Emily and the Boer WarIn October 1899 the Second-Anglo Boer began and soon had the full support of the British public following a campaign by the popular press. There was however an opposition to the war. Perhaps the name most associated with that opposition was Emily Hobhouse. She brought to light the awful conditions in the British concentration camps and raised money to help the Boer families trapped in those camps. Had it not been for her later 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 for 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.
St Ive church, near Liskeard, where Emily's father was minister
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 dieIn 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 WestReginald'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.
Sir Leonard Courtney
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.
A Boer family
Farmburning was part of the scorched earth policy introduced by Kitchener in South Africa
Bloemfontein concentration camp
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.
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
A family in a concentration camp
A Boer mother and child in a British concentration camp
Lizzie van Zyl who died in Bloemfontein camp aged seven, in 1901. On ther back of a photograph of Lizzie, Emily wrote, 'One of our little skeletons'
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 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."
Emily was forced to return homeHer 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.
Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal leader and Prime Minister 1905-1908
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:
- 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.
Forcibly carried in a chair back aboardEleven 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.
SS Roslin Castle
Back in EnglandHaving 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.
Olive Schreiner, author of 'An African Farm' who became a firm friend of Emily
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.
Bloemfontein Women's Memorial where Emily's ashes lie
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.