Emily Hobhouse

(1860-1926) – Peacemaker who went to Germany

Born in St Ive near Liskeard, Emily was surrounded by religious and political debate. Emily's pacifism and humanitarian activism were moulded during the Boer Wars. When war returned in 1914, Emily went to Germany to try and promote peace. Rejected by the political establishment in 1916, she focused on helping displaced civilians.

Credit: Liskeard and District Museum and photo as young woman by permission of Jennifer Balme

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How did a rector’s daughter from a Cornish rural parish become an internationally respected campaigner for the rights of women and children, and promoter of fair treatment for all?

In her native parish of St Ive near Liskeard, Emily helped her clergyman father in his work for the poor. They ran a clothing club in the village and Emily had the gift of relating well to people from outside her own class. In 1900 she travelled to South Africa to bring food and clothing to war-stricken women and children. Her discovery of the concentration camps inspired her to tackle politicians about the shocking conditions.

Although banned from returning to South Africa she set up craft workshops to give opportunities to women who now had to support their families due to the loss of land and menfolk.

Emily became a committed pacifist and when war broke out again in 1914 she went on a personal mission to try to halt it. She was labelled hot-headed by those with reason to fear her success. In reality, Emily strove to discover truths for herself and was part of a thoughtful intellectual community. She met many women from across Europe through her work for the Women’s International Congress and other internationalist groups. She was in correspondence with supporters in South Africa and friends of many persuasions. Their debates persuaded her to take a huge risk in applying to visit occupied Belgium and Germany itself. In Berlin she met with Gottlieb Von Jagow, the foreign minister. Emily believed that he was making preparatory overtures for peace talks, but the authorities in London did not acknowledge this and her efforts to persuade the British government to respond failed. As Adam Hochschild acknowledged in his book To End all Wars, Emily ‘was the sole person from any of the warring countries who actually journeyed to the other side in search of peace’.

During the war Emily continued campaigning for peace and worked for relief organisations, despite this making her unpopular with many of her peers. She set up organisations, based in Switzerland, to relieve child hunger and trauma in Germany and Petrograd during the post-war blockades. Her work led to the formation of the Save the Children Fund.

After her death her ashes were taken to South Africa for a state funeral and interment beneath the Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein. 

Key words: women

Credit: Liskeard and District Museum, photos show Emily as a young woman by permission of Jennifer Balme and a seven-year old child