Before the war, Springfontein was a sleepy little hamlet, consisting of about 15 houses and a few shops. It was also a mission station, run by the Berlin Mission Society, with Reverend Christoph Sandrock in charge. His purpose was to convert and assist the black railway workers on the newly built railways. Sandrock remained at Springfontein during the war, and assisted Emily Hobhouse in caring for the destitute women and children.
Springfontein became a very important logistics centre in the war, as it was the junction between two railway lines – from East London and from Port Elizabeth/Cape Town.
Download the Springfontein map (PDF) here.
Springfontein developed rapidly into an important military camp. By April 1900, there were more than 10 000 troops at Springfontein, but many were soon moved north as part of the British campaign against the Transvaal. Springfontein remained an important transport base. Its defence was concentrated on Gibraltar Hill to the east of the railway line. The hill was encircled by a system of stone walls, sangars, trenches, sentry-posts and two gun emplacements – all can still be seen today. There was also an ammunition depot. A fair-sized unit stayed behind to undertake operations against the burgher commandos during the guerilla warfare period. To the north-west of the station was the Remount Depot and Veterinary Hospital. Only the waste dumps remain (Blackie de Swardt, 963 Days at the Junction, p. 49).
GPS co-ordinates: -30.273979, 25.717131
The main cemetery
The main cemetery is located about 1 km east of the station. It was initially used for British soldiers that died around the time of the occupation, but in time became used for Boer graves. It contains the remains of nearly 700 Boer women and children and men, and some 300 British soldiers.
The children’s cemetery
There is a separate cemetery of 37 unbaptised children, west of “De Bome”. No-one has ever figured out why unbaptised children were buried in a separate cemetery, away from their families, but it was probably a rule introduced by Rev Sandrock, the local missionary.
The British occupy Springfontein
Springfontein fell into British hands on 15 March 1900, after the Boers retreated northwards to Bloemfontein.
The story of its “capture” is a wonderful anecdote: Two enterprising British scouts, Captains Hennessey (of the Cape Police) and Turner (of the McNeill Scouts), who had arrived at Bethulie, had heard that the railway line to Springfontein was intact and unprotected. On their own initiative, they stole a hand trolley and covered the 40 km to Springfontein. To their surprise, they found the Boer guards fast asleep at Springfontein station. The two captains apprehended the Boers, disarmed them, and took them prisoner. On the next day, the British brought two engines and 40 wagons from Springfontein to Bethulie. This was very important for the British, as they needed rolling stock.
Rice Block House
Between June 1901 and January 1902, a system of block houses was established along the railway line to the north and south of Springfontein. These block houses were mostly of the “Rice” type, and we can still see their foundations near the railway lines between Bethulie, Springfontein, Norvals Pont and Trompsburg. Karoospace provides a wonderful description of the Blockhouse.
The Springfontein block house is located on Prior Grange Guest Farm, and the owner will take visitors to see this well-preserved bit of war heritage.
Springfontein Concentration Camp
Springfontein also became a major concentration camp for Boer women, children and other non-combatants. Some of these people were considered “neutral” or pro-British, and were therefore called “refugees”, and received preferential treatment. Those considered to be pro-Boer were described as “undesirables”, and their conditions were more dire, with high levels of disease and mortality. The town of Springfontein is, today, located on the actual site of the camp. Follow this link to the UCT BCCD's detailed description of the camp.
The camp was established in February 1901. Nothing remains of the camp or the site of the Welsh Field Hospital which served the Boer women and children.
The laundry area (washing stone) remains, where the inhabitants washed their clothes. The water works also survived, as well as Rev Sandrock’s house at De Bome where Emily Hobhouse stayed on her visits to the Concentration Camp in 1901.
The most-often cited event in Springfontein during the war
Springfontein station is important for another reason – it became (indirectly) the inspiration for the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein. In May 1901, Emily Hobhouse was visiting the Springfontein camp. There she found about 600 Boer women and children, waiting to be transported to Bethulie camp (as Springfontein camp was too full). They had been travelling for two days without food. These people were traumatised, as their farms and homes had been burnt down. Emily sent Rev Sandrock’s young daughter, Clara, to buy as much food for them as she could.
Then, ten days later, Emily passed through Springfontein again – and the same women and children were still there! They had no tents. Some were sheltering under train trucks. Their condition was appalling. One of the most famous episodes of the war then took place. Emily was called to see a sick baby. In Emily’s own words: “The mother sat on her little trunk with the child across her knee. She had nothing to give it and the child was sinking fast … There was nothing to be done and we watched the child draw its last breath in reverent silence. The mother neither moved nor wept. It was her only child. Dry-eyed but deathly white, she sat there motionless looking not at the child but far, far away into depths of grief beyond all tears. A friend stood behind her who called upon Heaven to witness this tragedy and others crouching on the ground around her wept freely”.
Years later, Emily’s memory of the young woman holding a dead child became the inspiration for Anton van Wouw’s famous statue at the Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein.
The wartime history of Springfontein is captured, in diary form, in the book by Blackie de Swardt, 963 Days at the Junction. Contact Blackie here.
When Emily visited Springfontein, she stayed over at Rev Sandrock's home, called Die Bome ("The Trees"), which still survives.