Monday, 20 January 2014

Emily Hobhouse (1860 - 1926) - Inspirational Woman

“… the feeling of unity or oneness of womanhood…

…when the community is shaken to its foundations, that abysmal depths of privation call to each other and a deeper unity of humanity evinces itself…”   Emily Hobhouse

Emily was born in St. Ive in eastern Cornwall (not to be confused with St. Ives which is in the south of Cornwall), the daughter of Caroline (nee Trelawny) and Reginald Hobhouse.   Emily’s father was an Anglican Church minister and the first Archdeacon of Bodmin.   Her brother, Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse and cousin Stephen Henry Hobhouse, were also well-known pacifists.

Emily was educated at home.   Her Mother died when Emily was twenty and she then looked after her ailing father, and lived with her parents until the age of thirty-five.  After the death of her father, at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Emily went to Minnesota in 1895 to do charity work with miners from Cornwall who were living and working there.  

Emily returned to England in 1898, having lost most of her money in property speculation.

In October 1899 after the start of the Second Boer War, Emily was asked by Leonard Courtney, a Liberal Member of Parliament to act as secretary of the women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee.   Leonard Courtney was president of the Committee.

Emily heard about the plight of women and children in South Africa and in October 1900 formed the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children, which was set up to help women and children of all nationalities who were displaced due to the Boer War in South Africa.

Emily went to South Africa to oversee the work of the Fund, arriving in Cape Colony on 27th December 1900.   She had heard about a refugee camp at Port Elizabeth but once in situ Emily realised there were in all forty-five such camps so she set about visiting as many of them as she could and wrote a report on the conditions she witnessed.  The heat was terrible, there was overcrowding (hence the term “Concentration Camps”), little food, sanitation was non-existent and therefore sickness – such as Typhoid - was rife.   The refugees were living in tents – overheated during the day with the relentless sun and cold at night when a heavy dew drenched everything. 

Emily at once set about organising the camps and trying to alleviate the terrible suffering of the women and children in them, starting with the camp at Bloemfontein.   After the War Emily was made an honorary citizen of South Africa for her humanitarian work and money was collected to purchase a house for in St. Ives.   A blue plaque on the wall of the Porthminster Hotel in St. Ives records the fact that Emily once lived there.

Emily’s work and her pacifism went largely unrecorded in the UK.   The British Government were initially hostile towards her but eventually set up the Fawcett Commission, under the chairmanship of Milicent Fawcett in order to investigate Emily’s claims.   She was not allowed back to Cape Town so went to France where she wrote “The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell”.

She returned to South Africa in 1903 and taught young women spinning and weaving.  Ill health forced Emily to return to England in 1908, though she travelled to South Africa again in 1913 for the unveiling of the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein.

During the First World War, Emily organized protests and in January 1915 organized the writing, signing and publishing of an “Open Christmas Letter” to the women of Germany and Austria.   Thousands of women and children were given food daily for over a year in Central Europe through Emily’s efforts.  A grateful South Africa contributed a large sum to this fund.

Emily died in London in 1926 and her ashes are kept in the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein.

Source:  Wikipedia and The Wilfred Owen Story museum, Birkenhead. With grateful thanks for suggesting that I research Emily Hobhouse to Dean Johnson who runs the WOS.  Dean also wrote the wonderful "Bullets and Daffodils" musical about the life and work of Wilfred Owen.  Dean asked me to produce an exhibition of women who wrote poetry during WW for the WOS, which is how I came to start my project.  For further details of Dean's work, please see

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