Book review: Emily Hobhouse – Beloved Traitor by Elsabé Brits

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Emily Hobhouse – Beloved Traitor
Elsabé Brits
ISBN: 9780624076629

Emily Hobhouse has a great story to tell. It is a story of immense courage. By no means did she stand alone in the strong protesting against what the British in the Orange Free State (now Free State) and Transvaal (Gauteng) were doing at the time of the South African War (1899–1902). Her philanthropic efforts extended beyond South Africa, as in working with the war-torn children in post-First World War Germany. Her story, however, is unique in that she was the foremost campaigner against the British government policy regarding South Africa at the time of the South African War. When one reads Emily Hobhouse – Beloved Traitor, the reasons for the oxymoron title of the book become clear.

Emily Hobhouse in 1902.  This photograph of Emily Hobhouse when she was 38 years old was downloaded on 15 October 2016 from

Emily was the fifth of six surviving children, and the youngest daughter of Reginald and Caroline Hobhouse. She was born on 9 April 1860 into an upper middle-class family in the Victorian age. Her father was the Archdeacon of Bodmin in whose parishes, from a young age, the young Emily would do welfare work. Some of this work included founding a library, visiting the sick (covering the distances on foot) and always wanting to make a difference in people’s lives. She was clearly watching her father, who assiduously worked for the poor in the parishes. Her mother was from a family of English gentry.

This photograph of Caroline Hobhouse (born Salusbury-Trelawny) was downloaded on 15 October 2016 from

The curate at her father’s parish at St Ive, St Aubyn Rogers, had a strong influence on Emily. In a way, he was the ideal balance for her father, who was preoccupied with parish affairs and often sick. Rogers took notice of her and spent time with her and this meant more to her than the lessons she had with tutors. Even when at 16 she went to finishing school in London, her brain was not nearly fully enough challenged, which just made her even more resentful. From an early age she had this burning desire to learn. Not even the sermons from her father’s pulpit, that she heard week after week, were enough for her enquiring mind. In fact, she found them too parochial and yearned for something greater and more universal.

After her mother’s death when Emily was just 20 years old, she had to look after her aging and sickly father and continued to find that the development of her talents was stifled. However, there was some respite from boredom as she read The Times to her father.

After his passing in January 1895, she now felt liberated, packed her bags, and departed from St Ive, never to return.

While in Victorian times it was a stigma to be unmarried at 35, Emily nevertheless felt unhindered by this and was more preoccupied with seeing the world. Her commitment to helping others grew from an early age. Now it was time to see where this help could best be put to practical use.

The plight of the Cornish coal miners who had emigrated to the town of Virginia in Minnesota in the United States caught her attention. She subsequently travelled across the seas to work among them and found it rewarding to engage in a programme for temperance. Drinking and alcoholism among miners was something she had already witnessed when she was living at St Ive, because nearby were mining communities whose plight she was already well aware of.

In Virginia, apart from working directly for the upliftment of the miners, she campaigned to keep the library open on Sundays and visited jailed women convicted on charges of prostitution.

The minister of the local Episcopal Church, the Reverend McGonicle, not happy with how she was taking on a role at that time that was not usual for a young woman, began preaching against her in his church.

In contrast to McGonicle was John Carr Jackson, who admired Emily for her work in temperance and for uplifting the community through the reading of books. A romance between Emily and John developed and from the accounts that one reads, there was a strong intention for them to marry. However, events between 1885 and 1897 turned out to be very different. Readers will be curious to follow them and find out for themselves what transpired.

Soon Emily was back home, where she took up residence with her beloved aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Hobhouse. Since they were pacifists, Emily could connect with them, especially in the light of the looming war in South Africa that eventually broke out in 1899 between the government of the South African Republic and Britain. Hobhouse saw it as an unjust act, although in her home country this was a point hard to drive home. The resultant divide in British society merely fuelled her to continue her campaign, and reports reaching Britain about the atrocious circumstances in South Africa made her ask questions such as how she should deal with this, especially being so far away from it all. Would she ever be able to bear relief to the suffering? She seriously wanted to make a difference in the lives of “women and children homeless, desperate and distressed”.

Brits’s practical task in writing this biography would involve questions such as where to locate new (archival) material for a book on Hobhouse. So much had already been written on the person. A monumental breakthrough came when she traced a relative to Vancouver Island in Canada. Jennifer Hobhouse Balme, a distant descendant of Emily Hobhouse, curated a collection of material, including diaries and manuscripts, about her campaigns in South Africa at the time of the South African War and her work in Germany after the First World War. This archival collection had passed down through the Hobhouse family. There it was, in boxes and trunks … read the account of how Brits came to work on the collection on the Hobhouse material in Canada (8–9): “Here was Emily … in these diaries and scrapbooks. An unprecedented, intimate angle on the real Emily.” As Jennifer Hobhouse Balme herself had used much of the material and put out several books on Emily Hobhouse, the question remained: How would Brits’s book be different?

This cover of editor Jennifer Hobhouse Balme’s book that she compiled on Emily Hobhouse, entitled To Love One’s Enemies, was downloaded on 16 October 2016 from

The difference in Brits’s text lies in the fact that it focuses on Hobhouse’s personal life to gain a rounded idea of her career in humanitarian activism. Her study, based on primary archival research, always puts Hobhouse at the centre of the writing, examining her in context of her perceptions and experiences. Her English background in liberal politics, her own genetic mapping, her experiences working with communities for their upliftment, the historical contexts of what was happening in the countries where she went to work, especially South Africa and later Germany, are the factors that Brits synthesises in this work.

A case in point is in the concentration camps in South Africa. It might be unfair to suggest that Brits more universally needed to contextualise the concentration camps set up in South Africa during the South African War. It was in Cuba in 1895 that the most barbarous possible means of suppression were employed under General Valeriano Weyler, named “the butcher”. He had taken over as the Captain General in the Cuban war of independence from Spain. Unable to control the support for the Cuban rebel forces, he instituted a policy whereby Cubans were placed in concentration camps.

Four years after, a newly appointed commander-in-chief of the British forces in South Africa, Horatio Herbert Kitchener who arrived from the Sudan, where he had been the governor-general, issued a memorandum that was to define the concentration camps. It was against this policy that Hobhouse would strongly campaign.

She arrived in South Africa on 27 December 1900 to work to assist the women and children caught up in war. Soon after her arrival, she received news that 4 000 women and children had been sent to a refugee camp outside Johannesburg. At the same time, she got the news that around 600 farmhouses had been burnt down in a week (30 000 were burnt down altogether in the war). However, she soon found herself up against Kitchener, known for his “antipathy towards women”, and it was difficult for her to get an interview with Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner. Her connections, however, were to come in handy, as in Britain she had links with important families and strong acquaintances at the Cape, such as John X Merriman, on whose farm Schoongezicht she stayed for a brief while before proceeding north to visit the camps.

For further reading about the conditions in the concentration camps, see Elizabeth van Heyningen’s work that shares the histories and tragedies of those who died in them during the South African War. The picture on the book’s cover is by Trevor Samson. The image of the cover is from (downloaded on 16 October 2016).

Eventually a meeting with Milner took place, in which he acknowledged that “the scorched-earth policy was a mistake”. Hobhouse was to be given permission to visit the concentration camps under certain conditions, explained on p 46 in the Brits text. It was through her personal contacts that she managed to go north, with the purpose of distributing funds for the benefit of the women in the concentration camps, as long as she went unaccompanied and would not go any further north than Bloemfontein.

Her dramatic departure from Cape Town for Bloemfontein on 21 January 1901 saw her venture into “a strange, hot, war-stricken north” with a large group to see her off at the Cape Town station, both by friends she already knew and new ones that she had made in the city. It was to the camps south of Bloemfontein, with 2 000 women, 900 children and some interned “handsuppers”, that Hobhouse’s unique story of the conditions in the concentration camps begins. (For further reading see The brunt of the War and where it fell by Emily Hobhouse.) To follow where she visited on this journey, see the itinerary outlined on p 71 in Brits.

Back at home, Emily was seen as somewhat of a renegade, firstly because she was sympathising with the enemy and secondly because of her social standing. Victorian times required women to fulfil the role of staying at home, do needlework, play the piano, paint, learn more than one language … and (ironically) serve on welfare committees. Her statements about the concentration camps were seen as politically inflammatory. The British Secretary for War, St John Brodrick, issued a statement to the effect that approximately 20 000, 30 000, 40 000 women had voluntarily come to the camps, “for food and protection against blacks”. Hobhouse was soon painted as a mischief-maker trying to gain political ends from her visit to South Africa. However, her resolve to inform the British public about the conditions in the concentration camps in South Africa never wavered. Not all of her protestations fell on deaf ears.

A considerable breakthrough came when Liberal Party MP Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and a future British prime minister gave her a hearing. This led to a request from David Lloyd George to Parliament to discuss what was happening in South Africa.

While several high-ranking British Liberal politicians started to take note of Hobhouse’s first-hand knowledge of the atrocities in the concentration camps, the Conservatives tried to bury their heads in the sand over the issue. The phrase coined by Campbell-Bannerman, “methods of barbarism”, began to echo through the corridors and halls of power in Britain. For the most part, however, Hobhouse was resented for her “unpatriotic conduct”. The jingoes denounced her as a traitor. The majority of the newspapers wrote scathing reports about her. Debates raged on, Conservatives holding on to the fact that the camps were refugee camps for the protection of women and children, saying that war is war; while the Liberals argued that there was a policy of extermination going on in South Africa. The report that Hobhouse penned for the Committee of the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children was circulated in the Houses of Parliament, causing a further stir.

See Rebecca Gill’s Calculating compassion: Humanity and relief in war, Britain 1870–1914, Manchester University Press, 2013, which examines the origins of British relief work in late 19th-century wars on the continent and the fringes of Empire. Starting with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 it follows distinguished surgeons and “lady amateurs” as they distributed aid to wounded soldiers and distressed civilians, often in the face of considerable suspicion. Dispensing with the notion of shared “humanitarian” ideals, it examines the complex, and sometimes controversial, origins of organised relief, and illuminates the emergence of practices and protocols still recognisable in the delivery of overseas aid. This book is intended for students, academics and relief practitioners interested in the historical concerns of first-generation relief agencies such as the British Red Cross Society and the Save the Children Fund, and their legacies today.

In areas such as Leeds and Manchester, her pleas for support for the victims in the concentration camps were listened to with a great deal more sympathy. She had to explain that the women and children were not dirty because they did not wash themselves. She had to educate the British public against the lies that the British government were telling.

In the meantime, conditions in the camps were getting worse as the numbers of interns grew (93 940 whites and 24 457 blacks). And the death rate rose: in May 1901, 505; in June, 782; and in July, 1675. By 29 September the number of inmates had increased and by August, 1 878 had died. The death rate of children escalated phenomenally and by 29 September 3 245 children had died.

Meanwhile, the British government had sent out a committee of women to visit South Africa, but these were not women sympathetic to the Boer cause and this greatly irked Hobhouse. She was not really interested in the politics of the war – her concern always remained the plight of the sick and dying in the camps.

A painting by WH Coetzer depicting the scorched earth policy at the time of the South Africa War. This policy led to the destruction of about 30 000 Boer farmhouses and the partial and complete destruction of more than 40 towns. Thousands of women and children were removed from their homes by force. They had little or no time to remove valuables before the houses was burnt down. They were then taken by ox wagon or in open cattle trucks to the nearest camp. The image of the painting is from (downloaded 16 October 2016).

While at home in England, Hobhouse felt frustrated and helpless at being so far away from South Africa. A burning desire to help those suffering in the camps made her want to return, all along knowing that the military authorities would probably never allow her back. This notwithstanding, she set sail incognita and arrived at Table Bay on 27 October 1901. She thought that she might be able to get ashore and travel to see the conditions in the concentration camps in South Africa, fully aware that there was a potential risk that the authorities would bar her. She was not wrong, for she was prohibited from leaving the Avondale Castle. Strong protestations resulted in her being tied down and placed on a stretcher, after which she was returned to her cabin. After 24 days she arrived back in England.

Her travelling had not been in vain, however – years afterwards, writing to her friend Tibbie Steyn, the widow to the former president of the Orange Free State, she described the disgusting conditions in which she had travelled. The experience had made her sympathise with the tens of thousands of South African countrywomen and what they endured to meet “exposure unprepared”.

Meanwhile, the committee of women that had been sent to South Africa on a fact-finding mission to the camps by the British government soon began to change their mind based on what they were seeing. One of them, a member of the Ladies’ Commission, is reported to have said, “We all feel that the policy of the ‘Camps’ was a huge mistake which no-one but these unpractical ignorant Army men could have committed. It has made the people hate us …”

There were overlaps between their report and Hobhouse’s, which started giving her some sort of credibility. Some of the recommendations put into place started to reduce the mortality rate of children, such as purifying the water, pitching more tents – all recommendations that Hobhouse had made on her 1901 visit. One of the British officials made the statement that at the time, had the authorities listened to Hobhouse, a great many lives might have been saved. Such was her foresight.

In the spring of 1902, while staying in France, Hobhouse wrote her book The brunt of the War and where it fell  to give the perspective of the war from the standpoint of the women and children in the concentration camps in South Africa. It was from there that she learnt of the peace that had been made on 31 May 1902 between the Boer Republics and Britain. This meant she would probably be able to move around more freely in South Africa.

Time had hardly passed when in May 1903 she was back on a visit to South Africa. Pleased to see her friends, after a short stay in Cape Town she travelled to the Karoo to meet Olive Schreiner. Schreiner had come to know her through The brunt of the War and commended her for it.

From there, she went to see for herself what post-war Free State and the Transvaal looked like, writing, “The country is a sort of Ezekiel’s Valley. Thousands of sheep on one side and hundreds on the other – skulls and bones white as snow, and horses, horses all along the way.” Whereas on her earlier visit there had been a kind of ambivalence about her being in South Africa among those who did not really understand her position and did not know the gravity surrounding the war in South Africa, now most were convinced of her genuine concern for the plight of those suffering in the camps. On p 137 Brits reflects Emily’s travels through the scorched earth landscapes after the Boer War, starting on 12 June 1903 and ending on 4 October when she returned to Bloemfontein.

Reading Tibbie, a book about a remarkable person, Tibbie Steyn (by Elbie Truter, who researched the topic of her life for her master's and doctoral theses), will provide further insights about Hobhouse (and her relationship with Mrs Steyn). The author was encouraged to engage in the research after she had repudiated a newspaper correspondent's claim of a possible relationship between General Smuts and Emily Hobhouse.

The intensity of her tour in South Africa, fitting in many places in this short time, attests to the great amount of energy that Hobhouse possessed. In the course of her journey she stopped over in Pretoria to visit Jan Smuts, whom she saw as a future leader. In reality, in the countryside, it was most distressing to see the hunger in peoples’ eyes. All the time, she was under secret surveillance as the British authorities had her every move covered. Foremost was the humanitarian work and her concern that the stricken should be cared for, the hungry fed and even that the farmers should enter into ploughing plans and that there should be sufficient rations for the black workers. She became much loved on the journeys – some named their children after her, and some even asked her to be their child’s godmother.

On 22 December 1903 Hobhouse returned to England from her South African visit and after a few months there, she undertook a trip to France in April 1904 to visit her friend Tibbie Steyn, who had accompanied her husband, MT Steyn, abroad. She also visited the president of the South African Republic, Paul Kruger, who was living in exile in Switzerland, never to return alive to South Africa – it would have meant having to be a British subject, something he was not able to reconcile himself to. Emily did not really get much from the visit other than to think that this person is from another age. Her travels in Europe at the time extended as far afield as to the Italian island city of Venice. She had ventured there to learn more about the art of lace-making, a lifelong passion and a craft that she had learnt from the Boer women. Would she not be able to initiate lace-making industries for the women in South Africa? Soon she was off on a fact-finding journey to Ireland to meet up with experts ready to teach spinning and weaving. South Africa’s abundance of wool could be ideal for this industry.

From there she followed the plight of the of the Chinese indentured labour imported for work on the mines and plantations. Correspondence between her and Smuts over the issue ensued, but his attitude did not impress her. He might have been writing a bit tongue-in-cheek when he commented that he preferred to sit still, water his orange trees and study Kant’s critical philosophy … Hobhouse even wondered if he had felt that he had crossed the Rubicon (see p 143 for the image of Smuts created in Emily’s mind).

Emily was now back in England, resident at the home of Liberals Arthur and Mary Hobhouse (Arthur, Lord Hobhouse, being her late father’s youngest brother). A wonderful surprise lay ahead for her: the Distress Fund organised a special function in honour of the great work that Emily had done in South Africa, and there were several dignitaries present with messages from Earl Spencer (the great-grandfather of the late Diana, Princess of Wales).

A further break for Emily came in 1905 when she met Margaret Clark, a Quaker from Street who wanted to assist with the spinning and weaving industry in South Africa and possibly even the art of lace-making in post-Boer War South Africa. The relationship between the two is significant for Hobhouse’s story, as both these women made a significant contribution to social life in South Africa. On her travels to South Africa Margaret was to meet Smuts and they enjoyed a lifelong friendship. Margaret married a wealthy banker and they had a son whom they named Jan, after Jan Smuts. Botanising was a much-favoured pastime of Smuts’s and he introduced the family to this activity, which influenced the young Jan Gillett, Margaret’s son. The obituary of Jan Gillett is available at this link and shows the link with South Africa, initially created between Hobhouse and Margaret Gillett-Clark. It demonstrates how the influence of Hobhouse stretched to areas of British society.

Margaret Clark was from the Clark family who owned the British company C & J Clark International Limited, which still today trades as Clarks, an international shoe manufacturer and retailer, founded in 1825 by brothers Cyrus and James in Street, Somerset, England. Margaret had had exposure to the way in which her family’s enterprise extended beyond the raw manufacturing to benefit social initiatives such as schooling, a theatre, sport and a library. Teaching and learning as in the Clark’s ventures in England now also became part of Emily’s school at Philippolis in the Free State in South Africa, where they started to teach young women who were widows from the war how to spin and weave. One evening at the school a reading from Paraclesus, a physician and botanist, inspired Petronella Van Heerden, the 18-year-old daughter of the local magistrate. Emily introduced her to further reading, such as John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethicfurther.

Another visit to Smuts’s in Pretoria was a delightful respite for Emily from the school, and to have the conversation with the likes of Jan and Isie Smuts at their home in Irene, equally so. She wanted more spinning and weaving schools. She also consulted Louis Botha, a future South African prime minister. It was generally agreed that creating a spinning and weaving industry was one method of creating employment for the jobless, especially in light of the slum neighbourhoods that had mushroomed in the countryside. It was also a way of creating employment for the orphanages.

Read Piet Beukes’s The Romantic Smuts – Women and love in his life, Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1992, for a description of the personal life of Jan Smuts, and an analysis of his relationships, revealing the tender and romantic side of his persona … and his acquaintances with Emily Hobhouse, Margaret Clark and others.

At the time she was visiting in Pretoria, Hobhouse was making the necessary arrangements to return to England to spend time with her beloved Aunt Mary. In her absence, Margaret was to run the school at Philippolis. A telegram arrived to say that meanwhile Aunt Mary had died. A close family friend relayed to Emily the news that her aunt had specifically asked that her farewell tidings be sent to her beloved niece, Emily.

Quite a significant change came over Emily, and she was now becoming a bit restless. She was to leave the school in the Free State and establish a new one at Langlaagte in the south of Johannesburg. Huge challenges lay ahead to procure more spinning equipment. One consignment of spinning wheels that arrived from Switzerland had been damaged in the containers, which required carpenters to repair them.

A further setback was Margaret’s return to England. Emily’s Aunt Mary’s death and the departure of Margaret made her yearn for more privacy. With Smuts’s help she managed to acquire a plot and build a house in Bellevue in Johannesburg, a suburb over the years inhabited by, among others, Mohandas Gandhi, Herman Charles Bosman, Joe Slovo and Ronnie Kasrils.

Important moments in South African and British history were experienced from her house, number 91 Becker Street, Bellevue, named Mara. The text by Brits does not suggest an explanation for Emily’s giving it this name. Was this perhaps because she had felt bitter, like Naomi in the biblical texts (Ruth 1 v 20)? Nevertheless, from this house Emily came to learn about the change of government in Britain, where the Liberals had defeated the Conservatives, with Balfour succeeded by Emily’s acquaintance Campbell-Bannerman. Amid these events in Britain, in South Africa the spinning and weaving industry was gradually growing from the efforts of Hobhouse and Clark. From Philippolis and Langlaagte it spread to Bellevue, as well as to a distribution depot at Waterkloof, a small town south of Philippolis. It was once again time for a visit to England, to campaign there for further support for the spinning and weaving industry in South Africa, to address the Boer Home Industries and visit Switzerland to thank those who had sent out spinning wheels (1 000), and return to France to learn still more about lace-making.

Emily’s sojourn was action-packed – a psychic in France warned about the poor condition of her heart, and she found solace in a new St Bernard puppy named Caro, after her lost love, John Carr Jackson.

The scene in the South Africa that she returned to in April 1907 was a more positive one than in the past – Margaret Clark was back at Philippolis, and new officials were in charge of the government departments she worked with. The spinning and weaving industries were going ahead nicely. Hobhouse decided to move to Pretoria, where she bought 305 Wessels Street, and a new school, the Central School, was built. The skills of the students there was to include business skills training – uncanny how she always thought of everything.

Another visit to Olive Schreiner gave her courage that solitude was a source of strength. She would still like to be married and have a child, as she confessed in her letter to Isie Smuts (180). Her children were the 26 schools that she had been responsible for establishing.

In October 1908 she left for Europe to follow up on the lace-making industry she always dreamt of. The Chinese indentured labour question still lay heavy on her heart and the vulnerability of women and their rights strong on her mind. Now, reading Justice and Liberty by GL Dickinson converted her to becoming a complete socialist. In 1909 Emily, her brother Leonard Hobhouse and the philosopher Bertrand Russell founded the People’s Suffrage Federation, joined by the Women’s Labour League and Women’s Railway Guild. At this link read the article by Russell entitled Should Suffragists welcome the People’s Suffrage Federation (1909)? Hobhouse’s mission would be the initiation of women suffrage to achieve true political representation (women in Britain being excluded from the vote).

On another visit to Venice to study lace-making she met Lucia Starace who, with several others in October 1909, including Johanna Osborne, came out from Europe to Koppies on the Renoster River in the Free State to open the first lace-making school. Added in the text is a photograph (courtesy of Ferdinando and Hilda Coppola) of the striking Lucia reclining in a cane chair with a black cat comfortably settled on the table to her right. Reading about the different styles and methods of lace-making activities on p 192 et sequitur, for instance the Reticella, or the various names given to the patterns designed there, is truly an eye-opener to its intricate beauty.

Emily was now in Rome, but seriously struggling with her health, and at 49, getting on. To make things worse, she lived up on a hill and the 100 steps up from the piazza made it a real challenge for her angina. The lace school flourished and patters such as the “Wag ’n bietjie” pattern, designed by Emily from the local “wag ’n bietjie” (“wait a bit”) thorn tree, can be seen at the Bloemfontein War Museum where they are curated.

The famous “Wag ’n bietjie” pattern, designed by Emily Hobhouse from the local “wag ’n bietjie” thorn tree. Photo used with kind permission of the War Museum of the Boer Republics Collection (Bloemfontein, South Africa), downloaded from on 16 October 2016.

As time passed, a monument to memorialise the suffering of the women and children of the South African War was commissioned with the well-known South African sculptor Anton Van Wouw selected for this. Of the most interesting accounts as to how this great task materialised awaits readers as they see Emily’s profound hand in the design, from her apartment in Rome, visited by Van Wouw, even suggesting that he should incorporate Michelangelo’s Pietá in it. (She had visited Florence and seen the Pietá for herself, so she had first-hand knowledge of what it looked like.) Important is p 201 to appreciate Emily’s views that any monument for the war and its victims should include the suffering by blacks. Her international standing demanded that her concern for this aspect of memorialisation be included. Thus, she insisted that the memorialisation be national and inclusive, not sectionalist, and this caused much debate among the policymakers in South Africa. Her thoughts were with prominent persons in South Africa at the time, who included Mohandas Gandhi and Pixley ka Izaka Seme. This was the time the South African Native National Congress was being born (later to become the ANC, renamed thus in 1924). Her views on race were clearly universal.

From, downloaded on 19 October 2016.

After the sculptor Anton Van Wouw had had detailed discussions with the architect of the war memorial to be constructed near some koppies (rock outcrops) to the south of Bloemfontein, he departed for Italy, where he started working on the group of sculptures and the panels in bas-relief in the studio of Canova in Rome. During this time he was in constant contact with Emily Hobhouse, who also visited him in Rome. She told Van Wouw about an incident during the war when she was visiting the concentration camps. The story she told him undoubtedly moved him to completely change the original design he had in mind for the main group of sculptures. 

The National Women’s Memorial dedicated to women and children was unveiled on 16 December 1913 and represents the ideals of former Free State President MT Steyn and Emily Hobhouse. Today it attempts “to reflect, to learn and to celebrate, establishing the National Women’s Memorial as an iconic and living heritage site, a reference and tourism destination; and to create a legacy and foundation for sustainable development for future generations” ( The memory of Hobhouse lives on in it, even if she was unable to be at the opening. As she was on her way to Bloemfontein for the opening, the intense Karoo heat caught up with her. Having arrived exhausted at Beaufort West, she was forced to turn back to Cape Town. Consequently, she was unable to be in Bloemfontein for the unveiling of the monument, but her speech was read on her behalf on 16 December 1913. Visit for updated text and visuals. Above all, see the sculpture through the eyes of Emily Hobhouse as she witnessed first-hand the suffering of the women and children of the concentration camps. Also look at Michelangelo’s Pietá for some remarkable similarities.

Michelangelo's Pietà that served as an inspiration for Van Wouw's bas-relief for the National Women’s Memorial (Vrouemonument).

Hobhouse identified with Gandhi’s cause about the legislation that forced Indians and Chinese living in the Transvaal to carry a certificate as a pass, with failure to do so prohibiting them from trading, and possibly resulting in their facing imprisonment. This was one of many restrictive laws passed against Indians which called for protest action under which Gandhi was later imprisoned (1913). Emily Hobhouse took up the cause for the Indians in South Africa, as she did for other unrepresented persons or groups. Her efforts contributed to some adjustments to the strict laws. Gandhi wrote to Hobhouse to say how he had followed her career and admired her courage for it.

Meanwhile, Smuts and Hobhouse grew further apart because of differing political views. In the past, sometimes Smuts would be at the quay in Cape Town to say farewell or bid her welcome when she travelled to and from South Africa. Now it was Gandhi who was there in Table Bay to bid her farewell on her journey back home (March 1914).

Downloaded from on 20 October 2016.

Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in South Africa in 1893 to work as a legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders based in the city of Pretoria. He spent 21 years in South Africa, where he developed his political views, ethics and political leadership skills. Here is a portrait of him just before he was assassinated in 1948.

The student of history can read up from p 220 for a summary of the background to World War I. This is where the Brits text is different from many of the other texts on Hobhouse. As a science journalist Brits can strongly contextualise the events, although Hobhouse remains at the centre of the events. Emily viewed the outbreak of war as another Armageddon. Back in England, she sided with her influential friends, including the Courtneys, Bertrand Russell, Ramsay MacDonald (who had visited South Africa in 1902 and was appalled at what he saw) and others who had established the Union of Democratic Control to temper the war hysteria and instead to resort to reason. Old faces popped up again, not least the barbaric Kitchener whom she knew about from previous experiences.

Meanwhile Hobhouse in an open letter dated October 1914 addressed the women of Europe, arguing that there was no difference between the people of Britain and those of Germany. Her aim once again was to focus attention on the plight of the women and children caught up in the exigencies of war. Her correspondence with Smuts about the war, her visit to Europe (where she met up with Petronella Van Heerden in Amsterdam whom she knew from the spinning school in the Free State), a photograph of the beautiful young Nella, as she was called, a hitherto unpublished photo of Emily resting at the Hobhouse family home, Hadspen in Somerset, England, in 1916, and the first page of a banned article by Hobhouse published in Dreadnought (the socialist and feminist newspaper) all appear in chapter 16 of the Brits text – real pearls!

At that stage, and very ill herself, she nevertheless undertook a journey through Belgium and Germany from 6 June until the end of that month in 1916 (see her itinerary on p 239) to visit the camps where men, women and children were imprisoned, and to speak with high-ranking authorities to end the war. It is in chapter 18 that the “traitor” element in the story surfaces mostly. Questions were asked in Parliament about how it was possible for a woman like Hobhouse to travel as she did through enemy country. Who gave the permission? Was there no way of bringing to justice a lady who just goes off in order to betray the country? Her answer: it was a journey with a “humanitarian pass”.

Many Britons now turned against her. Even Smuts cold-shouldered her, and preferred visiting Margaret Clark, married, now Margaret Clark-Gillett. Even Louis Botha stopped his contact with her. Visiting Germany after the war brought images there of the same things she had witnessed when she travelled though South Africa after the Boer War.

She returned to Germany in September 1919 to see the suffering there and get an idea of the conditions and the needs of the children. She assisted in the Save the Children Fund to get supplies to the needy children and brought those in dire need of recuperation to places in Olivella, Switzerland. Children came from all over the areas east of France – Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary – to get healing. In Leipzig alone there were 30 000 children in need of food. The efforts to send funds and food were made from many different quarters: banks, relief funds and the many organisations supported by the Quakers.

By January 1920 Emily was feeding 225 children in four schools in Leipzig. By May she was feeding 34 schools, and 11 000 children! No funds were sent by the British government, as they resisted her request. Through the efforts of Tibbie Steyn in Bloemfontein, enough money was raised in South Africa to make some war-torn children in war-ravaged Europe receive Christmas gifts! Enough money was raised from South Africa to keep the feeding scheme in Leipzig going until 1922. From January 1920 to January 1921 Emily’s scheme provided 3,4 million hot meals for children. From January 1921 to when the scheme ended in March 1922 another 1,4 million hot meals were provided. Only one staff member was employed. There was no money spent on administration. A rare photograph provided by Jennifer Hobhouse Balme shows a very tired Hobhouse seated in a chair, probably in Leipzig, surrounded by persons whose names are unknown. The work Emily had done in Leipzig significantly contributed to the improvement of the health of those children. Yet in Britain a law was passed which gave women over 30 the vote if they were married, a graduate or owned property. Ironically, the very person who had strongly campaigned for women’s rights, qualified for none of these categories.

With the help of friends, especially from South Africa, Emily was able to purchase a house at St Ive at the sea in Cornwall, not far from where she had grown up. Here she spent time resting and writing. Her philosophies are reflected in chapter 20 of the Brits text – worth spending some time over, reading, and rereading, to get a better of idea of her inner spiritual thoughts. What is the role and value of silence in our lives? Now a semi-invalid, she moved to London (1923). Unbelievably, from there she upped and went to investigate the suffering of people in Germany. Then, in 1924, the city of Leipzig honoured her for her work for its children in a time of great need (24 December 1924). This was the year that the Pact Government came into power in South Africa, which was the start of the escalation of segregationist legislation. Milner, the architect of the South African War, died the next year, 1925.

At 66, in 1926, Emily was still writing to her closest friend, Tibbie Steyn in South Africa. She had moved to East Wittering near Chichester in West Essex in November 1925, once again at the sea, and loved the sound of the waves against the shore. On 11 April 1926, from Godshill on the Isle of White, trying to recuperate, she wrote to her friend Tibbie acknowledging her close friendship. Tibbie had filled the lost space from her Aunt Mary. Her last letter to Tibbie is to be found on pp 282–3 of the Brits text.

By now Emily was talking in a religious register and she began to immerse herself in religious events. She died peacefully on 26 June 1926 in London. She was 66 years old. The penultimate chapter of the book is dedicated to the funeral service for Emily Hobhouse which was held in South Africa. It was termed a great occasion, and she was buried like a princess. Brits describes the ensconcing of her ashes (surely she means that the ashes were immured) at the base of the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein. Her yearning for a husband had lived with her; hers was truly an unrequited love.

The Brits text has 10 pages of endnotes. There are eight pages of sources consulted, the major part being primary, of which some are primary unpublished! The index comprises eight pages. There is a page of acknowledgements. A bio of Brits appears on p 333. What propelled her to write this book on Hobhouse? Her ability as a specialist in science journalism; her passion for forgotten stories; her love for facts.

Tafelberg have published a book that probably many would covet when writing up a biography, or even an autobiography. The text is psychedelic, interspersed with colour, sepia, black-and-white images, almost like a new kind of internet text. Vignettes, geometric patterns and shapes, inserted quotes all make it an attractive book. Maybe at times the writing could have been better sequenced – one sometimes finds oneself looking for the links.

First editions love typos, so there are a few.

If Hobhouse was a traitor, you can only end up loving her for it. Brits has brought the persona of a remarkable person fully to life in the text. South African Hobhousian historiography has become unspeakably enriched from her writing.

  • 3


  • Anne Twiss Thomson

    The review is a history lesson for this 73 year-old! It has whetted my appetite to indulge myself and buy the book.

  • Franco Scheffer

    'n Waarlik merkwaardige vrou. Haar sterk karakter kon nie beïnvloed word deur propoganda, politieke mag of geld nie. Slegs haar ingebore wete van wat reg en verkeerd is het haar gelei. Ons sal haar nie vergeet nie.

  • Karien Polley

    'n Uitstekende, insiggewende boek. Geluk aan Elsabe Brits. Ongelukkig is die teks klein en wanneer dit op 'n groen of blou agtergrond gedruk is, moeilik leesbaar. Dis uiters frustrerend vir die leser.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.