Woman with a Cause. Emily Hobhouse Remembered

Emily Hobhouse (Liskeard Museum)
Emily Hobhouse (Liskeard Museum)

On 16 November, the Hypatia Trust, in association with Liskeard and District Museum, is organising a free community history workshop called Woman with a Cause to explore and celebrate the life and achievements of Cornish human rights campaigner Emily Hobhouse.

She was branded “that bloody woman” by some, but Emily Hobhouse is a forgotten Cornish hero. She raised the travesty of human rights abuses in South Africa during the Boer Wars before such issues became headline news. While she was pilloried by her own townspeople in 1900 for highlighting the abuses in concentration camps, in South Africa there is a national monument to her campaigning work. More than 113 years later we are setting the record straight in her hometown.

Eleanor Tench, who will be giving the keynote presentation at the workshop said, “Emily was a fascinating woman whose work is deserving of far more recognition. I'm honoured to be helping to tell her story to more people, especially to be able to speak about her in her hometown, on the stage where she once spoke. Working on this project has been inspirational.”

Women's Memorial, Bloemfontein, South Africa
Women's Memorial, Bloemfontein, South Africa
Human rights campaigner Emily Hobhouse (Liskeard Museum)
Human rights campaigner Emily Hobhouse (Liskeard Museum)

Sally Hawken, Liskeard Town Councillor, is amazed that so little commemorates Emily in Cornwall. “I am delighted the History 51 project is working with Liskeard's excellent museum to bring to public attention one of our most famous daughters. Liskeard must make more of its connection to Emily Hobhouse, an internationally important campaigner who has a public monument in South Africa and nothing in Cornwall. This workshop is a fabulous opportunity for townsfolk and visitors to find out more in the very place where Emily certainly stirred things up, our own Public Hall.”

The day will start at 9.30am by gathering at Liskeard Museum for a special view of the new Women at War exhibition, followed by the lecture at the Public Hall opposite the museum at 10am. After a break the audience will be invited to take part in a practical workshop examining sources from Emily’s time to judge whether she was treated fairly. The workshop ends at 1pm. There is an optional tour of St Ive Church, where Hobhouse was born, at 2pm.


Booking is essential and must be made with Liskeard Museum either by phone: 01579 346087, email: museum@liskeard.gov.uk using the subject Emily Hobhouse Workshop, or in person.

The Hypatia Trust’s History 51 project promotes women’s heritage in communities across Cornwall and has been made possible through funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s All Our Stories programme. To keep in touch please join us on Facebook too. http://facebook.com/history51

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).

Nuns, war, songs and International Women's Day

... it is clear to see why any attempt to highlight poor female representation both in history and today needs to be made, and to be taken seriously as a mainstream, rather than a niche, problem.

International Women's Day logoThis week we have discussed, debated and explored a variety of topics from 'where did Cornish women go to be nuns' (there were no nunneries in medieval Cornwall) to what shall we do for International Women's Day on 8 March.

A recent analysis of women's roles in British society by Unlock Democracy showed that in spite of making up 51% of the population women don't even make up one-quarter of British MPs:

Read Gender Balance. The canary in the mineshaft

Here in Cornwall and Scilly, the figures for political representation are in fact slightly better. Women make up nearly 27% of the Cornwall Council membership (33/123).

I had been in error before thinking the Cornish figures to be worse than central government representation. That said, there are daily changes reported by the media with resignations and many changes of colour. We will revisit these figures following the next Cornish elections in May.

Cornish Women's Year?

Do you want to be part of something special and really help make Cornish women's history count?

Against this backdrop it is clear to see why any attempt to highlight poor female representation both in history and today needs to be made, and to be taken seriously as a mainstream, rather than a niche, problem.

We have been thinking about ways to use International Women's Day to start something public and different until 8 March next year when we intend to do something much more high profile.

Our strength is in highlighting and sharing information about women's heritage so what can we do to help contribute positive female role models to young women and girls in Cornwall and Scilly in particular. So a few ideas are:

  1. Launching a survey on attitudes to women in Cornwall, and archiving the responses so we may repeat the survey in 5 or 10 years time and chronicle any change.
  2. Finding stories about women from the local papers 100 years ago and publishing them on our website and promoting them online and in the local media on a weekly basis.
  3. Launch a campaign to publicise one fact a day until International Women's Day 2014 on any aspect of women's heritage and women's lives today in Cornwall.
  4. Start planning for a big event next year (2014), but what should that be?

Do you want to be part of something special and really help make Cornish women's history count? Why not leave a comment and give us your ideas?

Cornish nuns

Susan Hoyle posed a really interesting question on our Facebook page:

"I believe that there was never a nunnery in Cornwall; there were very few monasteries, but nary a convent. It is said that the low take-up for monasticism in Cornwall is because of the Celtic influence. Whatever the truth of that, convents fulfilled various functions for women and their families in the middle ages: it was a safe place for women on their own -- single women, widows, orphans -- and also for women who were a problem for other reasons. It was also a place where inconvenient women could be locked away. My question is, what institution(s) performed these functions in Cornwall? What happened to women who needed protection? What happened to women who felt the religious vocation? Anyone know?"

We referred it to medieval historian Oliver Padel, also an expert on Cornish history and topography. He confirmed that there were indeed no female monasteries in Cornwall in the Middle Ages. Here is part of his reply:

"There were no female monastic communities in Cornwall. The matter is easy to check now, because Victoria County History of Cornwall, vol. II, Religious History to 1560 (2010) gives a definitive list of monastic communities in the county.

This might not have been seen as a significant lack. Cornwall generally had fairly small religious houses (no abbey, though two just in Devon, at Tavistock and Hartland). Anyone entering a religious community expected to give up their family ties anyway, so going to another county would probably not have seemed exceptional. A bit analogous with people leaving home and going elsewhere to study at university, usually to another part of the country (although admittedly that is temporary, not permanent).

I know of one example of a woman of a Cornish family who went to Devon to become a nun -- Joan daughter of John Arundell of Lanherne (who died in 1435) apparently became abbess of Canonsleigh Abbey in Devon (I don't know at what date, or when she died, though that is probably known): Cornish Wills, 1342-1540, ed. Nicholas Orme (Devon & Cornwall Record Society, 2007), p. 67."

So that left the question, where did women in Cornwall or Scilly who wanted to be nuns go? Susan wondered if the linguistic closeness of Cornish and Breton might have persuaded women to head south to Brittany, or whether they tended to journey into England and beyond? Considering the journey, the need to travel safely and have enough money to be accepted into a religious house, was the religious life the preserve of the more well-off women in the Middle Ages? We hope that Susan carries on her quest and finds those Cornish nuns, wherever they may have gone.

Cornish women at war and women in war in Cornwall

This winter Liskeard Museum is mounting an exhibition on Emily Hobhouse, a Cornish woman speaking out against the South African war and British concentration camps there. We will also be hosting one of our History 51 workshops here on the theme of Women in War (and Peace).

We need your help.

Are you interested in being our War Correspondent? We know there are many other themes related to women and war that we could also explore as part of a workshop, e.g. the role of women in war, for good or bad, their historical role in armed forces, their work on the home fronts, their role in recording, documenting and preserving stories of war and of course women's roles in peace and anti-war movements.

Remember we will provide support in the form of training and resources to all those leading or helping to co-ordinate History 51 workshops. Please contact us with any and all suggestions or leave a comment here.

Alice De Lisle in word and song

 ...performing, dancing, role-playing publicly so that Alice slowly seeps back into our community's imagination.

Do you know Alice De Lisle? She was the Patroness of Penzance. History 51 is campaigning to get her officially recognised as part of Penzance's 400th anniversary charter celebrations in 2014. In fact it is 1332 that we should be celebrating as without Alice's charter there would be no 1614 Charter of Incorporation.

A pair of local folk musicians had already heard of Alice De Lisle before we launched our campaign. Thanks to the power of social media, one of our followers alerted us to two songs that had been written using Alice as an inspiration. One was a love song, 'Alice of the Island' - a play on her name and the other was the story of Alice's achievement for Penzance.

They came and demoed the songs to us at the Hypatia Trust yesterday. We were transfixed! They also then sung part of Alice's market charter to us to the tune of the love song. We were delighted when they agreed to look into recorded these songs and to also think of something we could all do for the charter celebrations next year: performing, dancing, role-playing publicly so that Alice slowly seeps back into our community's imagination.

The songs will eventually be recorded and we may even think about a whole album dedicated to stories of Cornish women!

Coincidently one of our contributors, Anna McClary, local Penzance tour guide, was also at Trevelyan House to talk through ideas about creating a school resource back about Penzance history, using Alice De Lisle as a central figure. We talked about activities from colouring in images of the market cross to enacting a play between Alice and King Edward III and then when we heard the songs we thought it logical to include one or more or these as a song children could sing in assembly.

We hope to bring you a recording of Alice De Lisle soon!