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Page last updated at 15:11 GMT, Monday, 8 February 2010
Remembering a Cornish heroine
Emily Hobhouse
Emily Hobhouse was born in south east Cornwall

The small village of St Ive can be found on the A390 between Callington and Liskeard in south east Cornwall.

The quiet village was the birth place of a woman who went on to be a heroine in parts of the world, but forgotten in her own country.

Emily Hobhouse was in her time one of the most controversial figures in the world, hailed as a second Joan of Arc or Florence Nightingale yet denounced as a traitor to her country.

Lord Kitchener
Kitchener was not a fan but Gandhi was a friend of Emily Hobhouse

The life of Emily Hobhouse was explored as part of BBC Inside Out South West with Sam Smith on BBC One on Monday 8 February. Click here to watch the programme on the BBC iplayer.

Lord Kitchener ordered her forcible deportation on a troopship and Joseph Chamberlain wondered if she posed a threat to the whole British Empire.

But to her friend Mahatma Gandhi, one of a tiny minority who admired her pacifist campaigns through two wars, she was "one of the noblest and bravest of women".

A handsome, restless, highly-strung spinster from a genteel Cornish rectory, she exposed the concentration camps set up in South Africa during Britain's conflict with the Boers and embarked on a secret one-woman peace mission to Berlin at the height of the First World War.

Emily Hobhouse wrote: "It was late in the summer of 1900 that I first learnt of the hundreds of Boer women that became impoverished and were left ragged by our military operations… the poor women who were being driven from pillar to post, needed protection and organized assistance."

The result of this was that she obtained permission from the government to start a non-political, non-sectarian South African Women and Children's Distress fund "on the broad basis of pure and simple benevolence towards those deprived of hearth and home by the war" be they Boer or British.

Concentration camp
The concentration camps of the Boer War

A national committee was formed, money was appealed for and subscriptions sought from all over the country. Only then did she announce to her family that she intended to go to South Africa and supervise the distribution of the fund.

She landed at Cape Town on 27 December 1900. When she left England, she only knew about the camp at Port Elizabeth, but on arrival in Cape Town she soon learnt of large camps in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom, Norvalspont, Kroonstad, Irene and other places.

She immediately applied for permission to visit the concentration camps with the object of making personal contact with the women in the camps. However, all this was subject to the approval of Lord Kitchener.

He granted her permission to proceed as far as Bloemfontein, but that was it. She was bitterly disappointed as she was extremely anxious to visit the camps in Transvaal.

What most distressed the women on the camp were the sufferings of their undernourished children.

Sicknesses such as measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentry and typhoid had already invaded the camp with fatal results.

There were very few tents who did not house one or more sick persons, most of them children.

Shocked by the suffering Emily Hobhouse wrote:

"My own little fund was not calculated to provide such primal necessities as a water supply, tents, fuel and such things of huge cost. Without these things relief was hardly more than a thing of mockery."

Funeral of Emily Hobhouse
Emily Hobhouse's state funeral

After the Boer War Emily continued to help camp families by instigating training in occupations where they could be self-supporting.

A whirlwind of contradictions, she was a pacifist with a weakness for generals, an evangelist who shrank from talk of God, a feminist who craved wedded bliss and babies.

Intense, vulnerable and defiant, she revealed flaws on the same heroic scale as her virtues, but her towering courage saved thousands of lives - mostly of women and children - at the cost of her health, fortune and reputation.

However the people of South Africa didn't forget their Cornish heroine. Twenty years after her work, they sent £2,300 to Emily Hobhouse. They insisted the money was used to buy a small property. After much thought, Emily agreed to do this, purchasing a house at St. Ives in west Cornwall.

Emily Hobhouse died at the age of 66 in 1926. Her ashes were placed at the Women's Memorial at Bloemfontein, where she had done so much work years earlier...




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