WHEN war broke out on 4 August 1914, a fever of jingoism swept
the country, and young men rushed to enlist.
There were, however, some who felt great apprehension and
sadness at the turn of events. One of these was Emily Hobhouse, who
had already seen at first hand the devastating effects of war on a
She was born in Cornwall, in 1860, to the Revd Reginald Hobhouse
and his wife, Caroline. In later years, she said that the
self-discipline and sense of duty impressed on her by her father
prepared her for her future work.
Her aunt and uncle, Mary and Arthur Hobhouse, were also a great
influence on her. He was a Liberal MP, and later a Privy
Councillor, and she absorbed many of their ideals.
When Hobhouse was 20 years of age, her mother died, leaving her
to look after her ailing father for the next 14 years. After his
death, she went to stay with her brother in Oxford, and enjoyed the
academic atmosphere. Later, she moved to London, where she became
friends with the prominent Liberals Kate and Leonard Courtney.
When war with the Boer Republics was declared in 1899, the
Courtneys formed the South African Conciliation Committee to try
and restore peace by negotiation. Hobhouse entered wholeheartedly
into this, and took an active part.
The guerrilla tactics of the Boer commandos, mostly made up of
farmers, resulted in three early and devastating British defeats. A
policy of farm burning was instigated to curtail aid to the
commandos, and the occupants, mostly women and children, were
de-ported to tented concentration camps.
Hobhouse was appalled. Haunted by a vision of homeless women and
children, and in the face of great opposition, she started a
distress fund that had the support of many influential people.
EVENTUALLY, Hobhouse arrived in the Cape, and obtained
permission to go north to the Bloemfontein camp, taking with her
food and clothing bought with donated funds.
She found conditions harsh, and supplies lacking. Illness was
rife - there were insufficient nurses, and the army doctors had
little experience of women and children. The death rate was
Hobhouse determined that something drastic must be done. Ever
practical, she had some immediate recommendations: a matron for
each camp; more water and soap; more nurses; and schooling for the
After visiting a number of other camps, she returned to England
to make people aware of what was happening. She set out on a
speaking tour of the country, often experiencing violent heckling
and being labelled pro-Boer. Meanwhile, the Distress Fund committee
published a report, using extracts from Hobhouse's letters.
Although the Government derided her descriptions, a growing tide
of public opinion forced it to act. In July 1901, it announced that
a ladies' commission was being sent to report on the camps.
Hobhouse was saddened not to be included.
Many of the commission's recommendations were similar to hers,
and, with government approval, they were put into prac-tice. The
chronic death-rate, particularly among children, began to
Peace came in 1902. The following year, Hobhouse returned to
South Africa, and found the landscape in the north bare and
desolate. She organised ploughing teams for many districts, and
later started a successful scheme to teach spinning and
In 1913, a monument was erected to the 26,000 women and children
who died in the war, and Hobhouse was invited to Bloemfontein to
unveil it. Unfortunately, she could not attend because of illness,
and her speech was read to the 20,000 people present.
In it, she begged everyone to forgive their enemies; "for love
is more beautiful than hate, and hatred, like rust, eats into the
soulof a nation and an individual," she wrote. Talking of her own
part in the Boer War, she wrote: "I came, quite simply, in
obedience to the solidarity of your womanhood, and those nobler
traditions of English life in which I was nurtured, and which, by
long inheritance, are mine."
IN 1914, war was declared again, and Hobhouse was determined to
do all she could to bring it to a speedy end. In October, she
addressed an open letter to "Women Throughout Europe", saying that
a higher power was needed to bring about peace - the spiritual
force of Christianity.
In 1915, when she was Secretary for the Women's International
Bureau, she said that women wanted to get rid of the idea that one
side in the conflict was completely right, and one wrong. Since
both were a mixture, it seemed obvious that they should meet and
settle their differences amicably,and it was worse than foolish to
shed another drop of blood.
Ever a woman of action, she decided to go to Germany, primarily
to see the effects of the reduced food-supply on women and
children, and to visit British civilians in a camp near Berlin. She
also wanted to see the conditions in German-occupied Belgium.
With permission from a German government minister whom she met
in Switzerland, she went to Belgium. She found that conditions were
generally not as bad as they had been portrayed in Britain, but,
because she was not supposed to talk to any Belgians, she had
difficulty in ascertaining the true picture.
Then news came that she could go to Berlin, where she met the
Foreign Minister, Gottlieb von Jagow. She felt that he would be
willing to negotiate terms for peace.
Hobhouse visited the civilian camp, and, although she felt that
no camps were good, she found that this one was better than those
in South Africa. Nevertheless, she promised to try and obtain the
release of the inmates when she returned to England.
BACK home, she met Lord Newton at the Foreign Office, and told
him about her visit. He advised her to write to von Jagow to try
and arrange an exchange of civilian prisoners. She did, and
eventually this was organised.
She also met the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson,
whom she found kindly and well-meaning: he wanted to do his duty,
but lacked a powerful presence. She told him of her interview with
von Jagow, and of his general attitude of moderation, and begged
him to take the lead in bringing about negotiations.
Later, she wrote to him saying that she had met people in
various European countries who all hadthe same objective: they were
seeking a light to lighten their darkness, and there was only one
light, the eternal love, which encompasses all nations.
"I am jealous of our country that she should be the exponent of
this love," she wrote; "that she should initiate a great moral and
spiritual act such as would make her blessed amongst nations.
Without this, it seems to me that this righteousness is in
"My hope in telling you what I did was just this: that the
knowledge that our Opponent would support and forward such effort
would give irresistible power, and multitudes at home and abroad
would rise up and call you blessed."
But, despite all Hobhouse's efforts, the fighting continued
until November 1918. The terms of the peace treaty included clauses
that prohibited the Germans from fishing in the North Sea, and the
requirement to give up 140,000 milk cows.
Both of these issues outraged her. She telegraphed every
influential person she knew, asking that the Germans should be
allowed to keep their cows for the sake of the children. Meanwhile,
she discovered that starving children from Vienna could be taken to
Switzerland to recover, and she started raising money for this.
There was fighting still in Russia, and Hobhouse was hugely
concerned for the children, especially during the bitter winter.
She started the Babies of Petrograd Fund, to send essential
supplies, and even sold her house to help the work. Both of these
funds were incorporated into the new Save the Children Fund.
WHEN she heard of appalling conditions in Leipzig, she set off
to visit the city. Finding that the reports were correct, she
obtained pledges from prominent people to start a food scheme,
which eventually fed 11,000 children.
Although Hobhouse longedto return to South Africa, she suffered
much ill health over the following years, and died on 8 June 1926.
As she had wished, her ashes were sent to South Africa, where they
were interred at the base ofthe Women's Memorial, Bloemfontein. It
was a momentous occasion, and many dignitaries were present.
Hobhouse had led her life according to her firm belief that she
should love her enemies. It would have pleased her greatly that, in
his speech, Jan Smuts, the statesman and one-time Boer general,
"We stood alone in the world, almost friendless against the
mightiest Empire on earth," he said. "And then one small hand,
thehand of a woman, was stretchedout to us. At that darkest hour,
when our race almost seemed doomed to extinction, she appeared as
an angel. . . Strangest of all, she was an Englishwoman . . . the
great symbol of reconciliation between closely kin people who
should never have been enemies."