The British Empire

Emily Hobhouse, part 1

Emily and the Boer War

The Boer War began in October 1899 with the full support of the British public following a campaign by the popular press however there was an opposition to the war. Perhaps the name most associated with opposition to war was Emily Hobhouse. Had it not been for her opposition to World War One and travelling to Germany in the middle of that war, she might have had a more prominent place in British history. She more than anyone else brought to the attention of the British public the scorched earth policy of the army in South Africa and the existence of the concentration camps.

Her Early Life

Emily was born on 9 April, 1860, in the village of St Ive near Liskeard, Cornwall. Her father, Reginald was the local minister and was to become the first archdeacon of Bodmin. The Hobhouse family was a well established west country family-Emily's grandfather had been the Under-Secretary for Home Affairs and her uncle was a Lord in the House of Lords whilst her uncle Henry was an MP. Her mother was from the Trelawny family-themselves local aristocracy.

Her father was very much a snob and would not fraternise with the local people and it was left to his wife to carry out the role of looking after the needs of the parishioners. When Emily became friendly with the son of a local farmer her father reacted with horror when he heard and ordered Emily not to see him again. After Emily's mother and sister died and when her father had been promoted to be Archdeacon of Bodmin, Emily had to take on the parochial duties-visiting parishioners and organising events which she did as if she were organising a crusade.

Mother and sister die

n 1877 Emily's sister Blanche died of consumption at the age of 19 and then two years later her mother died of a brain tumour. It was left to Emily to look after her father who two years later himself became ill and had to be nursed for the remainder of his life. Emily found life in St Ive dull and boring and there was no outlet for organisational skills and for her wish to do good and do what she could to improve the world. She had been denied a proper education and there hadn't been the money to send her to London society. For someone in Emily's position there was only the church and then only what Reginald considered appropriate which was leading the singing at church, playing the organ and helping out at Sunday school.

Travels to the Wild West

Reginald's death in 1895 brought to an end a reign of 51 years as rector of St Ive and at the age of 34 Emily was finally free. Thanks to a fortune handed down through the family from a distant slaver-relation Emily inherited a fortune of £6,000 (over £300,000) that she could now spend on her desires and lofty aims. She announced her intention of carrying on good works abroad and conceived a plan with the assistance of the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury to travel 4000 miles to the wild west of the USA and become a missionary in Minnesota in the town of Virginia.

Two weeks after her father's death, Emily left St Ive for good, going initially to her uncle Lord Hobhouse with whom she would confide and consult for the rest of her life. Having arrived in Virginia she flung herself into good causes like the establishment of a library and a temperance crusade. She also spent a lot of time in the local hospital visiting patients. After a year she returned to England for a short trip and it is possible that she was accompanied by John C Jackson the current mayor of Virginia and a shop owner.


Over the next couple of years Emily was to become romantically involved with Jackson and it is thought that they were due to get married and that Emily went to Mexico to prepare for her married life. She spent money in Mexico on land but it took Jackson a year to get to Mexico and when he did arrive it was as a bankrupt. The marriage never materialised and Emily returned to England broken hearted and determined to find an outlet for her idealism.

Returns to England from Mexico

Soon after returning to England Emily met Leonard Courtney, a family friend and a Liberal MP for a Cornwall constituency. In October 1899 Courtney invited Emily to join the South African Conciliation Committee which had been formed by Courtney at the outset of war in October 1899 to oppose the war. Emily agreed to join believing the war harmed Britain's reputation for justice and humanity. Emily's flat in Chelsea became the centre of a campaign to produce pamphlets attacking the war and it wasn't long before Emily became Secretary of the Women's Section.

Meetings against the Boer War

Following the annexation of the Free State on May 28th, 1900 Emily decided to organise a huge meeting for the women's section in order to oppose the annexation and bring pressure on the British government to stop the war. The meeting was held at the Queen's Hall in London on June 13th and was a great success although it provoked a storm of abuse from the populist press.

Speaking out against the War with Lloyd George

Emily's next step in her campaign to oppose the war was to speak against the war all over England. She travelled down to Cornwall with Lloyd George to speak in Liskeard but if she thought that the Cornish were free thinkers not influenced by the war mongering press she was wrong for the meeting was continually disrupted by hecklers and young men determined to stop the speakers. 50 men stormed the platform with a soldier carried on their shoulders and it wasn't until the police intervened that the speakers were able to leave. A similar meeting with Lloyd George a few weeks later in Birmingham sparked a riot in which one man died and Lloyd George had to be smuggled out of the building.

The Farm Burnings

As news of the farm burnings began to appear in the press, Emily decided she needed to give more practical help and so she decided to start a fund for the homeless-the South African Women and Children's Distress Fund which she said was nominally non-political and non-sectarian and was founded to care for Boer and British refugees. A committee was formed and money was appealed for. Then Emily decided she was going to South Africa to distribute support to the needy there. She set sail from Southampton on 7 December, arriving in Cape Town at the end of the month. She was impressed by the sight of Table Mountain and the Cape Town Bay and the blue peaks to the east.

Travels to South Africa

She stayed with friends in Cape Town and met many prominent people, including Lord Milner from whom she had to get permission to travel to Bloemfontein. It was at this time that she heard about the concentration camps which were being set up and although she had come to distribute blankets, clothes and food to the homeless she now decided that she had to see the camps. Having obtained a pass from Milner and then from Kitchener she set off by train on 22 January to Bloemfontein with her own wagon full of supplies.

Conditions in Bloemfontein

At Bloemfontein she found a town overrun with doctors and nurses having suffered from a typhoid epidemic and not yet fully recovered from it. She obtained a pass from the military governor, a family friend and then she set off for the camp, two miles to the north of the town, at the foot of a slope, right out on the brown veld. It was midsummer with temperatures soaring around 35. She found rows and rows of bell tents with about 2,000 people mainly women but with 900 children. Initially she was looking for Mrs Botha, the sister of a friend from Cape Town. Having found Mrs Botha she found a tent that was stifling and overcrowded with flies thick and black on everything. There was no chair or table and no bed-the family had to sleep on the ground with no ground sheet. There one piece of furniture was a deal box.  She soon was visiting many women to get an idea of conditions. and found that rations wee at starvation level, the food was unsuitable for children and the tents were totally unsuited for life on the veld. They let in water as the material was too thin. Throughout the camp there were sicknesses such as measles, bronchitis, dysentery, typhoid, and pneumonia. Emily did not blame the officers in charge of the camp. She was aware of the difficulties of supply and the shortage of doctors and nurses but she could not forgive the crass male ignorance resulting from inexperience and lack of imagination. Emily remained in Bloemfontein for a week distributing clothes, mattresses, and encouraged the boiling of all water and she was to ensure that every family got a extra pail of water a day.

Read Part 2

The parish church of St Ive

Lord Hobhouse, Emily’s uncle

David Lloyd George

Farm Burnings in the Boer War

Lord Kitchener