Emily Hobhouse (9 April 1860 – 8 June 1926) was a British welfare campaigner, who is primarily remembered for bringing to the attention of the British public, and working to change, the deprived conditions inside the British administered concentration camps in South Africa built to incarcerate Boer women and children during the Second Boer War. When the Second Boer War broke out in South Africa 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. She 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 founded the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children, and sailed for the Cape Colony on 7 December 1900 to supervise its distribution, and arrived on 27 December. She wrote later:
It 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.
When she left England, she only knew about the concentration camp at Port Elizabeth, but on arrival found out about the many other camps (45 in total). She had a letter of introduction to the British High Commissioner, Alfred Milner, from her aunt, the wife of 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 approval of the army commander, Lord Kitchener, which she received 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 a report 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, i.e. 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.
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.
Late in 1901 the camps ceased to receive new families and conditions improved in some camps; but the damage was done. Historian Thomas Pakenham writes of Kitchener’s policy turn.Charles Aked, a Baptist minister in Liverpool, said on 22 December 1901, Peace Sunday: Great Britain cannot win the battles without resorting to the last despicable cowardice of the most loathsome cur on earth—the act of striking a brave man’s heart through his wife’s honour and his child’s life. The cowardly war has been conducted by methods of barbarism. The concentration camps have been Murder Camps. Afterwards, a crowd followed him home and broke the windows of his house.
Hobhouse 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 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 opes 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, 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 (c. 1894 – 9 May 1901), the daughter of a Boer combatant who refused to surrender. The girl died at the Bloemfontein camp. According to Hobhouse, the girl was treated harshly and placed on the lowest rations. After a month, she was moved to the new hospital about 50 kilometres away from the concentration camp, suffering from starvation. Unable to speak English, she was labelled an “idiot” by the hospital staff, who were unable to understand her. One day she started calling for her mother. An Afrikaner woman, Mrs Botha, went over to comfort her and to tell her she would see her mother again, but “was brusquely interrupted by one of the nurses who told her not to interfere with the child as she was a nuisance.
When Hobhouse requested soap for the people, she was told that soap was a 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 Hobhouse also visited camps at Norvalspont, Aliwal North, Springfontein, Kimberley and Orange River.
When Hobhouse 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. Hobhouse returned to Cape Town in October 1901, was not permitted to land and eventually deported five days after arriving, no reason being given. She 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 her return to South Africa she saw that her mission was 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 again in 1903. She decided to set up Boer home industries and to teach young women spinning and weaving when she returned once more 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. She organised the writing, signing and publishing in January 1915 of the Open Christmas Letter, addressed To the Women of Germany and Austria. 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 lifelong friend) and sent to Hobhouse for this purpose.
She became an honorary citizen of South Africa for her humanitarian work there. Unbeknown 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 Porthminster Hotel. In this hotel 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
Hobhouse died in London in 1926. Her ashes were ensconced in a niche in the National Women’s Monument at Bloemfontein, where she was regarded as a heroine. Her death went unreported in the Cornish press.
The southernmost town in Eastern Free State is named Hobhouse, after her, as was a submarine: the SAS Emily Hobhouse, one of the South African Navy’s three Daphné class submarines. In 1994, after the end of minority rule, the submarine was renamed the S.A.S. Umkhonto.
In Bloemfontein, South Africa, the oldest residence on the campus of the University of the Free State is named after Hobhouse.