The Victorian Feminist Who Saved Thousands of Refugees in South Africa

Source Public Domain

Why you should care

Because loving your enemy like Emily Hobhouse did ain’t easy.

Mention the name Emily Hobhouse in her native England and you’ll be met with blank stares. But travel to South Africa — where she spent just three years of her life — and she’s a household name, a hero to Boers and Brits alike. Her cremated remains are stored not in Cornwall, where she was born in 1860, but in the Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein of Free State.

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Emily Hobhouse

Source Public Domain/Wikipedia

In the late 1800s, South Africa was controlled by several different entities, most notably two Boer republics and two British colonies. When gold was discovered in 1886 in Johannesburg, the Boer heartland, British ears perked up in a big way. What had once been considered worthless veld — Afrikaans for uncultivated grasslands — suddenly held incredible economic potential for Her Majesty. More than a decade of simmering tensions later, war broke out in 1899. The Boers established the early upper hand by besieging three British towns and, in the opinion of Rodney Constantine, a researcher at the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein, “by December 1900 the Boers had all but won the war.”

All that changed when General Kitchener replaced Lord Roberts as commander of the British Forces. “Kitchener was a really merciless chap who only cared about winning,” says Constantine. He took Roberts’ policy of burning Boer farms and putting their women, children and servants in concentration camps to the next level, and he despised any sign of compassion. The concentration camps — Brits preferred the term “refugee camps” — were some of the first-ever used (there had been similar camps in the Philippines and Cuba at the end of the 19th century), and the conditions were atrocious.

One can only wonder how many more Boers could have been spared if the British government had listened to her earlier.

Rodney Constantine

Overcrowding, lack of boiled water, leaking tents, food shortages and many other factors made them cesspits of disease and starvation. Interestingly, measles was one of the biggest killers of the era because the Boers, who lived far apart from one another on their farms, had never built immunity to the disease. The children in particular “died like flies,” says Constantine, comprising around 22,000 of the 28,000 deaths in white camps. Records for Black camps are not as accurate, but they also saw between 24,000 and 30,000 deaths.

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Bloemfontein concentration camp

Source The National Archives (United Kingdom)/Wikipedia

As horrific as these numbers were, they would have been far worse had it not been for Hobhouse. From a very young age, the Cornish woman had railed against social injustice, becoming part of the small but active Pro-Boer movement in England that opposed what they saw as an unjust war. Once she heard about the plight of the Boer women “left ragged by our military,” Hobhouse, then 39, founded the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children and sailed to the Cape to administer the proceeds.


Armed with nothing more than a letter from an influential uncle, Hobhouse convinced the governor of the Cape Colony to allow her to visit some of the camps. In “A Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies,” she wrote about the “wholesale cruelty” she saw and lamented having to “stand and look on at such misery” while doing “almost nothing.” She compares the dead children to “faded flowers” and describes the British position as “hollow and rotten to the heart’s core.”


Boer women and children in a British concentration camp during the Boer War

Source Public Domain/Wikipedia

After only three weeks in South Africa she returned to England, where she told anyone who would listen (and many refused) what she had seen — in the process making high-profile enemies. Leveraging her connections with opposition politicians, she managed to deliver her report to Parliament in June 1901 and a month later, the Women’s Commission was established to examine the living conditions, mortality and birth rates in the camps. The commission visited almost every concentration camp in South Africa, and when their recommendations were put in place in November 1901, the conditions improved significantly, reducing the number of deaths.


Emily Hobhouse visited Lizzie van Zyl, a Boer child, in a British concentration camp.

Source Public Domain/Wikipedia

A few months later, the Boers finally surrendered, and the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on May 31, 1902. “Thank God Hobhouse came to South Africa,” says Constantine. “She single-handedly saved thousands of lives.” The only regret? “One can only wonder how many more Boers could have been spared if the British government had listened to her earlier,” he notes.

After the war, Hobhouse returned to South Africa to help the Boer women rebuild their lives, setting up spinning and weaving schools. She also was instrumental in establishing the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, which commemorates everyone who died in the camps, both Black and white.

In the last 15 years of her life, Hobhouse battled ill health, but she never gave up the fight against injustice. In January 1915, she penned an open letter to the women of Germany and Austria to protest the mounting horrors of World War I — not a popular move in jingoistic Britain. After the war, Hobhouse, by then very sick, visited Germany to gauge the plight of German women and children. Through fundraising efforts in South Africa, she was able to provide 4.8 million hot meals for German children.

“Women weren’t meant to stand out in those days … but try telling that to Emily Hobhouse,” says Constantine, reflecting on Hobhouse’s role as a pacifist, suffragette and feminist, back when none of the three was popular.

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