Port Elizabeth of Yore: Concentration Camps during the Boer War

During the latter stages of the Boer War and the defeat of the conventional Boer forces, the fighting devolved into a guerrilla war with the open veldt and the scattered Boer farmhouses providing the logistics system. In order to sever this supply line, the farm houses were torched, and the animals slaughtered, in terms of the Scorched Earth policy, while the wives and children were placed in concentration camps. Without this sustenance, all the Boer forces apart from the bitter einders opted to surrender.

Main picture: Memorial at the North End Cemetery to those who died at PE’s Concentration Camp

In many respects, the Concentration Camp in Port Elizabeth did not conform to those camps established in the Boer Republics. 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 grew’. 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. 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.

Unlike the camps in the Boer Republics which only came into existence during the “guerrilla phase” of the war, the Port Elizabeth camp came into existence shortly after the invasion of the Free State. This was as a consequence of a hasty decision by the military, when confronted with the problem of dealing with families who they considered to be particularly undesirable in the field of conflict, of relocating such families.

Memorial to the Concentration Camp

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 from.

The Port Elizabeth concentration camp was the first to be erected during the Anglo Boer War. This was not the only place where ‘foreigners’ were housed in the city though. Refugees – Anglophiles fleeing the Rand – were also housed at the old Fairview racecourse, now the site of Greenacres, and a camp for single men was set up in Prince Alfred’s Park, now the site of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

Memorial of the PE Concentration Camp

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 1900 but Dr Kendal Franks stated that it was started on 13 December 1901 but this appears to be incorrect. Originally sited on Port Elizabeth’s Fairview racecourse, under the care of John Fox Smith as the Race Course Settlement, by March 1901 it had been moved. The PE camp was finally situated on a former PAG camp site, close to the current headquarters of the Eastern Cape Police near Mount Road. The area used to be John Brown’s Dam, today the SA Police Sports Ground in Kemsley Park as well as the Old Grey Sports Field.

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.

Boer War remembered

There were two concentrations camps in what is today Nelson Mandela Bay.  One in Uitenhage and one at Kemsley Park in Port Elizabeth mentioned above. The Uitenhage camp was erected in April 1902 to alleviate the concentration camp crisis based on the recommendations of Emily Hobhouse and implemented by the Fawcett Commission.

The concentration camp in Port Elizabeth operated from October 1901 until approximately November 1902.  It held an average of 230 children and 86 women housed in corrugated iron huts encircled by a high barbed wire fence.  There was also a separate fenced camp for 32 men in tents.  There were very few deaths in this so-called “model camp” compared to the thousands that died in the camps situated in the Boer Republics.  Only 14 deaths were recorded over the period that it was in existence.  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. This camp housed mainly Boers from the Free State from Jagersfontein and Fauresmith, among them General, and later Prime Minister, JBM Hertzog ‘s mother, wife, three sisters-in-law and their children.

Memorial at North End cemetery

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. 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’.

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’.

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.

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.

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.

The sensible, level-headed Afrikaner woman was Miss Hauptfleisch, the camp matron. In the absence of a male camp superintendent, in this very male dominated 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’.

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.

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’.

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 goverment 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’.’

Father and son at unknown concentration camp. Note the British soldier in the background and the pet chicken been held by the boy. 

Amongst themselves, the women and older daughters set about making life more liveable in the camp. To this end, they prepared meals, maintained order, cleaned, organised teaching lessons for the children, held concerts and arranged sporting activities. In order to earn some pocket money, many of the womenfolk offered ironing and clothes making services to the local residents of Port Elizabeth. As a consequence of the scorched earth of the British forces, most of the families were now impoverished, if not, destitute.

Religious services were arranged by visiting clergymen. The congregations in the area and various other groups stepped into the breach by arranging extra food as well as clothing and money.

The camp was closed in September 1902, and subsequently a monument was erected at the Kemsley Park site.

It can be safety assumed that all of eventual total of fourteen deaths in Port Elizabeth are as a result of natural causes. Similarly, the nine deaths at Uitenhage can also be ascribed to natural causes.

Concentration Camp Memorial in Lennox Road, Glendinningvale.

Note: There are numerous different dates provided for the initial opening of the camp as well as its closing. Being unable to ascertain the veracity of the various dates, I have opted to follow the most likely date.


Previous attempts at erecting a memorial on this ground were derailed by the negative attitude of some members of the Town Council. If the Council would not assist with this endeavour, the Afrikaans community took it upon itself to rectify this situation. The Summerstrand branch of Dames Aktueel assisted by the central committee of the Rapportryers, donated R4500 to purchase a plaque to commemorate this difficult period in Afrikaners’ history.

North End Cemetery

During the existence of the of the Concentration Camp – November 1900 and April 1901 – fourteen people died in it. Apart from two paid graves amongst them being the nephew of General J.B.M. Hertzog, the rest are buried in the pauper section of the cemetery. These graves were located in a very neglected part of the cemetery and as the graves do not even possess tombstones, it is extremely difficult to distinguish the graves.

Johannes Albertus Munnik Hertzog

After submissions to the Town Council, they agreed to grant them a piece of ground measuring 6 metres by 12 metres in the area, where most of these graves would have been located, for the erection of a memorial. The Afrikaanse Skakelkomitee took the lead in this regard. Finally on the 10th October 1959, a memorial stele and stone was unveiled, as the high point of the local Kruger Day celebrations.

It was the nephew of Dr Albert Hertzog, also called Albert Hertzog, a child in the camp in 1901, who unveiled the plaque. The names of the victims appear on a granite commemoration stone. But structurally, it was not a permanent solution. Eventually on the 10th October 1970, it was replaced with a concrete memorial at a cost of R1 300. The names, ages, and death of death of the victims are engraved on a marble memorial with the words “Ons vir jou Suid Afrika” inscribed above them.


Afrikanerbakens in Port Elizabeth deur Marius Swart, Andre Appel, Otto Terblanche, Theo Rautenbach (1985, Somerstrandse Tak van Dames Aktueel, Port Elizabeth)

Concentration camp records: https://www2.lib.uct.ac.za/mss/bccd/


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