Emily Hobhouse: in profile

Emily Hobhouse was a welfare campaigner, feminist and pacifist best known for exposing the terrible conditions in the concentration camps in which Boer civilians were incarcerated by the British during the Second Boer War. Born in Cornwall but granted honorary South African citizenship for her humanitarian work in that country, Hobhouse later protested against the First World War. After her death in London, aged 66, her ashes were interred in the National Women’s Monument in South Africa.

When did you first hear about Emily Hobhouse?

About 15 years ago, while researching my first book, about the Sikh princess Sophia Duleep Singh. Like Sophia, Emily believed in women’s suffrage – and, also like her, she lacked the disposition of the real scrappers in the movement. But Emily, too, learned to become a warrior, fighting for causes that were good and right.

What kind of woman was she?

A mousy Cornish lass, she was just 20 when her mother died; she spent the next 14 years caring for her father, who was in poor health. Her awakening as a social justice campaigner came when she saw poor Cornish lads being shipped off to fight in the Boer War. She knew they were malnourished, not fit enough to be soldiers. Emily could not ignore her concerns. Her life could have been easier, but she chose the difficult path.

What made Hobhouse a hero?

Travelling to South Africa in 1900 to help Boer women and children displaced by the war, she found herself up against the most testosterone-fuelled people – men such as Lord Kitchener, a frightening man with an even more frightening moustache. She chose to defy these men, even though she knew public opinion would be with them, not her; most people in Britain didn’t even believe the concentration camps existed. She struggled to get permission to visit the camps, but she refused to be intimidated by the British authorities, and visited them anyway.

What was her finest hour?

Smuggling photographs and documentation out of the camps, exposing the true scale of the atrocities being committed by the British against Boer civilians – thousands of women and children died under the British flag. Her revelations prompted the creation of a parliamentary commission to investigate the shocking conditions, which sparked worldwide outrage. She’s been rather forgotten in her homeland, which is a shame. I’d like to see a statue of her put on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, or perhaps even in Parliament Square.

Is there anything you don’t admire about her?

No – I’d be very happy to hang out with Emily!

Can you see any parallels between her life and yours?

I haven’t had my feet held to the fire like her but I’d like to think that, like Emily, I know the difference between right and wrong – and would be willing to fight for what’s right.

What would you ask Emily if you could meet her?

I would love to know how she sneaked out those documents, and how she had the nerve to do it. I’m sure it would be an extraordinary story.

Anita Anand is an author and broadcaster, who presents the BBC Radio 4 programme Any Answers? Her latest book is The Patient Assassin (Simon & Schuster, 2019). She was talking to York Membery

LISTEN In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures

This article was first published in the May 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine