Dr Rebecca Gill

Historian

Huddersfield’s Dr Rebecca Gill has researched extensively into humanitarian organisations and she is part of a major grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to explore the letters of humanitarian campaigner Emily Hobhouse. This is the seventh J.H. Whitley Lecture, which is an established event following the deposit of the Whitley Archive at the University in 2012.

THE Armistice of November 1918 ended armed hostilities in the Great War, but Britain continued to operate a naval blockade of Germany, causing suffering among its civilians that led British protestors to establish what would become one of the world’s most renowned charities, the Save the Children Fund.  Its origins and the personalities and politics involved were described at a special lecture from University of Huddersfield historian Dr Rebecca Gill.

The occasion was the annual J.H. Whitley Lecture, held at the University to commemorate the Halifax-born Liberal MP whose career during the first half of the 20th Century included serving as Speaker of the House of Commons during the turbulent 1920s.  In 2012, his archives were deposited at the University of Huddersfield.

The 2018 lecturer was due to be Dr Whyeda Gill-McLure, of Wolverhampton University, who would have spoken on the conciliatory Whitley Councils established in the wake of a report by J.H. Whitley.  But illness prevented her attending and Dr Gill stepped in.

Dr Gill drew on her extensive research into humanitarian organisations and her involvement  in a current Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project delving into the letters of Emily Hobhouse, a formidable Englishwoman who was controversial for her campaigns on behalf of Boer women and children during the South African War and German civilians in the aftermath of the Great War.

Dr Gill told how she had found links between Emily Hobhouse and the Whitleys of Halifax.  J.H. Whitley’s brother Alfred corresponded with Emily and organised a fundraising drive to support her scheme to provide food to children in Leipzig in 1919.  This was one of the projects organised by the newly-formed Save the Children Fund.

Campaigner Emily Hobhouse Campaigner Emily Hobhouse

Save the Children Fund

The Save the Children Fund had been founded as part of the campaign of protest against the continuation of Britain’s blockade of Germany.  Prime Minister David Lloyd-George had said that he wanted to “squeeze Germany till the pips squeak” so that it would agree to peace terms at Versailles.

Dr Gill described the networks of pacifists, Nonconformists, conscientious objectors and radicals who turned towards educating the public on the dangers of a punitive peace and the economic and social consequences of demanding reparations from Germany.  Emily Hobhouse was a member of several of the key organisations, such as the Independent Labour Party.

The lecture included a description of the work that earned Emily Hobhouse her greatest fame and controversy – aid to Boer civilians interred in the British-run concentration camps of the South African War.

“Emily Hobhouse had opposed the war from the beginning, alongside friends and acquaintances among the radical wing of the liberal party and the Independent Labour Party.  She saw the war as an act of aggressive imperialism, and in turn saw the camps as a deliberate act of imperial oppression, enacted on the weakest and most vulnerable,” said Dr Gill.

Emily Hobhouse was opposed to the Great War and after hostilities had ended she took up the plight of German civilians, linking their suffering with that of women and children in the South African War.  When the Save the Children Fund (SCF) changed its policy on schemes to feed German schoolchildren, Emily Hobhouse clashed with the charity, accusing it of being anti-German.

Dr Gill explored the complex personalities and politics involved in “the emotional labour of relief work” and argued that “the disputes at the foundation of the SCF also exemplify the different internationalisms at play at this juncture as well as the differences amongst the humanitarian sector”.

She added that: “It is always fascinating to be able to do a local history of internationalism – and the Whitley link reminds us that international activism or organisations are not somehow above politics, or active in some sort of disembodied realm – but embedded also in local concerns, family traditions, and small scale, but always significant, acts of personal generosity.”

J.H. Whitley Archive

The 2018 J.H. Whitley Lecture was introduced by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, Professor Tim Thornton.  The event was concluded by John Whitley, grandson of J.H. Whitley, who was instrumental in depositing the archive at the University.  He thanked the University for mounting the lecture series and Dr Gill for stepping in to provide the 2018 lecture and noted its topicality, in the centenary year of the end of the First World War.

Mr Whitley announced that the 2019 lecture would deal with the legacy of John Ruskin, on the bicentenary of the birth of the Victorian thinker who was an important influence on J.H. Whitley.  It is hoped that Dr Gill-McLure’s lecture on Whitley Councils will be rescheduled for later this year.