This post reflects the camp as I saw it in 2008. The situation may have changed since I last saw the camp. Irene was the first ABW concentration camp site that I visited. And is probably the one that had the greatest effect on me. As many people know I really avoid the ABW as a subject because of the emotions it can stir, and because I am of English extraction I will usually get personally blamed for it. Please note that the contact numbers and address on the board below may no longer be correct.
The camp may be found at Google Earth co-ordinates: -25.871277°, 28.220548°, and the address is 11 Stopford Rd, Centurion, Pretoria, 0157, South Africa.
It was really by accident that I saw the camp, we were in the area and I saw the site but it was closed off, so I went looking for a way into it and ended up being directed to a place where I could get the key to the gate. The images I took though were really just a pinprick as I had limited time.
The Irene Concentration Camp was opened on 2 November 1900, the intention being that it would be one of the camps that would house the Boer women and their children that had been driven from their land by the British “scorched earth” policy during the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902. Tragically the conditions in this camp, and most like it, were primitive and very little notice was taken by the authorities of the deaths that were caused by their lack of interest in the unfortunate inmates of the camps. The situation in Irene was also compounded by two uncaring and officious camp commandants who ironically were Afrikaners themselves.
It took women like Emily Hobhouse to raise public awareness about the situation in the camps, to a point where a commission of 6 women under Mrs Millicent Fawcett was established, who went and inspected and made recommendations about improving the camps and the lot of those inside of them. Many other people took it upon themselves to assist where possible and often the dedication of medical staff and volunteers was all help there was. Of particular note is Henrietta Armstrong who kept an unofficial diary about the camp, as well as Hansie Van Warmelo and Hester Cilliers. By the time public opinion had swelled enough to force action it was too late for the thousands of women and children who lost their lives.
Approximately 4000 women and 23000 children died in these camps as a result of exposure, disease, starvation and a lack of medical care. There is no accurate figure available as to how many Africans died in the camps, where they were housed, or even who they were or where they came from. This particular garden of remembrance site is on the site of the camp cemetery. The generally accepted number of dead is 1149, but it is possible that many more are buried here.
The cemetery is a national heritage site, under the protection of the SA Heritage Resource Agency. More information is available from Centurion Heritage Society.
The headstones are symbolic, with names inscribed on both sides of each stone. I did not photograph them all though as I did not have the time. I have 40 headstone faces photographed which equates to about 240 individuals.
Some of the original headstones still exist, and these have been embedded in concrete and are on display, although I believe a number of them were in storage when I was there.
I found it a very emotive site with a strong atmosphere about it that I did not feel in any of the other concentration camp cemeteries that I visited afterwards.
A history of the camp may be found at The British Concentration Camps of the South African War website.
Sadly there is not a lot available in print about the concentration camps, but the following ebooks may be of interest at Gutenberg: Woman’s Endurance by A. D Luckhoff. , The Petticoat Commando by Johanna Brandt. Services of Remembrance are held regularly at the site, and if you do wish to visit it is advisable to first find out whether the site is open or where you may obtain the keys.
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