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As part of our series honouring International Women’s Day I thought it prescient to bring attention to the British welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse. Throughout her life, Hobhouse was committed to combatting injustice and wasn’t afraid to bring public attention to the failures of a mighty British imperial government at the turn of the 20th century.
Born 1860 in St. Ives, Cornwall, Hobhouse was the daughter of the Anglican rector Reginald Hobhouse, first Archdeacon of Bodmin. Her upbringing saw the values of social liberalism instilled within her from an early age – for 14 years after her mother died when Hobhouse was aged 20, she cared for her dying father and upon his death nearly immediately travelled to Minnesota to provide welfare for immigrant Cornish mineworkers there. She returned to England in 1898.
At the time, Britain was at the height of its imperial strength with colonies all around the world. It rarely hesitated to employ force (most often in pursuit of financial gain) to subjugate other lands, or combat other colonists abroad. South Africa was no exception – the mineral rich lands there were contested by the British and Dutch-descended farmers known as the Boers. The Boers’ surprising adeptness at guerrilla combat surprised imperial soldiers and this led to the adoption of a ‘scorched earth’ policy. Essentially, this meant the complete destruction of Boer land so they had nowhere left to hide and nothing left to sustain themselves. Unfortunately (and inevitably) this led to mass population displacement, which the British elected to deal with by erecting makeshift camps to house Boer civilians while their homes were destroyed. The camps were rife with disease, hunger and overcrowding.
Hobhouse had been invited to become secretary of the women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee by Liberal MP Leonard Courtney in 1899. In this post, she travelled to Cape Colony (part of what is now South Africa) to oversee the distribution of the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children – which she founded – in 1900. Despite the resistance of the British authorities at the time, she was able to visit several of the camps and provide aid (before leaving she had known about only one camp, only upon arrival did she realise there were actually about 45 in total.) She also produced the famous report “Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies” for the attention of the British government, which spurred a commission headed by suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett to visit and assess the camps. The report described the camps’ excessive mortality rates and accused the British government of murdering children and excusing the detention of prisoners of war by portraying them as refugees. The scenes in the camps were abhorrent – people dying of malnourishment and typhoid and being buried in sacks in the camps, the only accommodation hot, crowded tents and barely any medical staff. Fuel for fires to boil dirty water was non-existent, as was soap. There was no infrastructure.
After the humanitarian visit (to which the British media and government reacted with scorn,) the Fawcett Commission highlighted the barbarism of the camps to MPs in Britain. Many didn’t care. The next time Hobhouse tried to visit South Africa, she was detained for 5 days and subsequently deported by the authorities. The Fawcett Commission was forced to include the daughter of the British governor in the region, a Hobhouse critic – and the little action the government took constituted little more than stopping admissions to the camps late in the war. They were eventually decommissioned at the end of the war in 1902.
Hobhouse subsequently continued her humanitarian work in South Africa, setting up schemes to teach displaced Boer women new industrial skills and calling for racial unity at a speech read out at the National Women’s monument in Bloemfontein in 1913. She also vehemently opposed the First World War and set up offices through which millions of central European children were fed in the face of mass shortages during the war. South Africa contributed around £500,000 to this scheme.
There was little fanfare in her native St Ives when she died, yet Hobhouse was groundbreaking in her exposing of British colonial exploits. We should remember and celebrate Emily Hobhouse as a true humanitarian.