Cornwall’s forgotten heroine Emily Hobhouse was a human rights champion

There are few Cornish women who changed the world like forgotten heroine Emily Hobhouse. The most controversial woman of her time, she changed the game for those in impoverished concentration camps run by the British government – and was referred to as “that bloody woman” for doing so.

The tenacious woman was born in St Ive, near Pensilva just outside of Liskeard, to the Trelawny family. She spent much of the first half of her life caring for her unwell father but by her late 30s she was travelling the world and leaving behind her mark.

Hobhouse is best known and revered for her strong-minded determination to expose the appalling conditions of Boer families who were herded into concentration camps run by the British during the Second Boer War in South Africa. She called them “wholesale cruelty” and the government at the time was not best pleased with her antics, as she revealed the appalling conditions within – with meagre food supplies, a lack of clean water and inadequate shelter.

Hobhouse was so well-regarded for her work at the time that Gandhi himself wrote her obituary, praising her for the change she brought upon the system. The Second Boer war lasted from 1899 to 1902 and was fought between the British Empire and two Boer states; The South African Republic and The Orange Free State, over the Empire’s influence in South Africa.

During her humanitarian efforts, Hobhouse was invited to become the secretary of the women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee. When she heard reports of the mistreatment of Boer people by the British Military, she quickly founded the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children to raise funds for their relief.

In December, 1900, she set sail to South Africa to distribute the funds and to investigate the inhumane conditions Boer families were forced to live in. When she left the country she only knew about one concentration camp existing, but on arrival she discovered there were many more. 

She was horrified by the overcrowding, neglect and lack of resources of the camps, where children were undernourished and disease was rife. Sickening pictures from the time show children that were nothing but skin and bones.

On arriving, she said: “I came quite naturally, in obedience to the feeling of unity or oneness of womanhood. It is when the community is shaken to its foundations, that abysmal depths of privation call to each other and that a deeper unity of humanity evinces itself.”

Her report on the horrific conditions at the British camps was delivered to the British Government in June 1901, where she said “to keep these camps going is to murder children”. As a result, a formal commission was set up and a team of official investigators were sent to inspect the camps. 

The mortality rate in the 18 months during which the camps were in operation reached a total of 26,370, of which 24,000 were children under 16 and infants. This meant the rate at which the children died was some 50 a day.

She went on to become an honorary citizen of South Africa for her humanitarian work, and back home purchased a house in St Ives – which now forms part of Porthminster Hotel. In her birthplace of St Ive a museum is due to be built to honour her life and activism.

There was no doubt that she was instrumental in bringing relief to the meagre conditions of such concentration camps and in her efforts she increased the amount of soap, tents, beds and clean drinking water for people within them. She also raised public awareness in Europe of the atrocities.

Sadly, when she returned to England she was largely criticised by the British Government and referred to as “that bloody woman” as MPs were completely unsympathetic about the camp conditions. They were so furious that she was even banned from returning to South Africa. 

Her spirit, however, persevered and she sent countless letters to newspapers meaning the camps became an international scandal. In 1903 she was able to go back to South Africa, where she led a rehabilitation project. It was a scheme where Boer women were taught valuable skills of lace-making, spinning and weaving to enable them to rebuild their lives.

Having died in Kensington, London in 1926, Hobhouse’s ashes were ensconced in a niche in the National Women’s Monument at Bloemfontein, one of South Africa’s capital cities, where she was regarded as a heroine. Her death and achievements were unreported in the Cornish press – making her a forgotten heroine of our county.

In her obituary, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “Miss Emily Hobhouse was one of the noblest and bravest of women. She worked without ever thinking of any reward. She belonged to a noble family. She loved her country and because she loved it, she could not tolerate any injustice done by it.

“She realised the atrocity of war. She thought Britain was wholly in the wrong. She denounced the war in burning language at a time when Britain was mad on it.

“She bore it all with the courage of a true heroine. She had a soul that could defy the might of kings and emperors with their armies. She feared no man because she feared God only.”

Emily Hobhouse 9 April 1860 – 8 June 1926

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