BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Apart from the ‘authorised’ camps which produced regular monthly reports and statistics, there were a number of informal sites where refugees congregated at military posts and were rationed by the British army. Some such groups, like those at Warrenton or Ladybrand, were eventually transferred to formal camps. The one exception was Vryburg, where the white camp was eventually absorbed into the main Transvaal system as an ‘authorised’ camp. At what point Vryburg camp came into being is not clear. The first reference to its existence appeared in April 1901. The inmates were then listed as 100 whites, 40 ‘undesirables’ and 1,061 blacks; at the end of June 1901 there were still only 201 white inmates. Vryburg was. therefore, primarily a black camp, although it is mainly the whites whose history is recorded. There is no trace of Vryburg in the black camp statistics and the fate of these people is unclear. Charles van Onselen, however, records that, when Holpan farm near Schweizer-Reineke was burnt by the British, the black residents were taken to Vryburg and installed in a makeshift camp in the location. Much later they were probably moved to an official black camp.1

Vryburg was located just south of Mafeking in the Cape Colony, on the sparsely-populated Cape-Transvaal border. Like Kimberley, its inmates included colonial rebels as well as Transvalers. These ‘Bechuanalanders’, as they were known, were regarded with deep suspicion by the British, who were often harsh in their treatment of the renegade families, giving them inferior rations and no fuel. Vryburg had been ‘a great rebel centre’ the Ladies Committee explained, and the camp had been started to house ‘undesirables, Colonial rebels and their wives and families, and other irreconcilables and evil doers’, as Dr Kendal Franks phrased it. The men and boys constantly escaped from the camp to give information to the enemy.2

The presence of the colonial rebels called into question the rationale of the entire camp system. Unlike the republicans, they were often recalcitrant, reluctant to work (although the evidence on this was contradictory), resistant to discipline and a number of the men absconded. In December 1901 the local British commandant responded with a heavy hand, demanding that all the men in the camp be confined to a prison enclosure at night. Later he suggested that the colonial rebels should not be paid for their work. Both Superintendent Pritchard and Inspector Scholtz objected strongly to this interference in the management of the camp. But Pritchard put his finger on the real problem – were the camps prisons or havens of shelter?

If a man is a rebel let him be punished to the utmost rigour of the law, but until he is arrested, tried and found guilty, well he ought to be treated at any rate as well as another in the same Camp. It is well known that forced labour is not in many ways equal to labour performed by men being paid and who take an interest in the work. This has been the case in this Camp. I have had no trouble to get the men to work at the rates laid down by myself. They have taken an interest in all they have done. I think it would be a great pity if any alterations were made’.

Pritchard was fiercely loyal to his staff but his comment is also an indication of the centrality of the Boer men to the running of the camps.

. . . it would not be fair for men to work for nothing for others whose husbands were being paid. Besides can it be expected from me [for them] to work in a manner as they have been and not to be paid. The wages might be reduced if thought advisable, but to receive nothing at all seems to me wrong. Take for instance a man like my clerk Schindehutte who has worked so hard and has been of such service to me. Could it be expected of him to do that work for nothing? Then there is Van Bergen our able and energetic Sanitary Inspector always ready, and du Preez the Oven Corporal, Venter, foreman of works, Britz the Milk Corporal who works that Department so well, Wessels workman, and Britz the Carpenter, Myburgh the devoted worker in the Hospital. Really these men together with so to say every other Colonial here, have worked hard and well’.3

The Ladies Committee visited Vryburg on 23 August 1901, before it had been taken over by the civilian administration, so we have a rare description of a military-run camp. They found a place which was poorly situated, in a hollow with bad drainage. The military had chosen the spot because, ever conscious of security, they wanted it within the redoubt and it was near a good water supply. The camp was run in an ad hoc fashion, The superintendent, by the name of Hanney, was a local farmer. When the Ladies arrived, he was absent in Kimberley giving evidence at a trial for high treason, and the gate keeper, van Rensburg, had been left in charge. It was not clear whether this ‘unauthorised’ camp fell under the jurisdiction of the Transvaal, the ORC or the Cape. No registers had been kept and no reports had been sent in. With some difficulty the committee established that it was under the control of the local officer commanding, Lord Methuen. In a place which was run so irregularly, the inmates were bitterly discontented, and they besieged the Ladies with complaints. There was no school, no clergyman, no nurse, no doctor, and much sickness.4

The first superintendent, W.H.H. Pritchard arrived only on 5 October, when he found the storekeeper, J.J. Briggs in charge, ‘in a way’. What he discovered was a badly neglected camp. There was:

A camp cramped up in a corner; practically without any arrangements; measles and typhoid raging; no hospital arrangements so to say; with the greatest difficulty getting even food cooked for the patients; a visiting doctor with very little time to spare, working under extremely difficult circumstances, so much so, that I was surprised he continued’.5

The sick remained with their families, although within a hospital enclosure. The nurses, along with the superintendent and his assistant, all had to live in the hotel, which made nursing difficult. Under these circumstances mortality soared, with two deaths a day in this tiny population of 760.6

Pritchard decided immediately that the camp had to be moved to a site on a slope, further from the town. There he set about creating an ideal camp. As a trained surveyor he was able to lay it out with a ‘regularity and judgment’, which Dr Kendal Franks described in considerable detail. Straight lines, wide streets and numbered tents were established. A ‘kitchen lane’ was built between the sets of tents, ‘arranged in a line’. A sanitary inspector, an ‘educated’ colonial, was appointed. Drains were dug and wells sunk, the spot pointed out by a ‘Boer water expert’, probably a diviner. The camp men worked willingly, digging trenches, sinking a well, brick making and performing general sanitary jobs. Because there was so much to do, Pritchard refused to allow the Boer men to work outside the camp, where they were better paid, but they seem to have accepted this ruling. A shed now served as a church and the people were ‘kindly’ granted land by the commandant for their own cemetery, some forty minutes walk from the camp. The school, however, had been closed because of the epidemics and lacked suitable buildings.7

Dr Kendal Franks visited Vryburg camp on 14 October, very shortly after Pritchard had arrived. It was clear that Pritchard’s presence had already made a considerable difference to this neglected place. Familiar camp routines were now followed. One of the main difficulties at this stage was the lack of qualified medical staff. The hospital matron, Sister Helen Payne, was an energetic and capable woman and the doctor, Dr Faber, was equally competent, but he had a private practice in town and, if the camp grew, would not have the time to attend to its needs. Franks urged that more qualified staff be sent to Vryburg as soon as possible. With the arrival of Dr Allan McCulloch, from Cape Town’s plague hospital, and British nurses, along with the appointment of matrons and Boer ‘probationers’, the medical situation eased and mortality began to drop.8

The Ladies Committee returned to Vryburg in November 1901, when they found a very different camp. Numbers had trebled to 1,152 people, with another 117 living on rations in the town. Nevertheless, a great deal remained to be done, particularly in improving the sanitation. But the greatest lack in the camp was fuel. Officially the inmates each received 1 lb of wood a day, but the Ladies described a week’s ration consisting only of a single log, 6 inches in diameter and 3 foot 6 inches long – an impossible amount, they considered. As a result of this shortage, water could not be boiled, which contributed to the typhoid. Coffee, which was supplied in the form of beans, could not be roasted - or ground, since there were only fourteen coffee mills in the camp (eventually a coffee-grinding tent was erected to solve this problem). Above all, the food could not be properly cooked. ‘Too little fuel means half-cooked food, and half-cooked food is a great cause of sickness’, the Ladies observed. In the hospital enteric stools could not be burnt, further contributing to the spread of disease.9

In many other respects the camp remained a work in progress. Pritchard was well aware of this and wrote regretfully, ‘It was a pity that their visit [of the Ladies Committee] was at such an inopportune time when everything was in an unfinished state’. Some tents were overcrowded, although new arrivals were about to receive more tents. There was no proper system for issuing rations although Pritchard was about to reorganise this. Beds still had to be constructed. There was no school and no religious minister, Pritchard himself conducting services. The shop, run by a local Vryburg firm, was about to be replaced by a Poynton’s store, to the anger of the Vryburg people. ‘There is at all times a very bitter feeling between the town and the camp’, the Ladies observed, ‘and this is intensified by giving the camp store to a Pretoria firm’. Inspector Scholtz, when he visited Vryburg early in December 1901, also commented on this friction. ‘The feeling of Townspeople against those in Camp is acute’, he noted. ‘At the same time I notice they are very anxious to make as much out of the Camp as they can’.10

At the end of 1901 Kitchener had ordered that the camps should take in no more people but families continued to enter Vryburg camp in 1902, putting considerable pressure on the available facilities. Although the fuel problem had been solved, in the summer water became a greater issue in this arid area. Wells had been sunk to supply drinking water but laundry was more difficult. The women had to wash in a furrow some two miles away, escorted there by the burgher police. Before the January rains the supply dried up and Pritchard urged that a reservoir be dug near the camp since, although the quantity had increased, the arrival of a large military convoy with many cattle had drained the dams. The camp’s water was contingent partly upon the town’s supply which, in turn, depended on the work which the military did. Superintendent Pritchard visited the town water supply in March 1902 and noted that the military had been laying extensive piping and had cleaned the furrows. Once the town’s supply was better, he noted, the camp would also benefit.11

The lack of water also made it impossible to establish a vegetable garden and, by January 1902, scurvy threatened. Lime juice was hastily issued. Despite the limitations of the water supply, at some point a vegetable garden was started for, in July 1902, the superintendent noted that it was irrigated from a running stream. Once the measles epidemic had subsided and an improved water supply and sanitation had reduced the typhoid, the health of the camp improved. But towards the end of summer the camp was struck by a type of malaria ‘peculiar to the neighbourhood, and known by some as “Kimberley Fever”’. Fortunately it had no long-term ill effects. Vryburg was, in fact, less unhealthy than many camps. But, although the actual numbers were small nevertheless, at its peak the mortality rate was fairly high. The relatively large numbers of adults who died suggests that typhoid took its toll.12

By the end of November Pritchard felt that matters had improved considerably. Public ovens partly relieved the fuel shortage and he had contracted with a firm supplying Mafeking, just to the north, to send more wood. Sanitation had improved and the grounds were properly trenched to upgrade the drainage.13

The philosophy of camp administration had changed markedly by this time. In the early months economy had been the watchword but, by December 1901, the driving desire was to improve the health of the inmates and, where possible, to reconcile them to British rule. Pritchard had yet to understand this, Inspector Scholtz explained. ‘Mr Pritchard has had no easy time, for he has had very little assistance. He, like most other Superintendents, was under the impression that it was economy, and nothing but that. I have endeavoured to assist and enlighten him as much as possible’.14

Pritchard resigned in March 1902, to be replaced by Colonel Macdonald, who took a keen interest in the attitude of the Vryburg people. He reported that they were:

Friendly and amenable outwardly in every case, but it is natural that many must at heart be “bitter” at the loss of near relatives and country. I am constantly in various tents and talk to the people in intimacy, and I gather that in this Camp 40% of the people are sincerely friendly to the English, 30% are tolerant, and 30% unfriendly. The latter are chiefly those [whose] husbands and sons are still “out”. Some estimates given me show as much as 90% of the people “friendly”. This, I think, is too optimistic, but it shows that the general feeling is decidedly good. All agree that the feeling of friendliness steadily increases, which is remarkable during actual war, and augurs well for the future if even reasonable handled’.15

Indeed, Macdonald became increasingly smug about the good behaviour of his people. In May 1902 he noted: ‘They [the Boers] belong entirely to the back-veldt Boer class and there is only one well educated man among them and four reasonably well educated. If this is the attitude of these people they must be exceedingly well behaved elsewhere, but the Boer is of a pliable disposition and it would be foolish to ignore the undercurrents which must exist, and very strong undercurrents too, even if out of sight’. This amenability may have had much to do with the belief cherished by the women in many of the camps that, somehow, they would win the war. But by July 1902, Macdonald thought that:

During July the people seem now gradually to have realised that they have lost the late war. During the war and for a few weeks after its close they still believed that their friends outside were doing well, and when told the truth and that rations outside were scanty and monotonous, would smile and say that [they] had news it was otherwise. Two or three weeks after peace had been made, one old woman asked me if it was really true, as the British flag was still flying in Camp, but now many people have left the Camp to see the condition of their Farm buildings, &c., and the reports they bring back have gradually brought home the truth’.16

Macdonald had nothing to say about the reception of the peace but repatriation started promptly and went forward smoothly. By November 1902 there were only 170 people left in the camp, which closed at the end of that month.17


C. van Onselen, The Seed is Mine. The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894-1985 (Cape Town, David Philip, 1996).

Published camp reports: Cd 902, pp. 113-117.

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

Kendal Franks report: Cd 934, pp. 16-19.

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 161-169.

1 Cd 819, p.16, 41, 113; van Onselen, The Seed is Mine, p.27; FSAR, CO 1492/02, 23/5/1902.

2 Cd 893, p.161; Cd 934, p.17.

3 Cd 934, pp.16-19; NASA, GOV 259, 9/12/1901; DBC 12, January 1902.

4 Cd 893, p.161.

5 Cd 902, p.116.

6 Cd 902, p.114.

7 Cd 902, pp.114-115; Cd 934, pp.16-17.

8 Cd 902, p.116-117;. Cd 934, pp.18-19.

9 Cd 893, p.167; NASA, GOV 259, 9/12/1901.

10 Cd 893, p.166-168; Nov 1901; NASA, GOV 259, 9/12/1901.

11 NASA, DBC 12, February, March 1902.

12 NASA, DBC 12, February, March 1902; DBC 11, July 1902.

13 NASA, DBC 14, November 1901.

14 NASA, GOV 259, 9/12/1901.

15 NASA, DBC 12, April 1902.

16 NASA, DBC 11, May, July 1902.

17 NASA, DBC 11, June 1902; DBC 13, November 1902; PAR, PM 35/3651/02, GSBC 2657/02, 1/12/1902.

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.