a nurse who not only speaks the language of the people, but also who can take a personal interest in them is far better fitted for the work than one who can do neither. If you are not prepared to support an additional nurse for this camp, I should much prefer for more reasons than one to have two Dutch nurses, rather than one Dutch and one English’.9

But this was only one side of the story for a substantial number of Winburg men also joined the British volunteer forces. Winburg became the centre for several dissident Boers who had lost faith in the republican cause. Amongst them was O.M. Bergh, who acquired a particularly unsavoury reputation for the violence with which he attacked the Boers. His irregular force, which consisted of both blacks and whites, appears to have been recruited largely from the Winburg camps. Better-known was Commandant S.G. Vilonel, a well-educated and affluent lawyer from the Senekal district. After falling out with the Boer leadership and losing heart in the conflict, Vilonel took up arms against his erstwhile comrades. He was given every assistance by the British and allowed to recruit freely amongst the men in Winburg camp. In early January 1902 the superintendent complained that, with a contingent of 250 men joining Bergh’s Scouts, he had hardly any men left in the camp to do the work. Head office noted that it was thoroughly desirable that the men should join the forces; if need be, black men could be employed to do the campwork, or even black women, an unprecedented step. Both Bergh’s Scouts and Vilonel’s men strolled freely through the camp to visit their friends and the superintendent was often uncertain whether the men who had disappeared were deserters or British recruits. The military suggested that men be sent from other camps to help with the work in Winburg but no other camp was willing to spare the able-bodied men either.10

Dr Radloff, who was sent to inspect Winburg camp in mid-October 1901, was not unsympathetic to Graham-Clarke’s plight.

To have a camp of refugees, consisting of such a very mixed class of people, some, who have left beautiful homes behind with most of their goods and brought little with them; others again with a bitter feeling of having been taken away against their wish, others on the other hand, who have nothing to lose and ought to be glad to get food and shelter, require very peculiar management and very few men will be found with such tact, as to bring about that satisfaction so needful under these distressing circumstances and still it must be our aim to do exactly that for these people, which must eventually bring about a feeling of trust and confidence, to convince all that the step taken by our government is the best at the moment.11

Undoubtedly Graham-Clarke had a particularly difficult task in Winburg camp. And there were administrative problems as well. Winburg lay on black pot clay which became viscous in the rain. The camps were short of water for, as in most places, the town itself was small, undeveloped and lacking in the infrastructure to cope, not only with an influx of white refugees, but a large military encampment and some 4,000 black refugees as well. Moreover, because it was so close to Bloemfontein, Winburg camp was dependent on the capital for its supplies and these were often not forthcoming. Where most camp stores flourished, in Winburg, where there was eventually an excess of six shops, they struggled to survive, despite the fact that the camp inmates were not allowed to shop in the town without a permit. The shortage of goods for the townspeople was the reason for this restriction, it was explained. Part of the problem was that the camp stores had no stock. The superintendent begged that more goods should be sent from Bloemfontein. Jams and ‘small dainties’ were needed, as well as fat which would help greatly in making food edible.12

But there was an undercurrent of discontent with the Winburg superintendent. Not only did he clash with the commandant; he was also odds with some of his staff. There was a tangled complaint from Mr G.J. Perry, a local photographer, who acted for a time as assistant superintendent. After falling out with Graham-Clarke, despite his claims to be a ‘right-minded and loyal British subject’, he was replaced by Mr Cecil van Heyningen, a camp inmate who worked at the magistrate’s office in town. The latter, Graham-Clarke declared, got on better with the women. Eventually Graham-Clarke was dismissed, primarily because of his inability to manage the men. He was indignant about the decision:

but I cannot now refrain from saying that I consider the course adopted rather unjust, as my worst enemy cannot say that I have not conscientiously done my work for government and for the improvement of my camp. Had I studied the refugees more than government there would probably have been no complaints. On the occasion of your visit I asked you if you remember kindly to call up all the men in camp and to put the matter to them. If this had been done I think you would have seen things in a different light. As it was known you went round the camp, and all the men who had grievances were either non workers or persons whose conduct had previously warranted my giving them a telling off’.13

The Ladies Committee visited Winburg camp at the end of October 1901, just as Graham-Clarke was replaced by Edward Alexander, formerly the assistant superintendent at Norvals Pont. ‘We were very glad a man had been sent from such a good training school, as there is much to be set right in this camp, both as regards the management of the people, the arrangement of rations and difficulty of water supply’, they wrote. A major source of the friction, the Ladies believed, were the returned prisoners-of-war (men who had taken the oath of neutrality in Green Point and been allowed back to the ORC). There were 180 of them in Winburg camp and the Ladies considered them the cause of most of the trouble.

Four of them have deserted to rejoin commando. Seven would not work, and were sentenced to three months’ hard labour. Some have been sent to Bloemfontein, and some sent to the showyard, where, being housed for the most in the houses on good high ground, and with much less supervision than could be exercised n the camp, they are “enjoying themselves too much,” and the Superintendent intends to move them down to the camp. If they are unruly they will be sent without further delay out of the country’.14

The main camp was divided into two parts and the Ladies thought it neither smart nor tidy. Tents were not regularly laid out and there was no order in the way in which they were grouped. The showyard camp was too small and they proposed moving the people back to the main camp and keep the showyard as a convalescent camp. Finally ten of the most ‘dangerous’ women were sent away from Winburg and the remainder of the showyard people were reintegrated into the main camp. But the Ladies considered water to be ‘the question of the camp’.15

The Ladies Committee commented in some detail on the school. A new headmaster, Mr Haupt, had just taken over from the previous man, who had been unpopular. There were 300 children on the books, with about 200 attending regularly, hardly a large number in a camp of over 1,700 children. The Ladies gave a description of teaching methods in the school, clearly calculated to allow for the lack of materials.

His plan is to teach almost entirely through the teacher and the blackboard, and not by book, and to have plenty of pictures to interest the children and make them talk about them in English. In order to show the system the first assistant gave a lesson on a picture card. She made the children describe the different scenes and write their answers, often spelling the words wrongly, to catch the children who were most bright in finding out mistakes, and finally made them copy the whole on their slates’.16

Then there was a problem with the newly-arrived English teachers who felt that they were not getting the food they anticipated, since the doctor was withholding medical comforts – jam, sago and such luxuries. Winburg was the only camp, apart from Harrismith, where the teachers did not get a kind reception, W.N. Russell, the assistant director of education remarked, and the new Winburg superintendent had recently come from Harrismith. Russell urged that they be better fed. ‘Their work, if they do it conscientiously, is fatiguing and their strength needs to be kept up’, he explained.17

Despite the closing down of the showground camp and the arrival of a new superintendent, things did not settle down in Winburg. By January 1902 Dr Molesworth and the superintendent were at odds, squabbling over petty matters. Finally Molesworth resigned in a huff. When Inspector Tonkin visited Winburg at the end of January 1902, he thought that ‘This camp is just awful. The hospital is a disgrace. The sanitation is vile’. In a later report he elaborated.

The sanitary arrangements here are bad. . . . There is no practical disinfection. In the show yard they are awful for this yard there is no disinfection, no English supervisor (excepting an occasional visit from the Supt), and no trained nursing. Here almost every child has a nasal discharge, this is evidently infectious, my own recent English experience leads me to believe this to be diphtheritic. I have isolated the camp. ‘

Amongst the deficiencies in Winburg camp was the lack of tent inspections, the lack of doctors, ‘this is a three doctor camp’, Tonkin explained, and the fact that the doctors did not live in the camp. Tonkin’s comments were greatly resented by the doctors, however, who believed that the children’s discharge was due to pertussis (whooping cough).18

A further oddity about Winburg camp was the number of women who were allowed to return to their farms before the end of the war, despite the objections of the superintendent. He discovered, to his surprise, that several women had applied to the military to be allowed to leave camp and mule wagons were provided to take them home. All seem to have been the wives of burgher scouts – men who had joined the British volunteer forces. To the superintendent’s objection head office commented only, ‘Don't send any woman whose husband is a prisoner of war unless her mother or other near relation with authority goes with her. Choose who you like otherwise’. In the end a handful of women returned to their farms.19

Desertions continued as well and in April 1902 superintendent Alexander reported that two more men had absconded that night, in heavy rain, further adding to his labour difficulties. ‘These men were all well conducted and hard working and although there political ideas were more or less known to both myself and authorities, I never received any tangible report concerning them’, he explained. A military enquiry followed, one witness suggesting that the superintendent had been drunk at the time but it seems in fact, that on this miserable night, he had gone to bed early with a good book.20

For some time the authorities debated the advisability of moving Winburg camp to a new site or setting up a separate camp for the loyalists. The old camp was cramped and overcrowded and needed, at least, to be extended. Slops had never been removed but had always been thrown out of the tents, so that the ground was permeated with filth. Against this, the new site was some distance from the railway, necessitating the building of a new siding and the soil was still the same sticky pot clay. With the declaration of peace, however, all these plans were abandoned.21

Repatriation started promptly. Transport was a major consideration and Winburg camp engaged 50 drivers, 50 voorlopers and 6 conductors to take the families home. But the process was a slow one, for families had to be brought back from the coastal camps, while surrendered burghers and prisoners-of-war also came in to rejoin their families before returning to their homes. This considerable movement of people entailed a good deal of work for the camp staff. In addition, relief camps were established to cater for the indigent who had no homes to return to. Mushroom Valley, eighteen miles south of Winburg was one such site, where a dam was planned. The daily rate of pay was 4s 6d for the men and 1s 6d to 3s for the boys. Tents, hospitals, medical attendance and schools were provided free but families were expected to purchase their own food at stores where rates were fixed by the Relief Works Department. The Winburg superintendent reported that there was a considerable demand for this work. Widows and the infirm, in the meantime, along with orphans, were sent on to Brandfort camp. By mid-November there were about 680 people left in Winburg, most still waiting for transport to take them to their destinations. Prisoners-of-war who were still returning prevented the closure of the camp and in January there were still 150 people lingering, primarily because of lack of transport. Winburg was finally closed on 6 January 1903.22

Almost unnoticed, alongside the white camp in Winburg was at least one black camp. In August 1901 the Winburg superintendent complained that 130 black refugees had been brought in but he had no provision for them. Should they be sent to Brandfort, he asked. The existence of a black camp was recorded in September 1901 and the number may have increased gradually from that point. In April 1902 it was noted that nearly 4,000 people had been taken out of the Winburg camps and relocated in a newly-formed protected area, similar to that which existed in Thaba ‘Nchu. The statistics recorded over 3,500 under the care of O.M. Bergh (of Bergh’s Scouts), while another 800 appear to have been in a separate camp.23


A.M. Grundlingh, Die Hensoppers en Joiners. Die Rasionaal en Verskynsel van Verraad (Pretoria, HAUM, 1979).

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

M. Marquard, Letters from a Boer parsonage. Letters of Margaret Marquard during the Boer War, ed. by Leo Marquard (Cape Town, Purnell, 1967)

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

SRC and CO files in the Free State Archives Repository [FSAR].

SNA files in the National Archives, Pretoria [NASA].

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

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 83-88.

1 Marquard, Letters, p.74, 80.

2 Marquard, Letters, pp.83, 85-86, 112-114.

3 Marquard, Letters, p.107.

4 Marquard, Letters, pp.110, 117-118, 119; Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.57.

5 FSAR, SRC 1/51, 7/2/1901; SRC 3/673, 1/3/1901; SRC 3/666, 14/3/1901.

6 FSAR, SRC 12/4454, 14/8/1901; Cd 893, p.83.

7 FSAR, SRC 4/810, 23/3/1901; SRC 6/1796, 3/5/1901; Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, pp.252-255.

8 FSAR, SRC 15/5668, 25/9/1901.

9 FSAR, SRC 10/3360, 5/7/1901; SRC 13/4901, 13/9/1901.

10 Grundlingh, Hendsoppers en Joiners, pp.174-175; 251-257; FSAR, SRC 18/7033, 2/1/1902; SRC 21/8040, 4/4/1902; SRC 23/8400, 29/4/1902.

11 FSAR, SRC 14/5436, 12/10/1901.

12 FSAR, SRC 16/6516, 11/12/1901; Cd 893, pp.85-86.

13 FSAR, SRC 14/5389, 30/9/1901; SRC 14/5395, 9/10/1901.

14 Cd 893, p.87.

15 Cd 893, p.83; NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 42229, 9/11/1901; FSAR, SRC 16/6504, 4/12/1901.

16 Cd 893, p.87.

17 FSAR, SRC 23/8378, 1/5/1902.

18 FSAR, SRC 19/7321, 17/1/1902; SRC 19/7450, 31/1/1902; SRC 19/7423, 3/2/1902; SRC 19/7441, 3/2/19022.

19 FSAR, SRC 19/7445, 6/2/1902.

20 FSAR, SRC 23/8308, 26/4/1902; SRC 21/8064, 3/4/1902; SRC 21/8040, 4/4/1902.

21 FSAR, SRC 23/8424, 5/5/1902; SRC 24/8684, 2/6/1902; SRC 25/8763, 12/6/1902.

22 FSAR, SRC 26/9224, 14/7/1902; SRC 30/10251, October 1902; SRC 30/10201, 4/11/1902; SRC 30/10289, 15/11/1902; SRC 32/10554, 21/12/1902; SRC 32/10608, 4/1/1903; SRC 33/10775, 23/2/1903.

23 Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.230; FSAR, SRC 12/4437, 26/8/1901; CO 1254/02, 28/4/1902; NASA, SNA 44, May 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.