Britain in the World
Events gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Events of 1901

How much was the general public at home allowed to know about what was happening in South Africa? All press correspondents had to be licensed by the army, and all letters and telegrams to their newspapers were liable to be censored before dispatch. A report by the press censor, Colonel Stanley, in July 1900 argued that war reporters were there to stay 'owing to the very justifiable demand of the public for news', and that 'for the future every force in the field will be accompanied by a certain number of correspondents, and an endeavour should be made to weed out the undesirables'.


'The Hand of the Censor' - link to an enlarged version
The Daily Mail
The dispatches of the Commander-in-Chief of the British army were regularly printed in The Times, which, in general terms, urged support for the war and those fighting it. Yet the circulation of those papers that were read by the elite of 'opinion-shapers' was tiny. Less deferential was the mass-market Daily Mail, which sometimes described the immediacy of combat in words that might have come from the lips of a modern TV reporter - 'the rifle-firing sounds like the frying of fat or like the crackling and snapping of green wood in a bonfire'.

The Daily Mail attacked War Office mismanagement and urged vigorous prosecution of the war: an editorial of 7 July 1901 condemned 'this precipitate anxiety on the part of the British authorities to negotiate…Let arms decide what no amount of talk can settle'. The editor of the more sober Westminster Gazette accused the Daily Mail's owner, Alfred Harmsworth, of warmongering to boost circulation.

In June 1901, the Daily Mail ran a story claiming that the Boers had shot wounded British prisoners in an action at Vlakfontein. This was denied in Parliament by the Secretary of State for War, William Brodrick. However, General Kitchener acknowledged in confidence to the War Office that there was some evidence that prisoners had been shot. On July 27 the Daily Mail published a leaked telegram from Kitchener on the subject, and in response the War Office imposed a news blackout on the paper and stripped Edgar Wallace, the Mail's reporter in South Africa, of his accreditation. In turn, the Daily Mail accused the War Office of 'suppressing facts and prevarication'. On 9 August Kitchener told Colonel Stanley that the 'Daily Mail has in my opinion prolonged the war three weeks or a month more than it would have lasted otherwise. Harmsworth can calculate from casualty lists what he is responsible for. I think you should institute press censorship at home'.

By mid-August, however, an accommodation had been reached with the press baron, although the following year the Daily Mail was so keen to break the news of the peace settlement that it evaded censorship controls by sending coded telegrams, purporting to be about investments.

No need for censorship?

African woman selling arms to troops - link to an enlarged version One area about which the British public at home was particularly ill-informed was the role of Africans in the war, although this was clearly a factor in the Boer decision to reach a peace settlement in May 1902. For a variety of reasons (stemming from the racial hierarchy on which the empire was based), news reporters showed little interest in recording black experiences. In this important respect, the copious photographs, drawings, films and reporting of the war that survive fail to reflect its reality.
Old Friends and Enemies? The Problem of Isolation The Empire Moving to Britain The South African War Censorship Methods of Barbarism?