When Jen­nifer Hob­house Balme in­her­ited a trunk of her great aunta Emily’s pa­pers, she re­alised what an in­cred­i­ble woman she’d be een...

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Claire Vaughan

Jen­nifer Hob­house Balme’s great aunt Emily Hob­house de­voted her life to cam­paign­ing for peace

Agirl of 21 lay dy­ing on a stretcher. The father, a big, gen­tle Boer kneel­ing be­side her; while in the next tent, his wife was watch­ing a child of six, also dy­ing, and one of about five droop­ing. Al­ready this cou­ple had lost three chil­dren in the hos­pi­tal... I can’t de­scribe what it is to see th­ese chil­dren ly­ing about in a state of col­lapse. It’s just ex­actly like faded flow­ers thrown away. And one has to stand and look on at such mis­ery, and be able to do al­most noth­ing.”

But the writer of th­ese har­row­ing words, Emily Hob­house, did do some­thing. She fought, al­most sin­gle-hand­edly, to change the de­plorable con­di­tions in th­ese Bri­tish con­cen­tra­tion camps dur­ing the An­glo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

This re­mark­able woman is the sub­ject of Agent of Peace ( The His­tory Press, 2015) writ­ten by her great niece Jen­nifer Hob­house Balme. “I had heard about Emily at the start of the Se­cond World War, I was 11 at the time. My mother told me of her work in the camps in South Africa, the lives that she saved and the help she gave to the women and chil­dren. Much later, I in­her­ited a trunk of Emily’s pa­pers and was in­spired to write the book.”

Emily was born in 1860. Her father was Rec­tor of a small parish in Corn­wall. “He had strict Vic­to­rian ideas about bring­ing up girls and the po­si­tion of women in the house­hold. Emily was al­lowed no out­let be­yond the parish ex­cept oc­ca­sional vis­its to her un­cle and aunt.”

So, when she heard about the plight of the Afrikaans women and chil­dren, cam­paign­ing be­came her out­let. She went out to South Africa and saw the con­di­tions in the camps first-hand. Re­port­ing on her find­ings, she called re­peat­edly forr im­prove­ments – an­ger­ing the Bri­tishtish govern­ment, but achiev­ing last­ing im­prove­ments. She spent the rest of her life work­ing tire­lessly for peace and the wel­fare of women and chil­dren caught up in con­flicts around the globe.

By the out­break of the First World War Emily, a suf­frag­ist and ar­dent paci­fist, felt pas­sion­ately about the ef­fects of war on non-com­bat­ants. In Jan­uary 1915, she or­gan­ised the writ­ing and sign­ing of an open Christ­mas let­ter pro­mot­ing peace in Ger­many and Aus­tria. A to­tal of 155 prom­i­nent women re­sponded – all of­fer­ing their sup­port. Jour­ney­ing to Ber­lin in 1916, Emily met the Ger­man For­eign Sec­re­tary and dis­cov­ered peace ne­go­ti­a­tions would be pos­si­ble. How­ever, un­able to se­cure the back­ing of the Bri­tish For­eign Of­fice, her plan for talks failed to get off the ground.

“She left notes – of­ten on lit­tle scraps of pa­per – and let­ters il­lu­mi­nat­ing her po­si­tion. Th­ese formed the ba­sis for my book,” ex­plains Jen­nifer. “I also stud­ied the For­eign Of­fice and War Cab­i­net records and let­ters to and from prom­i­nent women over­seas, as well as from peo­ple at home. Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est were the pages from Ger­man For­eign Of­fice ar­chives. Emily was the only civil­ian who went un­of­fi­cially to Ger­many in the First World War.”

The list of Emily’s hu­man­i­tar­ian achieve­ments is long and im­pres­sive. As well as her ef­forts to im­prove the con­cen­tra­tion camps, “she got help for the Afrikaner pop­u­la­tion whose farms had been dev­as­tated and helped es­tab­lish the Women’s Home In­dus­try scheme to en­able young women to have an oc­cu­pa­tion and pride af­ter the An­glo Boer War. She also helped Gandhi get bet­ter con­di­tions for the In­di­ans in South Africa.” Along­side her work pro­mot­ing peace dur­ing the First World War, “she helped with the feed­ing of ba­bies in Pet­ro­grad and schoolchil­dreen in Leipzig and pro­vided as­sis­tance bring­ing un­der­fed Aus­trian, and then Ger­man, chil­dren to re­coup in Switzer­land.”

Jen­nifer is hugely proud of Emily: “She stands out for me be­cause of her com­pas­sion, her per­sis­tence in the face of dif­fi­cul­ties, her in­tel­lect, en­ergy and her abil­ity to push her­self – even when she was ill.

“Be­hind it all, al­though she does not men­tion it, was her be­lief in the Chris­tian ethic – that this was the right and cor­rect way to live.”

South Africa and the peo­ple she met there re­mained close to Emily’s heart un­til her death in 1926. Her ashes now rest in Bloem­fontein at the Na­tional Women’s Me­mo­rial, a right re­served for the coun­try’s best-loved he­roes.

The list of Emily’s hu­man­i­tar­ian work is a long and im­pres­sive one

Paci­fist Emily Hob­house is the great aunt of reader Jen­nifer Hob­house Balme

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