Researching Emily Hobhouse

In the autumn, I will be doing a workshop for History51 on Emily Hobhouse. Although my current research is during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the role of women was starting to change, and many of my protagonists were strong supporters of women’s rights, this is one of my first forays into looking at a woman as a primary subject. Hobhouse2 Although I knew the basics of her story, and knew a lot about one of her most influential mentors, Leonard Courtney, I am learning a great deal about Emily. This includes using her friendship with the Boer leaders to try to support Gandhi's work while he was living in South Africa. She was also to use this influence in an attempt to convince the Boers to alter their attitudes towards black South Africans. Although her meddling was to cause a rift, she was remembered as a hero by the Boers. Her ashes are interred at the Women's Memorial in Bloemfontein, that she helped design. The significance is that she is one of only 3 people to be honored in this way; remembered alongside their first president and their greatest general. This gives a very stark contrast to her native Cornwall, where none of the local newspapers published an obituary upon her death.

However, I was thinking earlier about her return to Cornwall. As the daughter of a vicar, from a ‘good’ family, she had been comfortable but not rich. However she lost almost everything during the Great War. The money to purchase a small property was raised for her by her friend, Mrs Steyn, wife of President Steyn. My feeling is that there is a reasonable comparison to be made in the Boer veneration of Emily and the veneration of  Oskar Schindler, although not an exact comparison. She was fighting to save the Boer civilians from incompetence rather than deliberate malice.

I also wanted to ask if anyone knows enough about St Ives in the 1920s to say why Emily chose there to live. My best guess at the moment is that it was the most cosmopolitan place in Cornwall at the time, and a woman with a reputation for being difficult, who had become a national anti-hero despite being proven right, would be more welcome there, than in many other places. Or at the least less unwelcome. However, my knowledge of the history of artistic communities can be written on the back of a stamp, so if you think I’m wrong in this, please let me know.

As I continue on this journey through Emily’s life, I will be sure to keep you updated. I will also be speaking at the Institute of Cornish Studies conference this autumn. Their theme this year is ‘Daughters of Cornwall’ which should prove very interesting.

Further reading:

B. Roberts, Those Bloody Women: Three Heroines of the Boer War (John Murray, 1991).

T. Pakenham, The Boer War (Futura, 1982).

Courtney and Conybeare: Women's suffrage campaigns in Cornwall part 1

Eleanor Tench, Cornish historian, on the politics of two Cornish politicians and their views on women's suffrage. 

The Third Reform Act of 1884 was a watershed event in British politics that got a large proportion of the working class men the vote. Although when Gladstone pushed for reform, he was told that the working classes, particularly in London, would likely vote Tory, he followed the Liberal shibboleth of ‘trust the people'. A proportion of MPs wanted to go further. Not only to enfranchise the rest of the working class men, but to also enfranchise women.

Two of the strongest supporters of women’s rights in parliament were representatives of Cornish constituencies, Leonard Courtney and C.A.V. Conybeare.

Leonard Courtney

He believed that parliament should avoid legislating on any major issues until after those had been achieved, because only then, could the true will of the people be known.

Courtney was from a Penzance family, middle class, but not hugely well off. His father worked for Bolitho’s bank, where Leonard also worked while waiting for a place at university. Leonard was to become a barrister, a statistician and later a professor of politics at LSE, there are rumours that the quote, ‘there are lies, dammed lies and statistics’ can be originally attributed to him.

Although he was generally Whiggish in his politics, he was, like many of his contemporaries, radical in one area. As a disciple of John Stuart Mill, he promoted Universal adulthood suffrage and proportional representation. He believed that parliament should avoid legislating on any major issues until after those had been achieved, because only then, could the true will of the people be known.

"Proper self-sufficiency" Caricature of Courtney by "T" (Théobald Chartran) in Vanity Fair, 25 September 1880.

C.A.V. Conybeare

The rights of women were always going to be one of his major platforms.

On the other hand, Conybeare never met a cause he wouldn’t campaign for. An exceedingly energetic and intelligent man, he had inherited enough family wealth to ensure working was not a necessity for him.

As such, he became a campaigning barrister, and even before he stood for parliament, he was known as a troublemaker. His 1885 election campaign in Camborne  against the Whig incumbent Arthur Pendarves Vivian caused ructions throughout Cornwall.

He was unable to resist a cause, anything from mining reform, suffrage reform, Irish land rights and independence, to the gating of local common land. The rights of women were always going to be one of his major platforms.

One of his publications was on the need for and the effect of the Married Women’s Property Act, that gave women the right to hold their own property after marriage. When he married a women’s suffrage campaigner, he was to gift her half of his inherited estate, an almost unheard of act during this era.

More to follow…


Further reading

Bradley, Katherine, Friends and Visitors: A First History of the Women's Suffrage Movement in Cornwall, 1870-1914, Hypatia Trust, Penzance, 2000.

Deacon, B. Conybeare For Ever, in Knight, T., Old Redruth: Original studies of the town's history. Redruth Old Cornwall Society, Redruth, 1992.

275,000 Cornish women will know the reason why!

Don't let anyone say a) it is political correctness 'gone mad' or b) you are making a 'fuss about nothing'

Unknown learned woman, Cornwall

There are approximately 275,000 women and girls living in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly today--yes, 51% of the population, that is a majority!

This week at History 51 we have been musing and debating the maleness (?) of Cornish history and heritage. The story of men is written into the DNA of the over-arching narrative of Cornish history being based on the fisherman, the miner and the engineer. However we all know that it is not as simplistic as that.

Earlier in the week, I wrote a critique of Cornish heritage, provoked by what seems to be an innocent statement written in a newspaper article by Cornwall Councillor, Bert Biscoe. He begins the article:

“Good news that Cornish tin has quickly become economic to mine. It is no shock to those who, like many Cornishmen all over the World, closely study the metals markets and geology. It offers an opportunity to rekindle skills and wealth generation and also to place Cornwall once again in the forefront of economic life – innovating, supplying, managing risk and prospecting.”

Bust of Richard Trevithick, Cornish inventor, engineer and hero I have qualified my criticism of Bert Biscoe's words as I do not believe he is a sexist person but it is alarming in many ways that such a thing can be so easily written and reproduced without comment.

Trelawney has become the Cornish national anthem. In it we intone the following:

And shall Trelawney live? Or shall Trelawney die? Here's 20,000 Cornish men Will know the reason why!

Repeated with passion by those of us who sing it, are we accidentally surrendering to the male narrative and absorbing it into our consciousness?

And that is why I have decided to comment, and encourage all those who care about the diversity and totality of Cornish history, identity, culture and heritage to do the same for the sake of everyone's better understanding of the past: men and women, girls and boys.

There is no history without women!

Don't let anyone say a) it is political correctness 'gone mad' or b) you are making a 'fuss about nothing' - women being known in particular about being fussy (I prefer to call it being particular) or c) you are 'man-bashing' and causing a generation of boys to lack confidence.

Why is women's history important?

Three comments, one from a man, two from women, we received on our Facebook page and via email particularly resonated with me this week in answer to this question:

"...that's like saying why is history important? There is no history without women!"

A lecturer on Cornish mining told me (this century) that women didn't use to work underground in Cornish mines because a Cornishman was too much of a genetleman.

I would not like to be a young woman lacking in self-confidence these days. I've never had much time and will not tolerate men (or women) referring to women as 'bitches', 'whores' and 'sluts'.

Remember the bread makers, not just the bread winners

Cornish history is full of testimony and evidence of women's lives and achievements. It's just not easy to find. We will be changing this. Because we have based our public histories on activities and events led by men e.g. hunting, war, conquest, raiding, engineering... they privilege those protagonists as the drivers of change in our society. We should remember those that make the bread as well as those that win it.