Emily Hobhouse PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 05 November 2008 17:10

Emily Hobhouse

Born: April 9, 1860, St Ive, Cornwall, United Kingdom

Died: June 8, 1926, London, England

Age: 66

Cause of death:  Pleurisy, cardiac degeneration and some internal form of cancer

Notable because: Spent her life energy helping the unfortunate, especially women victims of British cruelty. Famously highlighted British use of Concentration camps to incarcerate women and children in the Anglo Boer war. A truly inspirational woman who wrote "We in England are still dunces in the great world-school; our leaders are still struggling with the unlearned lesson that liberty is the equal right and heritage of every child of man, without the distinction of race, colour or sex."

Emily Hobhouse was a British welfare campaigner, who is primarily remembered for bringing to the attention of the British public, and working to change, the appalling conditions inside the British concentration camps in South Africa built for Boer women and children during the Second Boer War.

Born in St Ive, near Liskeard in Cornwall, she was the daughter of an Anglican rector, and sister of Leonard Hobhouse. Her mother died when she was 20, and she spent the next fourteen years looking after her father who was in poor health. When her father died in 1895 she went to Minnesota to perform welfare work amongst Cornish mineworkers living there, the trip having been organised by the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury. There she became engaged to John Carr Jackson and the couple bought a ranch in Mexico but this did not prosper and the engagement was broken off. She returned to England in 1898 after losing most of her money in a speculative venture.

Her wedding veil (that she never wore) hangs in the head office of the "Oranje Vrouevereniging" (Orange Women's Society) in Bloemfontein, the first women's welfare organisation in the Orange Free State, supposedly as a symbol of her commitment towards the upliftment of women.

When the Second Boer War broke out in October 1899, a Liberal MP, Leonard Courtney, invited Hobhouse to become secretary of the women's branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, of which he was president.

Hobhouse wrote

It was late in the summer of 1900 that I first learnt of the hundreds of Boer women that became impoverished and were left ragged by our military operations… the poor women who were being driven from pillar to post, needed protection and organized assistance.

She set up the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children and sailed for South Africa on 7 December 1900 to supervise its distribution. She wrote later:

I came quite naturally, in obedience to the feeling of unity or oneness of womanhood... it is when the community is shaken to its foundations, that abysmal depths of privation call to each other and that a deeper unity of humanity evinces itself.

Young EmilyWhen she left England, she only knew about the concentration camp at Port Elizabeth, but on arrival found out about the many other camps (34 in total).

Hobhouse had a letter of introduction to the Cape Colony governor, Alfred Milner from her aunt, the wife of Lord Arthur Hobhouse, himself the son of Henry Hobhouse Permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office under Sir Robert Peel and who knew Milner. From him she obtained the use of two railway trucks, subject to the army commander, Lord Kitchener's, approval. She received Kitchener's permission two weeks later, although it only allowed her to travel as far as Bloemfontein and take one truck of supplies for the camps, about 12 tons.

She had persuaded the authorities to let her visit several camps and to deliver aid – her report on conditions at the camps, set out in her report to the Committee of the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children, entitled “Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies” was delivered to the British government in June 1901. As a result, a formal commission was set up and a team of official investigators headed by Millicent Fawcett was sent to inspect the camps. Overcrowding in bad unhygienic conditions due to neglect and lack of resources were the causes of a mortality rate that in the eighteen months during which the camps were in operation reached a total of 26,370, of which 24,000 were children under sixteen and infants …ie the rate at which the children died was some 50 a day.

The following extracts from the report by Emily Hobhouse make very clear the extent of culpable neglect by the authorities:

In some camps, two, and even three sets of people, occupy one tent and 10, and even 12, persons are frequently herded together in tents of which the cubic capacity is about 500 c.f.

I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty… To keep these Camps going is murder to the children..

It can never be wiped out of the memories of the people. It presses hardest on the children. They droop in the terrible heat, and with the insufficient unsuitable food; whatever you do, whatever the authorities do, and they are, I believe, doing their best with very limited means, it is all only a miserable patch on a great ill. Thousands, physically unfit, are placed in conditions of life which they have not strength to endure. In front of them is blank ruin…If only the British people would try to exercise a little imagination – picture the whole miserable scene. Entire villages rooted up and dumped in a strange bare place..

The women are wonderful. They cry very little and never complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, their indignities, loss and anxiety seems to lift them beyond tears…only when it cuts afresh at them through their children do their feelings flash out. Some people in town still assert that the Camp is a haven of bliss. I was at the camp to-day, and just in one little corner this is the sort of thing I found - The nurse, underfed and overworked, just sinking on to her bed, hardly able to hold herself up, after coping with some thirty typhoid and other patients, with only the untrained help of two Boer girls – cooking as well as nursing to do herself. Next tent, a six months’ baby gasping its life out on is mother’s knee. Two or three others drooping sick in that tent. Next, a girl of twenty-one lay dying on a stretcher. The father, a big, gentle Boer kneeling beside her; while, next tent, his wife was watching a child of six, also dying, and one of about five drooping. Already this couple had lost three children in the hospital and so would not let these go, though I begged hard to take them out of the hot tent. I can’t describe what it is to see these children lying about in a state of collapse. It’s just exactly like faded flowers thrown away. And one has to stand and look on at such misery, and be able to do almost nothing.

It was a splendid child and it dwindled to skin and bone..The baby had got so weak it was past recovery. We tried what we could but today it died. It was only 3 months but such a sweet little thing…It was still alive this morning; when I called in the afternoon they beckoned me in to see the tiny thing laid out , with a white flower in its wee hand. To me it seemed a “murdered innocent”. And an hour or two after another child died. Another child had died in the night, and I found all three little corpses being photographed for the absent fathers to see some day. Two little wee white coffins at the gate waiting, and a third wanted. I was glad to see them, for at Springfontein, a young woman had to be buried in a sack, and it hurt their feelings woefully.

It is such a curious position, hollow and rotten to the heart’s core, to have made all over the State large uncomfortable communities of people whom you call refugees and say you are protecting, but who call themselves prisoners of war, compulsorily detained, and detesting your protection. They are tired of being told by officers that they are refugees under “the kind and beneficient protection of the British”. In most cases there is no pretence that there was treachery, or ammunition concealed, or food given or anything. It was just that an order was given to empty the country. Though the camps are called refugee, there are in reality a very few of these – perhaps only half-a-dozen in some camps. It is easy to tell them, because they are put in the best marquees, and have had time given to them to bring furniture and clothes, and are mostly self-satisfied and vastly superior people. Very few, if any of them, are in want.

Those who are suffering most keenly, and who have lost most, either of their children by death or their possessions by fire and sword, such as those reconcentrated women in the camps, have the most conspicuous patience, and never express a wish that their men should be the ones to give way. It must be fought out now, they think, to the bitter end. It is a very costly business upon which England has embarked, and even at such a cost hardly the barest necessities can be provided, and no comforts. It is so strange to think that every tent contains a family, and every family is in trouble – loss behind, poverty in front, sickness, privation and death in the present. But they are very good, and say they have agreed to be cheerful and make the best of it all. The Mafeking camp folk were very surprised to hear that English women cared a rap about them or their suffering. It has done them a lot of good to hear that real sympathy is felt for them at home, and so I am glad I fought my way here, if only for that reason.

Imagine the heat outside the tents and the suffocation inside !..the sun blazed through the single canvas, and the flies lay thick and black on everything; no chair, no table, nor any room for such; only a deal box, standing on its end, served as a wee pantry. In this tent live Mrs B’s five children (three quite grown up) and a little Kaffir servant girl. Many tents have more occupants. Mrs M. ..has six children in camp, all ill, two in the tin hospital with typhoid, and four sick in the tent. A terrible evil just now is the dew. It is so heavy, and comes through the single canvas of the tents, wetting everything…All the morning the gangways are filled with the blankets and odds and ends, regularly turned out to dry in the sun. The doctor told me today he highly disapproved of tents for young children, and expected a high mortality before June.

Soap has been unattainable and none given in the rations. With much persuasion, and weeks after requisitioning, soap is now given occasionally in very minute quantities – certainly not enough for clothes and personal washing. We have much typhoid and are dreading an outbreak, so I am directing my energies to getting the water of the Modder River boiled. As well swallow typhoid germs whole as drink that water – so say doctors. Yet they cannot boil it all, for - first, fuel is very scarce; that which is supplied weekly would not cook a meal a day…and they have to search the already bare kopjes for a supply. There is hardly a bit to be had. Second, they have no extra utensil to hold the water when boiled. I propose, therefore, to give each tent a pail or crock, and get a proclamation issued that all drinking water must be boiled.

Above all one would hope that the good sense, if not the mercy, of the English people, will cry out against the further development of this cruel system which falls with crushing effect upon the old, the weak, and the children. May they stay the order to bring in more and yet more. Since Old Testament days was ever a whole nation carried captive ?

Late in 1901 the camps ceased to receive new families and conditions improved in some camps; but the damage was done. Thomas Pakenham writes of Kitchener's policy turn:Emily Hobhouse

No doubt the continued 'hullabaloo' at the death-rate in these concentration camps, and Milner's belated agreement to take over their administration, helped changed K's mind [some time at the end of 1901]. By mid-December at any rate, Kitchener was already circulating all column commanders with instructions not to bring in women and children when they cleared the country, but to leave them with the guerrillas...Viewed as a gesture to Liberals, on the eve of the new session of Parliament at Westminster, it was a shrewd political move. It also made excellent military sense, as it greatly handicapped the guerrillas, now that the drives were in full swing...It was effective precisely because, contrary to the Liberals' convictions, it was less humane than bringing them into camps, though this was of no great concern to Kitchener

One European had the following comment on England's conduct with the concentration camps:

Great Britain cannot win her battles without resorting to the despicable cowardice of the most loathsome cure on earth - the act of striking at a brave man's heart through his wife's honour and his child's life..

In this article just one photograph of those who suffered and died in the camps has been included (in following paragraph covering the Bloemfontein Camp) - no more than one photograph in the article is included because the quoted words of Emily Hobhouse are descriptive enough in themselves to evoke in the reader a feeling for the grief and pain of those who suffered and died.

More images would be gratuitous and would fail to respect the tragic losses and suffering of those caught up in the tragedy and would not help to show the due sympathy and respect for the feelings of their descendants.

She arrived at the camp at Bloemfontein on 24 January 1901 and was shocked by the conditions she encountered:

"They went to sleep without any provision having been made for them and without anything to eat or to drink. I saw crowds of them along railway lines in bitterly cold weather, in pouring rain - hungry, sick, dying and dead. Soap was an article that was not dispensed. The water supply was inadequate. No bedstead or mattress was procurable. Fuel was scarce and had to be collected from the green bushes on the slopes of the kopjes (small hills) by the people themselves. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine."

Lizzie van Zyl, visited by Emily Hobhouse in the Bloemfontein concentration camp

What most distressed Hobhouse was the sufferings of the undernourished children. Diseases such as measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid had invaded the camp with fatal results. The very few tents were not enough to house the one or more sick persons, most of them children.

In the collection Stemme uit die Verlede ("Voices from the Past"), she recalled the plight of Lizzie van Zyl, a child who died at the Bloemfontein camp.

"She was a frail, weak little child in desperate need of good care. Yet, because her mother was one of the "undesirables" because her father neither surrendered nor betrayed his people, Lizzie was placed on the lowest rations and so perished with hunger that, after a month in the camp, she was transferred to the new small hospital. Here she was treated harshly. The English disposed doctor and his nurses did not understand her language and, as she could not speak English, labelled her an idiot although she was mentally fit and normal. One day she dejectedly started calling for her mother, when a Mrs Botha walked over to her to console her. She was just telling the child that she would soon see her mother again, when she was brusquely interrupted by one of the nurses who told her not to interfere with the child as she was a nuisance".

When she requested soap for the people, she was told that soap is an article of luxury. She nevertheless succeeded, after a struggle, to have it listed as a necessity, together with straw, more tents and more kettles in which to boil the drinking water. She distributed clothes and supplied pregnant women, who had to sleep on the ground, with mattresses, but she could not forgive what she called

Crass male ignorance, helplessness and muddling… I rub as much salt into the sore places in their minds… because it is good for them; but I can't help melting a little when they are very humble and confess that the whole thing is a grievous and gigantic blunder and presents almost insoluble problems, and they don't know how to face it….

Hobhouse also visited camps at Norvalspont, Aliwal North, Springfontein, Kimberley and Orange River.

When she returned to England she received scathing criticism and hostility from the British government and many of the media but eventually succeeded in obtaining more funding to help the victims of the war. The British Liberal leader at the time, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, denounced what he called the "methods of barbarism".The British government eventually agreed to set up the Fawcett Commission to investigate her claims, under Millicent Fawcett, which corroborated her account of the shocking conditions.

She returned to Cape Town in October 1901, was not permitted to land and eventually deported five days after arriving, no reason being given. Hobhouse then went to France where she wrote the book The Brunt of the War and where it fell on what she saw during the war.

After Hobhouse had met the Boer generals she learnt from them that the distress of the women and children in the concentration camps had contributed to their final resolution to surrender to Britain. She saw it then as her mission to assist in healing the wounds inflicted by the war and to support efforts aimed at rehabilitation and reconciliation. With this object in view, she visited South Africa once more in 1903. She decided to set up Boer home industries and to teach young women spinning and weaving when she returned in 1905.

Ill health, from which she never recovered, forced her to return to England in 1908.

She traveled to South Africa again in 1913 for the inauguration of the National Women's Monument in Bloemfontein but had to stop at Beaufort West due to her failing health.

Hobhouse was an avid opponent of the First World War and protested vigorously against it. Through her offices, thousands of women and children were fed daily for more than a year in central Europe after this war. South Africa contributed liberally towards this effort, and an amount of more than £17,000 was collected by Mrs. President Steyn (who was to remain a life long friend) and sent to Hobhouse for this purpose.

She became an honorary citizen of South Africa for her humanitarian work there. Unbeknownst to her, on the initiative of Mrs R.I Steyn, a sum of £2,300 was collected from the Afrikaner nation and with that Emily purchased a house in St Ives, Cornwall, which now forms part of The Porthminster Hotel, where a commemorative plaque situated within what was her lounge, was unveiled by the South African High Commissioner Mr Kent Durr as a tribute to her humanitarianism and heroism during the Anglo Boer War.

Hobhouse died in London in 1926 and her ashes were ensconced in a niche in the National Women's Monument at Bloemfontein.

Tibbie Steyn always arranged to send to Emily, on her birthday, a consignment of Orange Free State canned fruit, preserves, biltong (dried meat) and other delicacies. This gift was a great source of pleasure to her and she was very proud of it. She seldom received a guest who was not persuaded to taste some of the South African products.

Her bodily strength was gradually ebbing. She had realised months before that her end could not be far off and often yearned for it passionately. Although her last letters continued to bear proof of her interest in mankind and in human affairs, they nevertheless bore unmistakable evidence that she was preparing for her departure to the next world.

On 23rd May, 1926, she wrote from the Isle of Wight, that her soul was full of the music of the song she learnt in her youth in Cornwall.

Before that letter reached South Africa, she died of pleurisy, cardiac degeneration and some internal form of cancer. There was a burial service in London, but her ashes found a final resting place in a niche at the Women’s Memorial at Bloemfontein on 26 October 1926. 

The southernmost town in Eastern Free State is named Hobhouse, after her.

One of the South African Navy's three Daphne class submarines was named the "Emily Hobhouse".


Last Updated on Monday, 16 March 2009 19:00

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