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