Under The Eaves: The Cornish and The Boer War

Museum News

Under The Eaves: The Cornish and The Boer War

The photograph on the blog’s header shows the discharge papers for James Hocking held by the museum. The museum also has a copy of the diary he kept during the period he fought with the British forces. Like many Cornishmen, he and his brother (Edwin) had left for the goldfields to make their fortune.

Kresen Kernow (the Cornish Archive) suggest that there were so many Cornish miners seeking their fortune in South Africa, with most repatriating income back to Cornwall, that this was cited as one of the many causes of the war. One paper estimates the numbers as several thousand Cornishmen, sending approximately £1million back home (that’s approximately £132m today). As the war broke out, many Cornish returned, but some stayed on and joined the British forces voluntarily. James and Edwin Hocking decided to stay and fight.

When I uncovered these objects from the museum’s records, I knew that I wanted to write about some of the atrocious practices that changed the sequence of the war. What I had not expected to discover were strong links of the Cornish to this war.

This article doesn’t describe the progress of the war but give reflections by Cornish people. A summary of the progress of the war can be found in a BBC article, written by Fransjohan Pretorius a Professor of History at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, specialising in the Boer War.

James’s diary spans December 1899 to November 1900, although he served until 1901. Most entries are brief, a few words only. Many of his entries relate of marches and frequent changes of camp. He also details high levels of disease and fever among the troops. This entry on 10 April 1900 is longer when he was stationed at Ladysmith:

“Boers began shelling our camp at 7am. Brisk shelling by Boers. Shrapnel dropping around us. One shell dropped right in hospital camp. Two naval gunners killed at their guns. One E. Surrey Reg. killed, 5 or 6 wounded. Our force completely taken by surprise. Casualties trifling considering the amount of shelling and musketry fire our men were subjected to. Evening at 7:30 camp broken up and retired on the Ladysmith side of Elandslaaagte Kopye taking remainder of sick and wounded with us, reaching there at 11pm.”

James himself was hospitalised with acute diarrhoea for two days at the end of April 1900.

Thinking about the atrocities of the campaign, the Boers were proving resilient to the advances of the British and therefore this led to a development of military tactics. The British adopted a policy of ‘scorched earth’, which meant burning swathes of land in order to disrupt the supply and hiding places of the guerrilla warfare adopted by the Boers.

James’s diary makes one reference to the practice of burning land, an entry from 13th October 1900:

“Rifle Brigade and number of K.R.R’s joined us and together we moved to attack Boers. Big gun fired several shots and pom-pons came into action several times but no casualties on either side. All farmhouses in district burnt. Cows, calves, pigs, and poultry commandeered. General Buller at Vlakfontein station.”

Scorched earth was followed by the expansion of concentration camps, a strategy ordered by Lord Herbert Kitchener when he took command in 1900. Here, civilians were imprisoned, mostly women and children rendered homeless because of the systematic burning of land and homes. According to Pretorius’s article, 28,000 women and children died in the camps as well as 20,000 black people. Apparently, at the start of the war, both sides had agreed that this would be a ‘white person’s war’, but both sides recruited black people, initially not as fighters but in support roles. The black people were imprisoned to disrupt the Boers further.

We have a book in the library collection at the museum, Cornwall at War by Elizabeth Hotten. The book is curated using letters and reflections in parish magazines. News travelled slowly and so the parish magazine had a role to play in sharing news from overseas. The chapter on The Boer War takes its material from the parishes of Ladock and Probus.

Lt Herbert Moore, RE writes on 12 December (1902) from Heidelberg, Transvaal:

“… We hear that a great agitation is being raised against the death rate in the surrendered Boers’ concentration camps. This is awful bunkum. I don’t fancy the death rate is much heavier than at peace times. No doubt a number of women and children have suffered a lot from their forced marches with the Boer armies, and many of the children have felt the effects. But all the concentration camps that I have seen have been kept fairly clean and neat, which can only be done by constant supervision and care on the part of the superintendents. They would be pigsties in less than a week if the Boers were left to themselves.”

The agitation that Lt Moore referred to was a Cornish woman, Emily Hobhouse. She was born in St Ive, near Liskeard in 1860. Her mother died when she was young, and she became her father’s carer. When he died, she was able to pursue her ambition of becoming a Christian missionary. She went west to Virginia, USA, to improve the working conditions of Cornish Copper miners, staying there for three years. She became involved in the women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, where she heard about the mistreatment of Boers by the British Military. She went to South Africa, thinking there was one camp… and found many more. Hobhouse was instrumental in bringing relief to the camps, as well as raising public awareness of the atrocities. When she eventually returned to England, the British Government was critical of her, referring to her as ‘that bloody woman’. Hobhouse died in 1926, and her funeral went unreported. Not so in South Africa. Her ashes were transported and interred at the National Woman’s Monument in Bloemfontein, which commemorates the suffering of the 26,000 Boer women and children.

Our friends at Bodmin Keep have a great account of Emily Hobhouse’s history and impact.

After the war, James worked on the railways in South Africa. He returned to Cornwall in 1914 and married in 1916, living first in Camborne and then Redruth. He died December 1936. There is no mention of Edmund in his diary.

In total 59,000 people died in this war. Most of the Afrikaners and Black Africans who died lost their lives in the concentration camps. Perhaps, without the campaigning of Emily Hobhouse, this number would have been far greater.

Julia Webb-Harvey

Volunteer Researcher

Citizen Curator 2020

[Photograph: discharge papers] credit Nina Verdon

Museum of Cornish Life