Emily Hobhouse, the daughter of the Reginald Hobhouse and Caroline Trelawny, was born in Liskeard, Cornwall on 9th April, 1860. Educated at home, Emily lived with her parents until she was thirty-five.
After the death of her father in 1895, Emily became more involved in social work and political reform. With her brother, Leonard Hobhouse, she was active member of the Adult Suffrage Society.
Emily, like many members of the radical wing of the Liberal Party, was opposed to the Boer War. Over the first few weeks of the war Emily spoke at several public meetings where she denounced the activities of the British government.
In late 1900 Emily was sent details of how women and children were being treated by the British Army. She later wrote: “poor women who were being driven from pillar to post, needed protection and organized assistance. And from that moment I was determined to go to South Africa in order to render assistance to them”.
In October 1900, Emily formed the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children. An organisation set up: “To feed, clothe, harbour and save women and children – Boer, English and other – who were left destitute and ragged as a result of the destruction of property, the eviction of families or other incidents resulting from the military operations”. Except for members of the Society of Friends, very few people were willing to contribute to this fund.
Hobhouse arrived in South Africa on 27th December, 1900. After meeting Alfred Milner, she gained permission to visit the concentration camps that had been established by the British Army. However, Lord Kitchener objected to this decision and she was now told she could only go to Bloemfontein.
She left Cape Town on 22nd January, 1901, and arrived at Bloemfontein two days later. There were at the time eighteen hundred people in the camp. Emily discovered “that there was a scarcity of essential provision and that the accommodation was wholly inadequate.” When she complained about the lack of soap she was told, “soap is an article of luxury”. She nevertheless succeeded ultimately to have it listed as a necessity, together with straw and kettles in which to boil the drinking water.
Over the next few weeks Emily visited several camps to the south of Bloemfontein, including Norvalspont, Aliwal North, Springfontein, Kimberley and Orange River. She was also allowed to visit Mafeking. Everywhere she directed the attention of the authorities to the inadequate sanitary accommodation and inadequate rations.
By the time that Emily returned to Bloemfontein in March 1901, the population had grown considerably. She later wrote: ” The population had redoubled and had swallowed up the results of improvements that had been effected. Disease was on the increase and the sight of the people made the impression of utter misery. Illness and death had left their marks on the faces of the inhabitants. Many that I had left hale and hearty, of good appearance and physically fit, had undergone such a change that I could hardly recognize them.”
Hobhouse argued that Kitchener’s “Scorched Earth” policy included the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms, and the poisoning of wells and salting of fields – to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base. Civilians were then forcibly moved into the concentration camps. Although this tactic had been used by Spain (Ten Years’ War) and the United States (Philippine-American War), it was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted.
Emily decided that she had to return to England in an effort to persuade the Marquess of Salisbury and his government to bring an end to the British Army’s scorched earth and concentration camp policy. David Lloyd George and Charles Trevelyan took up the case in the House of Commons and accused the government of “a policy of extermination” directed against the Boer population. William St John Fremantle Brodrick, the Secretary of State for War argued that the interned Boers were “contented and comfortable” and stated that everything possible was being done to ensure satisfactory conditions in the camps.
The vast majority of MPs showed little sympathy to the plight of the Boers. Hobhouse later wrote: “The picture of apathy and impatience displayed here, which refused to lend an ear to undeserved misery, contrasted sadly with the scenes of misery in South Africa, still fresh in my mind. No barbarity in South Africa was as severe as the bleak cruelty of an apathetic parliament.”
In August, 1901, the British government established a commission headed by Millicent Fawcett to visit South Africa. While the Fawcett Commission was carrying out the investigation, the government published its own report. According to the New York Times: “The War Office has issued a four-hundred-page Blue Book of the official reports from medical and other officers on the conditions in the concentration camps in South Africa. The general drift of the report attributes the high mortality in these camps to the dirty habits of the Boers, their ignorance and prejudices, their recourse to quackery, and their suspicious avoidance of the British hospitals and doctors.”
The Fawcett Commission confirmed almost everything that Emily Hobhouse had reported. After the war a report concluded that 27,927 Boers had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the concentration camps. In all, about one in four of the Boer inmates, mostly children, died. However, the South African historian, Stephen Burridge Spies argues in Methods of Barbarism: Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics (1977) that this is an under-estimate of those who died in the camps.
Hobhouse decided to return to South Africa but was warned by the authorities they would refuse permission for her to visit the camps. When Hobhouse arrived in Cape Town on Sunday 27th October, 1901, she was not allowed to leave her ship. In poor health, she decided to recuperate in the mountains of Savoy. It was while she was there that Hobhouse heard that the Boer leaders had signed the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging.
Hobhouse was also an opponent of British involvement in the First World War. On 3rd September, 1916, she wrote to a friend: “Think of our beloved fatherland, think of beautiful Italy, of France and of Germany, all of them working at full capacity to produce weapons of war and destruction. It seems as if we have reached the end of our civilization. It is all too hideous for words”.
In 1921 the people of South Africa raised £2,300 and sent it to Hobhouse in recognition for the work she had done on their behalf during the Boer War. The money was sent to her with the explicit mandate that she had to buy a small house for herself somewhere along the coast of Cornwall. On 18th May, 1921, she replied: “I find it impossible to give expression to the feelings that overpowered me when I heard of the surprise you had prepared for me. My first impulse was not to accept any gift, or otherwise to devote it to some or other public end. But after having read and reread your letter, I have decided to accept your gift in the same simple and loving spirit in which it was sent to me.”
Hobhouse purchased a house at St. Ives. On Christmas Day, 1921, she wrote to the organisers of the fund: “To you I owe everything that surrounds me now and that gives me a feeling of comfort and rest and security – the warmth of my little room – and the feeling of being at home. When I look back upon the year that has passed, I marvel more and more at everything that you and your people have done to ensure my happiness and my welfare”.
Emily Hobhouse died in London on 8th June, 1926.