Hobhouse, Emily (1860–1926)

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Hobhouse, Emily (1860–1926)

British humanitarian and antiwar activist who tried to help the women and children held in concentration camps by the British during the Boer War in South Africa. Pronunciation: HOB-house. Born Emily Hob-house on April 9, 1860, in St. Ive (pronounced Eve), in Cornwall, England; died on June 8, 1926, in London; daughter of Reginald (an Anglican cleric) and Caroline (Trelawny) Hobhouse; educated mainly by governesses; only two terms at a boarding school; never married; no children.

Lived in St. Ive until 1895; went as a missionary to a mining district in Virginia, Minnesota, where she started a Temperance Society and a Public Reading Room; became engaged; went to Mexico City, Mexico, to purchase a ranch for herself and her fiancé; broke engagement and returned to England (1898); became involved with the South African Conciliation Committee; went to South Africa (1900) to help Boers held in concentration camps; campaigned in England to end the war; developed home industries for women and girls in South Africa after the war; actively opposed the First World War; journeyed behind enemy lines, hoping to develop plans to alleviate the suffering of noncombatants and to find an alternative for POW camps; pursued other humanitarian causes after the war.

Selected publications:

The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell (Methuen, 1902). Translated Tant Alie of Transvaal (George Allen and Unwin, 1923). Collected stories and translated War without Glamour (Nascionale Pers Beperk, 1927).

At the close of the 19th century, a war between Great Britain and the two Boer republics in South Africa (the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic) began on October 11, 1899. Although the Boers (Dutch farmers who had settled in South Africa in the 17th century) began the attack, they felt Britain had left them no alternative but to fight to maintain their independence. The struggle was overwhelmingly popular in Britain, where the imperialistic spirit of prevailed. However, a small but vocal minority of Britons opposed the conflict and sought an end to the hostilities. Friends and relatives of Emily Hobhouse were in the forefront of this opposition, and she soon became absorbed in the cause as well. She focused her attention upon the plight of women and children who suffered because their homes had been destroyed. Until the end of the war in 1902, she devoted herself to helping these victims of the conflict. As a result, the Boers came to revere Hobhouse as an angel of mercy.

Emily Hobhouse's concern for others developed early in life. The daughter of Reginald Hobhouse, an Anglican cleric, she assisted her father with his responsibilities for the parish of St. Ive in Cornwall, England, especially after her mother's death in 1880. Reverend Hobhouse and Caroline Trelawny , had eight children, six of whom survived infancy. Emily, the second youngest, was born in St. Ive on April 9, 1860. She was particularly close to her younger brother, Leonard (born in 1865), although she admitted that she envied him and an older brother, Alfred, for the education they received. The formal education of girls was not considered important during this era, so Emily and her sisters were tutored by governesses. Emily, however, did spend two terms at a boarding school when she was about 15 years old. During her youth, Emily also developed a close attachment to her father's brother, Lord Arthur Hobhouse, and his wife Lady Mary Hobhouse , who often cared for their young nieces while Reverend and Mrs. Hob-house spent time on the French Riviera so he could recuperate from illnesses.

Emily Hobhouse's hand it was that first was extended to us in our darkest hour and helped us to climb out of the pit.

—General Jan C. Smuts

While assisting with the church choir, Emily Hobhouse became interested in a young man, the son of a farmer. Her father quickly squelched what seemed to be a budding romance by indicating that he did not think the fellow's origin was a match for his daughter's social status. The young suitor then departed for America. By 1889, Emily Hobhouse was the only one remaining at home to care for her ailing father. During this time, she assumed most of the non-clerical work of the parish. When her father died in 1895, Hobhouse left St. Ive, uncertain of her future.

Believing that church-related work was all she was suited for, Hobhouse requested a mission assignment from the Anglican Church and received an appointment to the town of Virginia, Minnesota, to work among Cornish miners in the iron-mining camps nearby. She arrived there in August 1895. Although she always kept her church work in the forefront, Hobhouse undertook many social and civic projects as well. Appalled by alcoholism prevalent in the area, she established the Virginia Temperance Union. She also helped set up a Public Reading Room. Romantic interests soon developed, and Hobhouse became engaged to marry John C. Jackson, who operated a general store and had served a term as mayor of Virginia. Not much else is known about Jackson, but he seems to have convinced Hobhouse to purchase land in Mexico. In the fall of 1896, Hobhouse went to Mexico City and bought land for a ranch. Evidently, Jackson also persuaded her to invest money in a speculative scheme which eventually failed. After months of waiting for Jackson to join her there, Hobhouse returned for a visit to England in 1897; but by early 1898, she was again in Mexico awaiting Jackson's arrival and their wedding. Within a few months, however, disappointed evidently by his delays and by her financial losses, Hobhouse broke the engagement and returned to England.

By this time, the British-Boer rivalry in South Africa had reached a serious impasse. Negotiations to resolve conflicting claims and demands had produced no results. For almost a century, the British and the Boers (also known as Afrikaners) confronted each other in South Africa. After the British gained possession of Cape Colony from the Dutch following the Napoleonic Wars, the Boers had trekked to the north and northeast to avoid British rule. They had established two republics, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (popularly called the Transvaal). A renewed attempt by the British to reassert their sovereignty over the Boers followed the discovery of gold in 1886 in the Transvaal. Miners from European countries rushed into the republic and soon began to demand reform of laws they saw as discriminatory. Since the miners were predominantly from Great Britain, they appealed to the British government to redress their grievances. In late December 1895, a raid led by British subjects from Cape Colony crossed into the Transvaal expecting to aid an uprising by the miners. The uprising never occurred, and the Boers captured the raiders; but from that point on they feared losing their independence. Negotiations during the ensuing years only intensified the anger of the Boers and confirmed their belief that Great Britain planned to annex their republics. Therefore, when the British failed to answer an ultimatum sent by the Transvaal, the Boers invaded Cape Colony on October 11, 1899.

In Great Britain, jingoistic imperialism still swayed the masses. To the majority of citizens, the war was a just one: the Boers had attacked first; they were endangering a part of the empire. However, to outspoken opponents of the conflict the war was unjust. They agreed with the Boers' position that the British themselves had aggravated the assault. Often called "Pro-Boers," these critics protested against the war for various reasons: anti-imperial Liberals opposed it as a land-grab; labor leaders and socialists denounced the expenditures which prevented the funding of welfare programs; pacifists rejected all wars as immoral.

Once back in England, Hobhouse had worked for the Women's Industrial Council in London, but the interests of her friends and relatives in the South African conflict soon caused her to focus her attention upon efforts to stop the war. By November 1899, the South African Conciliation Committee had formed, and Hob-house became the honorary secretary of its women's branch. She wrote articles urging an end of the conflict; she organized women's protest meetings and spoke at a number of them. At one women's rally, Hobhouse presented a resolution which indicated her strong impulse to help victims of the war. As cited by her biographer, Ruth Fry , the resolution stated: "That this meeting desires to express its sympathy with the women of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, and begs them to remember that thousands of English women are filled with profound sorrow at the thought of their sufferings, and with deep regret for the actions of their own Government."

As early as February 1900, the British army had begun burning the farms of Boers who were fighting against them. By the latter part of the year, the press reported more extensive farm-burning operations by the British. These accounts profoundly affected Hobhouse, who later wrote in The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell, "A picture of wretchedness lay beneath the bald telegraphic words! That these poor families, bandied from pillar to post, must need protection and organised relief, was certain, and from that moment I determined to go to South Africa in order to help them." With the backing of her aunt, Lady Hobhouse, who received official sanction for a relief committee from Joseph Chamberlain, colonial secretary, and with the aid of other SACC members, Hobhouse created the South African Women and Children Distress Fund. She intended a non-political tone for the relief organization by directing assistance to any homeless war victim, whether Boer or Briton, and by inviting a number of individuals from outside the peace groups to join the Distress Fund staff or to announce support publicly. She hoped to place the agency above the derisive slurs hurled at the antiwar forces. However, because of the prominence of Lord Hobhouse and her brother, Leonard, in the antiwar movement, most Britons saw this as a political attack upon the government.

The second phase of Hobhouse's plan was to demonstrate to those Boers displaced by the war that some people in England were truly sensitive to their sufferings. Hoping also to foster a spirit of reconciliation, Hobhouse sailed for South Africa on December 7, 1900. Using money deposited for her in Cape Town by the Distress Fund, Hobhouse purchased and distributed supplies to those in refugee camps. She found the wretchedness of the refugees appalling. She wrote to Distress Fund committee members to underscore the need for more supplies, and especially for more medical personnel to save the victims—usually children—of measles, typhoid, and heat prostration. Hobhouse tried to work with the military officials to organize reforms within the camps to utilize best the limited supplies of food, fuel, and other necessities. After making headway in a camp, she would organize a committee of Boer women to continue her reforms and then proceed to another site.

These limited gains were soon undermined when the military authorities began interning the entire Boer populations of some districts in an attempt to cope with guerrilla tactics. The old refugee camps, now made to accommodate thousands more, and new centers erected for the overflow, became the hated concentration camps, numbering over 40. As the death rate in these camps mounted, Hobhouse decided to return to England to convince officials to change the system. On May 24, 1901, she was back in Great Britain.

Hobhouse obtained an interview with Secretary of War W. St. John Brodrick, whom she informed about her relief work and the evils of the concentration camps. She came fortified with suggested reforms. A few weeks later, Hob-house was astounded to learn that, although Brodrick had approved some of her suggestions, he had appointed a Ladies' Commission to investigate the camps and had forbidden her to return to them. Thus thwarted in her attempts to play the non-political, philanthropic role she had intended for herself, Hobhouse enlisted the aid of any who would alert the British public to the disasters of the camp system. Of course, the antiwar factions were eager to use her findings in their attacks upon the government. Her report to the Distress Fund Committee appeared in antiwar publications, and all members of Parliament received excerpts from it. Hobhouse also met with the leader of the opposition, Liberal Party Chair, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and recounted for him the camp inmates' plight and their rising mortality rates. This led Campbell-Bannerman on June 14, 1901, to condemn the use of the concentration camps as "methods of barbarism." Hobhouse hoped a shocked public would react against the camp system, but prowar newspapers and speakers attacked the accuracy of her accounts and claimed she greatly exaggerated the sufferings and deaths of the inmates. Therefore, during the summer of 1901, she continued to speak at assemblies and to write articles for sympathetic publications. She was determined to enlighten the public and to melt the hearts that remained hardened.

Controversy continued to surround Emily Hobhouse in the latter months of 1901. Denied permission to revisit the camps, she nevertheless sailed for South Africa in October. Partly her journey was a reaction to criticism of her work among Boers only. On this trip, her purpose was to alleviate the suffering of British refugees in Cape Colony left homeless by the war. While her ship was still at sea, Cape Colony was placed under martial law. Upon Hobhouse's arrival, the authorities refused to allow her to disembark and placed her under arrest. They told her to return at once to England. When she refused to obey their orders, she was forcibly placed on another ship for the return voyage.

Despite so many personal disappointments and frustrations in Hobhouse's efforts to instigate drastic reforms in the camp system, some positive results did come from her prodding. The Ladies' Commission sent by Brodrick to investigate camp conditions substantiated most of her findings and more changes occurred. However, had Brodrick and others accepted her reports as accurate and impartial when she first presented them, they could have ordered reforms which might have reduced the deaths from diseases which ravaged the camps. By the end of the conflict in May 1902, the estimates of deaths in the camps alone ranged from 18,000 to 28,000, most of which were children.

Upon the conclusion of the war, Hobhouse wrote The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell, which she dedicated to "The Women of South Africa." All royalties from its sale she gave to a fund to help the Boers restore their homes. When leaders of the Boers arrived in England at the end of July 1902 to try to raise money for their devastated homeland, Hobhouse met them and began a friendship with them that lasted for the rest of her life. In May 1903, Hobhouse traveled once again to South Africa, where she attended a general meeting held by the Boers (called the People's Gathering) at Heidelberg. The Boer leaders presented her to the assembly and thanked her for all she had done for the inmates of the camps.

The continued suffering of the Boer people as they struggled to rebuild their farms led Hob-house to organize fund-raising appeals in Great Britain and at the Cape. In an effort to find ways for the Boers to help themselves, she devised a plan to teach women and girls lace-making and textile-production, which they could do at home. To prepare for this venture, Hobhouse traveled extensively in Europe to study lace-making. When someone pointed out to her that textiles would sell better than lace, she traveled to Ireland to study textile-making. To solicit donations with which to buy spinning wheels and weaving looms, Hobhouse organized the Boer Home Industries Aid Society. In March 1905, she then returned once more to South Africa to set up schools where young women and girls could learn to spin and weave. By 1908, schools which taught both spinning and weaving existed in 12 cities, while those that taught only spinning were located in 14 others. In addition, basket-weaving and leather-working classes soon developed at some of these schools. The colonial governments of the Transvaal and Orange River assumed responsibility for these schools in 1908, at which time Hobhouse returned again to England.

Over the next few years, Hobhouse's health began to fail. She had long suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and its crippling effects grew worse. In 1913, when the Boers erected a monument at Bloemfontein to honor those who had died in the camps during the war, they invited Emily Hobhouse to unveil it. Hobhouse again traveled to South Africa, eager to participate in the ceremonies. However, when she reached Beaufort West in Cape Colony, her health was such that she could not continue on to Bloemfontein; but the Boers printed and distributed her prepared speech to the vast numbers in attendance. Speakers at the ceremony praised Hobhouse for all she had done for the Boers in the camps and claimed that hers was a name most revered among their people.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Hobhouse again devoted herself to the pursuit of peace. In 1915, she worked for a few months in Amsterdam at the Women's International Bureau. Then, in 1916, her health having improved, she determined somehow to aid noncombatants in Belgium who were affected by the war. Her subsequent actions aroused heated debate at the British Foreign Office, which had in 1915 granted her a visa to Italy, and also in Parliament itself, which questioned whether entering enemy territory was a treasonous act. From Italy, Hobhouse had gone to Switzerland and thence to Belgium, where, under close supervision of a German escort, she toured various cities. In June, she entered Germany itself and had an interview in Berlin with the foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow. From this meeting, Hobhouse concluded that Germany was willing to make peace if Britain would make the advances. When she later returned to England, no one took her seriously. Another idea came to Hobhouse during this trip to Germany. She believed it possible for prisoner-of-war camps to be dismantled and the inmates sent to neutral countries until the end of the conflict. This, too, she urged upon her government but with no results. After the conclusion of the war, Hobhouse continued her humanitarian zeal by working for three new relief endeavors: the Swiss Relief Fund for Starving Children, which brought children from war-torn areas of Germany and the former Austrian Empire to rest and recuperate in Switzerland; the Russian Babies' Fund, which Hobhouse chaired, and which sent milk and baby supplies to Russia; and in cooperation with the Save the Children Fund, her own activities to feed hungry children in Leipzig, Germany. When she visited that devastated city in September 1919, she was astounded by the number of malnourished children. After a few months of unrelenting pressure by Hobhouse, city officials finally began a lunch program for about 11,000 children. In gratitude for this work, the German Red Cross honored her, as did the Leipzig city government, which placed a marble bust of Emily Hobhouse in the Rathaus there. Ill health caused her to return home in 1921.

Added to her health problems were financial difficulties. Hobhouse had provided for herself primarily through an inheritance from an aunt, which she had received in 1887. However, in the postwar recession her income from dividends dwindled drastically, and she had to sell many of her possessions. Upon learning of her financial plight, friends and admirers in South Africa collected money as a gift to her for purchase of a house, which she did in Cornwall. However, she later sold that one in 1923 and bought another in London.

During the last few years of her life, Hobhouse's activities were more restricted because of her health. In 1923, she translated and published the personal story of one of her Boer friends, Alida Badenhorst , under the title, Tant Alie of Transvaal: Her Diary, 1880–1902. She also continued to prepare a collection of stories by Boer women, which she had begun 20 years before, and which was published after her death as War without Glamour, or Women's Experiences Written by Themselves in 1927. By 1926, Hob-house was mostly bedridden and unable to care for herself alone. Arthritis, asthma, angina pectoris, and other ailments took their toll. On June 8, 1926, she died in London. She willed that her body be cremated and her ashes be buried in South Africa. In fulfilling this wish, Boer leaders decided to place her remains in the Bloemfontein monument dedicated to the women and children who had died in the camps, and whom Emily Hobhouse had worked so hard to save.


Fisher, John. That Miss Hobhouse. London: Secker and Warburg, 1971.

Fry, A. Ruth. Emily Hobhouse. London: Jonathan Cape, 1929.

suggested reading:

Koss, Stephen, ed. The Pro-Boers: The Anatomy of an Antiwar Movement. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Patricia A. Ashman , Professor of History, Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Missouri