That Englishwoman (1989) 




Director:     Dirk DeVilliers.  Terence Alexander, Veronica Lang.

Starring:     Terence Alexander (Rev. Reginald Hobhouse), Harvey Ashby (Lord Hobhouse), Hermien Dommisse, Keith Grenville, Warrick Grier (Leonard Hobhouse), Veronica Lang (Emily Hobhouse), Leonard Moss, Camilla Pollard, Rick Rogers, Jenny Runacre (Lany Hobhouse), James White (Captain Hawkesley), John Whiteley.

story of Emily Hobhouse, who worked to improve health conditions for Boer women and children in detainment camps; detested in Britain, heroine in South Africa


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"This is a true story, based on fact.  1899 and the Anglo-Boer War erupts across the African veldt. What British imperialism believed would be a quick victory suddenly turns into a full scale war."

The British are fighting against the Boers (the descendents of the original Dutch settlers in South Africa).  Boer families are moved out of their homes and their homes are burned.  

The present.  An old English woman named Emily Hobhouse, a hero to the Boer people, writes a letter to the people of South Africa.  In South Africa she has a statue dedicated to her by the Boers.  She was born in 1860 and died in 1926.

1926.  Bloemfontein.  The statue is dedicated to Hobhouse, who came to help the families of the Boer people who were often displaced and kept in camps.  "We stood alone in the world.  Friendless among the people.  The smallest nation ranged against the mightiest empire on earth.  Then one small hand, the hand of a woman, was stretched out to us.  At the darkest hour when our race almost appeared doomed to extinction, she appeared as an angel -- as a heaven sent messenger.  Strangest of all.  She was an Englishwoman."   

Flashback.  1888.  Cornwall, Britain.  Emily Hobhouse is giving medicine to the daughter of a poor woman.  The husband, an injured miner, comes in and says that he is moving the family.  He says:  "Begging your pardon, miss, but we won't raise our children on charity."  He says they are going to Virginia, Minnesota, USA.  The man is not grateful for the kindnesses Emily has shown to his family.  When she is alone with her friend Mary, she tells her:  "I'm afraid we've shamed him."

Her father is a minister and her mother died in 1880.  Emily still sings in the church choir of her father's church. 

There is a knock at the door of Emily's house.  She tells her father that young John Barrett has come to speak to him.    Emily opens the door to let John in.  John takes Emily's hand and tells the reverend that he has come to speak with him about Emily and himself.    Father rises from his chair and says he is very aware of their relationship.  "And I strongly object to it and to your continued association.  It will cease forthwith."  John objects saying that they wish to be married.  Dad says some other unkind words and then asks John to leave because he wants to speak to his daughter alone.  John looks at Emily to see if she will say anything in protest, but Emily just drops her head low.  John leaves. 

Alone, Emily says:  "That was most unkind of you, father."  He says to her:  "Oh, Emily how you have fallen in my estimation."  Father feels that John Barrett is much too young for Emily who is now 28 years old.  Emily answers back and dad gets angry, saying:  "How dare you do this to me?"  He says first it was his daughter Maud and now it's Emily.  He asks:  "Why must my children shame me?"  Emily replies:  "I knew you would be like this."  Dad doesn't like it that the Barretts are a farming family.  "They are not like us", says father.  Emily is exasperated over always being told that she should never marry below the Hobhouse name. 

Father says he tried to get to know the local miners and farmers and yet:  "I still don't know them."  He goes on to ask can Emily imagine Lord Hobhouse coming to the little farm of the Barretts?   Emily asks:  "Why is it that you won't grant me a life too?"   She leaves the house.

When she next sees John, she merely says:  "It cannot be."  She says goodbye and keeps on walking. 

Five years later.  Emily plays croquet with her brother Leonard.  A servant comes out of the house saying that they must come, it's their father.  They rush into the house. 

Father has died.  Emily has decided to move to Virginia, Minnesota where she will pursue her interests in social welfare.  She becomes a temperance worker, but does not have much luck with converts.  One prostitute even pushes Emily down into the muddy street.  The owner of the local saloon comes out to tell the prostitute to take her customers elsewhere.  The customer objects to this and pushes Mr. Jackson a couple of times.  Then Jackson knocks the man down with his fist.  And still Emily won't give up trying to sign men to the pledge not to drink.

Emily has done a great deal of good in the town.  She has turned her own room into a schoolroom to teach English to the newly arrived Finnish families.  She, working with others, is working to establish a library in town.  A local reverend tells her that St. Paul would not agree with her holding mission services in a log cabin.   Emily disagrees, saying that St. Paul would approve of her work. 

Emily gets a letter from jer brother.  He writes of the futile Jameson Raid in South Africa. 

South Africa.  Jameson with a bunch of other armed men on horseback tells the group that his name is Dr. Leander Starr Jameson.  He says that the situation in Johannesburg is becoming dire.  The owner Mr. Kruger is getting nervous that many of the gold miners that work for him are British.  He goes on to say that he has a letter from the select committee of Johannesburg pleading for protection against Kruger and his Boers.  While Jameson talks about this, a group of armed Boers rides toward the group of British men. 

Jameson tells a sergeant to cut the telegraph wires.  Emily's brother writes that it was a poor attempt to take charge of the Boer Republic and its gold.  He also writse that they are in it now for Kruger and his Boers are not going to stand for this.  

The Boers set up an ambush and Jameson rides right into it.  After a number of his group are shot and killed, Jameson quickly surrenders.  As Jameson turns over his pistol to a Boer, he says to his men:  "So sorry, chaps."

Emily likes Mr. Jackson, but one day she hears him plotting to become mayor and then he says it will be "business as usual".  Jackson's primary reason for wanting to be mayor is to get the local liquor licenses.  And, even worse, he disparages Emily saying that she is so naive.  "I could have taken her for every penny."  He suddenly realizes that Emily is standing right there in his office and has heard every word he has been saying.

Emily and her friend Mary visit the local hospital.  It consists of run down rooms with the beds pushed closely together.  The men are very sick.  She goes over to the man in charge and complains to him about the terrible conditions in the public hospital.  She tells Mary that she wants new blankets and sheets for the patients.  Mary objects that she still hasn't packed to go back to England.  Emily tells her that they can't leave for England until this hospital is cleaned up. 

Emily starts working immediately.  Jackson comes to Emily to say that he loves her.  She tells him to pretend he's a gentleman and leave her alone. 

London, 1899.  Emily is escorted to a fancy ball by her brother.  The host and hostess of the ball, the Courtneys, say they have heard a great deal about Emily and her great work in America and her plans for work to be done in South Africa.  The host talks to the attendees saying that his goal is to have the Boers and the British live in South Africa in harmony and in peace.  A man named Mr. Russel says he's afraid that the rejection of the ideas of the British by the Boers means that there is going to be military action in South Africa. Emily disagrees with any talk of war.  Russel becomes tired of her arguments saying that even though Miss Hobhouse is an English woman she seems more favorable to the Boers than the British in South Africa.  Emily denies this saying that her sole concern is for what happens to the women and children when men make war. 

In a valley, a British convoy rides into another ambush.  There is, however, a big difference this time.  The British have a cannon to fire at the Boers up on the mountain side.   The British take a lot of casualties, but the Boers take enough to cause them to retreat.  The British suffered more casualties than the Boers.  One of the officers tells the commander of the convoy that they had 100 trained soldiers, but a mere 20 untrained and illiterate Boer farmers not only halted the column but also killed 15 British soldiers and then vanished into thin air.

The two officers receive some orders from Kitchener saying that they are to vacate all farms, burn all homesteads, destroy the crops and round up all civilian men, women and children.

London 1900.  Emily's brother Leonard tells her that things are not going well in South Africa.  He gives her a French newspaper and Emily reads about what's going on in South Africa.  Boer families are moved out of their homes, which are then set on fire.  Emily thinks this is atrocious.  This tactic was a result of the Boers forming many guerrilla units and living off the land.  The British are making the land inhospitable for the Boer guerrillas. 

At a Boer farm house, British soldiers are moving a family's furniture onto a large wagon pulled by horses.  A Boer girl gets up on the wagon and starts playing the Boer national anthem on the family piano.  Grandmother won't move out of her rocking chair, so the British take her, chair and all, and put her and the rocking chair on the back of the wagon.  The family's black servants are also taken along with the family.  A little later the house is exploded to pieces and a raging fire finishes off what's left. 

Emily's uncle says that radical members of Parliament such as David Lloyd George have been asking serious questions of the morality of putting civilian men, women and children into camps.  "All to no avail, I'm afraid."  Lloyd George will be speaking along with Emily about the abuses in South Africa. 

In the auditorium there are a lot of British sympathizers yelling:  "Down with Kruger!"  Emily has a hard time trying to quiet the men.  Some of the men say that she is the problem.  The men start singing "God Save the Queen".  One fellow throws his chair at Emily, but it doesn't reach her.  The other members of the organization of "Save the Boer Children" get Emily off the stage.  Looking at the shouting men, she says:  "I'll do it in my own way."

Boer men, women and child have to go on a long trek. 

Emily is traveling on the train third class because she can use the money saved to buy supplies for the Boer children.  She in on her way to South Africa.

The Boer men, women and children are now taken the last of the way to the camp by open train cars.  A group of Boers sets up an ambush of a small convoy.  Their primary target is officer Captain Hawksley who is being taken to his next assignment.  The officer receives a shot below the collar bone on his left side. 

Gen. Lord Kitchener is peeved by having to receive the Hobhouse woman.  He shouts:  "Why did she have to be related to Lord Hobhouse?"

Another general, Gen. Prettyman, goes around the area with Emily.  He tells her that he has arranged for Captain Hawksley to guide her around.  Emily tells him that she has been invited to stay with a Dutch woman named Mrs. Fichardt.  The general remarks:  "Oh, but she is so bitter."  Moreover, the lady is a die-hard Boer supporter.  Emily says she is not easily dissuaded by others. 

Mrs. Firchard gives Emily quite a lot of food to take to the camp people.  She also asks Emily go get Gen. Prettyman to give her a pass to go with Emily.  Emily doesn't answer her.  Mrs. Fichardt tells Emily that she knows a lot of the Boer generals.  Her husband fought under Jan Smuts.  Emily says she is very familiar with the name Jan Smuts.  (Smuts led commandos in the Second Boer War for the Transvaal.)  Mrs. Fichardt (like American southerners about their slaves) says they just want to keep their lands. 

Captain Hawksley is now well enough that he can drive Emily around.  He gets off to a bad start with her by saying that some authorities believe that she would help the Boer guerrillas if presented the opportunity.  She reiterates that she helps older men, women and children.  She does, however, say that the British shouldn't be here.  Hawksley says but the British are here and they are not going to run off.  She asks Hawksley why do they put Boer women, men and children into camps?  Hawksley says it's probably because there is no front to this guerilla war, so it's for the better that the people are placed into camps.  Emily doesn't like the answer and says that the captain doesn't really know why. 

When they get their first good look at the camp, they are both a little astonished at seeing the multitude of white tents stretching for such a long way.  The place has its own cemetery where a lot of people are buried.  A funeral is taking place as they arrive.  Going by the barbed wire enclosure there are a lot of inmates watching them.  They sure look sad. 

Emily walks around the camps and says it is "wholesale cruelty".  There are lots of sick children in the camp.  A funeral procession heads for the cemetery.  Emily is really hard on the camp superintendent.  She says he has not only let these people live in horrible conditions, but has allowed himself to be degraded by all this.  A young Boer girl walks over to get a close look at Emily's fancy umbrella.  She is especially interested in the pink tassels attached to it.  The girl soon leaves. 

Emily speaks with Gen. Prettyman saying that there is no excuse for such appalling conditions in the internment camps.  She asks:  "General, what is going to be done with these people?"  She estimates that there must be 50,000 people in these "refugee" camps. 

Emily comes back to the first camp she visited.  She brings with her a wagon load of food for the people.  She also tells everyone that they will be receiving soap, pails and firewood.  She tries to tell the inmates in their language to boil the water before consuming it.  Then she says it in English. 

A snake appears on the ground and Emily starts bashing it with her umbrella. Then Hawksley smashes the snake's head under his boot heel.  Emily finds her umbrella a wreck so the girl that admired her umbrella gives her the hat on her own head to Emily.  The grandmother of one family (that the audience met earlier) says something nasty in her native language.  The mother starts to tell Emily what grandmother said, but Emily says she knows what she said. (Her ability to understand some of the Boer language impresses the Boers in the camp.)  Emily tells grandmother that the "rubbish" will not be letting them go soon. 

Kitchener is still not happy about Emily.  He sends a wire to Gen. Prettyman:  "Subject to be watched at all times.  Report back." 

Emily comes back to the first camp again.  More funeral ceremonies are being held.  Emily is shocked when she sees that the girl who liked her umbrella is the one who is dead.  The superintendent says they ran out of nails to make more coffins.  She will be buried in a blanket.  Emily tells the superintendent to find some nails somewhere.  She wants a proper coffin for the dead girl.  Emily sits by the deceased's side and explains that  she came to South Africa with 300 pounds, but they actually need millions of pounds.  She stays seated by the girl.  Grandmother is touched by this show of devotion, puts her hand on Emily's right shoulder and just looks at her intently as if to thank her.

London 1901.  Uncle warns Emily that Mr. Broderick is the Secretary of War and she should remember that fact.  Sitting in Broderick's office she explains that she worked for three months in the Boer interment camps.  During the three month's time period, 4,767 inmates died.  Of those that died, 3,245 were children.  Broderick says that the British lost around the same number of troops in that period by causes far removed from the war.  He adds that they have already made many changes in line with her suggestions.  Each camp will have a doctor and staff, for instance.  And a group of ladies will investigate the conditions at the camps.  Emily says she will be thrilled to go along with the ladies to check on he camps.  Broderick tells her:  "I am afraid that you are not among them."  This shocks Emily to the core.  She cynically says that no doubt Gen. Kitchener will be picking the ladies who will be on the camp review board. 

Emily tells her uncle how shocked she was that that they don't want her back in South Africa.  Uncle says:  "Well, we'll see about that, won't we?" 

Emily returns to South Africa by ship.  Kitchener gets a message about Emily being in South Africa and he is not pleased one bit.  He wants to know why the hell didn't Broderick stop her back in England?

On board the ship a Lt. Lear tells Emily and Captain Brown that she is to remain onboard the ship.  She is to have no communication with anyone on shore.  Furthermore, she is to return to England on the Rosslyn Castle leaving on Wednesday afternoon.  Emily's answer is that she shall not transfer to any other ship.  She says she will get off at some other point, but the lieutenant says that she cannot disembark anywhere in South Africa. 

Kitchener is upset again because of Emily.  He thinks that for a woman who is supposed to be suffering from a serious illness, she sure causes a lot of trouble.  He says he is going to call her bluff. 

Colonel Cooper and the medical officer come to see Emily.  Emily doesn't look well.  The colonel says that he has come to escort her safely to the Rosslyn Castle.   She says no and the colonel tells her that she can come of her own free will or be taken over to the Rosslyn Castle by the two soldiers with him.  She says she is weak and ill.  She lays a guilt trip on the soldiers, but the colonel insists that they take her by force.  They do so.  They strap her into a kind of straight jacket body suit and carry her away. 

Kitchener watches as the Boers surrender their weapons to the British army.  An older man says that Kitchener may take him but he's not taking his rifle.  He busts the rifle by slamming it down on a rock. 

London 1903.  Emily, her aunt and uncle and her brother talk about the Boer reconstruction.  Emily is going to go back to South Africa, saying she has a great deal to do.

South Africa.  Emily goes to visit the huge camp cemetery.  She says:  "Dear God, we crucified thousands upon a cross of gold."

Emily pays a visit to Gen. Smuts.  She talks of getting the home industry started.  Emily watches as Boer women work sewing clothes.  She brings food and supplies to the Boer people. 

Emily is going back to England, but she is sad.  She did a lot to establish the home industries and educational programs.  She is afraid that when she leaves, the government will not do her "child" justice, that the programs will start to decay. 

Back to the present.  Emily finishes her letter to the people of South Africa. 

Emily Hobhouse died on the 8th June, 1926, in Cornwall, England.  Her ashes are interred at the Women's Memorial in Bloemfontein. 


1899  --  Emily becomes secretary of the Women's branch of the South African Conciliation Committee. 

1900  --  Emily starts the South African Women and Children's Fund. 

1901  --  Emily initiates concessions to improve the concentration camps in South Africa.

1902  --  Emily starts a 'Furnishing Fund' for destitute Boer families.

1905  --  Emily starts the Boer Industries. 

1914  --  Emily becomes involved in the international women's movement for peace. 

1919  --  Emily is involved in the Swiss Relief Fund and the 'Russian Babies' fund.  She pioneers the now world-wide 'Save the Children' fund. 

1920  --  Emily is decorated by the German Red Cross and honored by the city of Leipzig. 



A situation like the one Emily Hobhouse got into is really a difficult one.  She was both brave and stubborn.  What would a liberal northerner do if a northern woman went down south to care for the women and children of the Confederacy?  They probably would have wanted to string her up.  At the least, she probably would be arrested.  After all, there was a shortage of help for the men dying in the hospitals for the northern soldiers.  It is a good deed to do, but why side with the southerners?  Southern women should step up and volunteer to care for southerners, not northern women stepping up to help the southerners.  So one could understand the British public being outraged at Emily Hobhouse, as they truly were at the time. 

Emily's defense was that she was caring for the Boer women, children and old men in the concentration camps, many of whom were dying from diseases in these camps.  That's a noble thing to do, no doubt about that.  But most of the British people didn't see it that way and thought of her as a traitor to her own country.  Emily did not let the hatred at home deter her.  She worked with the Boers despite the protests and criticisms back home. 

And it should be remembered that, like the American southerners, the boors were the biggest supporters of the enslavement of the blacks and apartheid.  Not exactly noble people with a noble cause. 

Emily was also a big distraction to the British military.  They had to send soldiers out to watch Emily and write up reports about her actions and words.  Then the commander of the British forces had to read the report, think about it, worry about it, discuss it with others and finally decide on the proper course of action.  The commander too must have felt divided, because Emily was doing just humanitarian work for a people in need.  That's a tough situation to be in, for Emily and for the British military. 

Veronica Lang was very good as Emily. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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