The British Empire

Emily Hobhouse part 2

In letters back home she wrote about seeing a child's corpse covered by a blanket, left stinking and cooking in the open. A heavily pregnant woman trying to cope with six sick children, two of them with typhoid. Another woman laid on the bare ground for want of a mattress, pregnant with her seventh child and in complete ignorance of the whereabouts of the others. These Emily said were quite ordinary cases among hundreds. The latrines were without privacy and open to the sun and rain. The stench was such that from 50 yards away you had to approach with nose and mouth tied up. Soap was unobtainable. The filthy water was limited to two buckets daily for a family of six or seven, for all cooking, washing and drinking. The rations she found impossible. A typical ration for a family with family on commando was:

Mealie  3lb daily

Meat 1lb twice weekly

Coffee 1oz daily

Sugar 2oz daily

salt half oz daily

Bloemfontein Camp

Of Bloemfontein camp Emily wrote in her  report:

"The accommodation was wholly inadequate. When the eight, ten or twelve people who lived in the bell tent were squeezed into it to find shelter against the heat of the sun, the dust or the rain, there was no room to stir and the air in the tent was beyond description, even though the flaps were rolled up properly and fastened. 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 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."

After Bloemfoontein

After Bloemfontein she visited a few other camps although Kitchener would not let her go further north into the Free State or into the Transvaal. Travelling along the railway line she frequently saw refugees waiting at stations and sometimes saw the same refugees a week later at the same place having spent all the time out in the open on minimal rations. Some camps were better than Bloemfontein with tents capable of being extended and with the people able to walk outside of the camp. At Springfontein she found appalling shortages with most of the people walking around semi-naked from a lack of decent clothes and almost everyone was bare footed.

"In many instances I was an eyewitness of what took place. I saw families huddled up close to the railway line near Warrenton and Fourteen Streams. I saw an overcrowded train crawling along to Kimberley throughout a whole long night. I saw people, old and young, bundled in open trucks under a scorching sun near a station building without anything to eat. At midnight they were transported to empty tents where they groped about in the dark, looking for their little bundles. 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.

Emily was to make a further visit to Bloemfontein and found the conditions a great deal worse than on her first visit. The camp had double the number of refugees that she had seen just a few weeks earlier and the three hospitals were full of typhoid cases and people were dying at the rate of 20-25 a day.

My first visit to the Bloemfontein camp after the lapse of some weeks, was a great shock to me. 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."

Forced to return home

Her money and supplies were by this time exhausted and she decided to return home to let people know what was going on. She sailed from Cape Town on RMS Saxon and arriving back in England was dismayed to find out that little was known about the camps despite her letters home. Emily now set out to do all she could to publicise the scorched earth policy of Kitchener in the hope that pressure could be put on the government to stop Kitchener's policy and to bring about an improvement in the conditions in the camps.

Meeting the Liberal Leader

She soon met with the Liberal leader, Campbell Bannerman, who listened attentively for two hours and in a speech soon afterwards introduced the term 'Methods of barbarism' which he used again in the House of Commons. Much of the party was incensed by this and he was branded as a traitor.

On 4 June she met the War Minister Sir John Broderick who claimed that the majority of women were there by choice and should have been grateful for what the British were doing. Emily hectored him for over an hour on the reality of the situation. Emily then produced a report for the Committee and a pamphlet on what she had seen which was made available for the papers.

Persuading the Government

Emily then embarked on a lecture tour and although many authorities cancelled her bookings, between 25 June and 23 July she did speak at 26 meetings. She was distressed by the widespread ignorance of South Africa and some meetings were disrupted by ruffians but nothing would deter her in her campaign. Where she was confronted by a hostile crowd she usually just sat out the disturbance refusing to be riled.

The Fawcett Commission

Eventually the government was persuaded to set up a committee of inquiry which would be sent to South Africa to investigate the situation. Emily was not invited to be a member-instead an arch rival Millicent Fawcett was to head a group of six women. Fawcett was a firm believer in Empire and president of the NUWSS and also wanted the uitlander to get the vote. The Commission spent four months in South Africa visiting 33 camps, living mainly in 2nd class train carriages. They found much to praise but also much to criticise:

 overcrowding

 poor and inadequate rations

 polluted water

 neglect of the basic rules of hygiene

 sick children sleeping on the ground

 failure to contain diseases

At Potchefstrom the Commission found a camp with 4900 people with just 65 latrines for women and 23 for men. At Aliwal North they found 1 latrine for every 177 women and children. At Bloemfontein they found conditions much improved but water still being fetched from the infected Modder.

There was much in the Fawcett report that Emily approved of but she criticised the report's criticism of the Boer women for being unhygienic and for using home cures (e.g. they used eucalyptus leaves to provide a soothing cream for the face). However nearly all the Fawcett's recommendation followed lines she herself had outlined. Had it not been for Emily it is doubtful whether the Fawcett Commission would have been set up although both women had reported little on the conditions inside the African camps which were worse than the Boer camps although Emily did later write to Chamberlain about the conditions in the native camps.

Foricbly carried in a chair

Eleven weeks after the departure of the Fawcett Commission Emily returned to South Africa despite being told by the government she should not. She had been alarmed about the continuing reports about conditions in the camps as the population increased as a result of Kitchener's drives with a consequent increase in the death rate. Emily kept quiet about returning because she had been refused permission to return to the camps. She left England on board the SS Avondale on 5 October, just four days before martial law was extended to the Cape Colony. The Avondale arrived in Table Bay on 27 October but she was horrified to see a launch with a British officer heading towards the Avondale as it anchored in the bay. The officer announced that he wanted to see every one of the 450 passengers and that Emily was to be the last to be examined. When at last she met the officer it was to be told she was under arrest and she was being sent back to England. She refused to go and for five days there were negotiations to try and persuade her to leave until in the end she had to be manhandled, tied to a chair, and taken to a returning hospital ship, the SS Roslin.

Back in England

Having arrived back in England, Emily returned to London to stay with Leonard Courtney and she then received numerous letters of support and requests to speak but she was far too weak to respond. A combination of prolonged nervous tension and a starvation diet had drained her strength and caused her to lose weight. When sufficiently recovered she travelled to Annecy in France to regain her strength and to write a book to counter all the criticism, particularly that of Conan Doyle who had criticised her honesty and the accuracy of her statements. Emily was in France when the peace was announced and she resolved to do all she could to help the Boer people recover from the devastation wreaked on their country.

Post war visits to South Africa

She returned to South Africa in April 1903 and toured the ruined districts of the former Boer republics and was aghast at what she saw. The hopelessness, and the suffering seemed to exist on a much wider level than before. She wrote letters to the press about the wretchedness and squalor that people existed in and was derided as hysterical and unpatriotic. Emily was tireless in distributing food and clothing, and supplying needy farmers with seed and grain and even buying oxen to help with the ploughing. It was on this trip that Emily made two lifelong friends -Olive Schreiner and General Smuts. She also now resolved to do something about the lack of employment of girls and eventually set up spinning schools for girls all over South Africa. She had a small cottage built in Bellvue, Johannesburg and spent two years fully occupied supervising her schools and arranging the marketing of the cloth they produced. In time there were twenty six of these schools in the former Boer republics.

Emily left South Africa in 1908 after the government had taken over the schools but did return in 1913 following the invitation by Steyn to open a monument commemorating the women and children who died n the camps. Emily worked with the sculptor, Van Wouw, in Italy, describing the scene which appeared on the monument. Emily arrived in South Africa but was too weak to get to Bloemfontein and her speech was read out by Mrs Steyn, a friend of Emily's. This was to be the last occasion that Emily was to visit South Africa and although she was to live another thirteen years they  were years beset with illness, lack of funds and controversy. She was a bitter critic of South Africa and Britain's involvement in the First World War and deplored the divisions in the Afrikaner community over the involvement in that war. She travelled to occupied Belgium and Germany during the war and was accused of being unpatriotic.

After the war Emily devoted herself to work for the Save the Children Fund, preparing reports on centres where aid might be needed. She was successful in her fund raising and even though she was in her 60s, was tireless in doing what she thought was right. Tireless as she was in working for others she failed to look after her own finances. She was saved from penury with a gift of £2300 from South Africa which she use to pay for a small cottage in St Ives.

Buried in Bloemfontein

Emily died in a nursing home on 8 June 1926 remembered in South Africa but forgotten in her native country. She was cremated and her ashes were buried at the foot of the Women's Memorial in Bloemfontein. At the internment ceremony Jan Smuts was the main speaker.

Emily Hobhouse

A British concentration for Boer families

Springfontein camp during a snow storm

RMS Saxon


Millicent Fawcett

Leonard Courtney

The memorial in Bloemfontein