That time Millicent Fawcett OK’d concentration camps

It’s time to explore Millicent Fawcett’s true Boer War story – from advocate of concentration camps to becoming instrumental in bringing them down.

Over the past few years Millicent Garrett Fawcett has gone from one of those women in history that you only knew about if you were really into women’s history, to a new national treasure.

Until 2018, every time I mentioned Millicent Fawcett to my mates who aren’t giant history nerds, I’d be met with a resounding: ‘who?‘.

So I’d excitedly explain that Millicent was a revolutionary for women’s rights. She was the leader of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) the largest suffrage movement in the UK. She set an example of peaceful protest, working within politics and using legal methods to keep women’s votes of the national agenda for decades!

Not only that, but she was an advocate for women’s education, campaigned to raise the age of consent and criminalise any family member who inflicted child cruelty. She fought for equal divorce rights, women’s right to work in the civil service and law. Oh, and she did all this whilst holding down a loving relationship and being an amazing mum.

So when it was announced that Millicent would become the first woman to have a statue of herself erected in London’s Parliament Square, it was a HUGE DEAL. Suddenly people were remembering and celebrating this incredible woman.

But that’s not to say I’m totally enthused about every aspect of Millicent’s new found popularity. I’m not. Because, she’s now become a flawless hero. A beacon of women’s rights, of the fight for equality and hope for the possibility that we can build a better future. And don’t get me wrong, Millicent is all those things, but she was also a person.

Many of Millicents’ flaws are slowly starting to become airbrushed from history. And nothing proves this better than how we now tell the tale of Millicent and the Boer War concentration camps.

As hundreds of the new articles on Millicent’s achievements state, during The Boer War, Millicent led an all female commission into investigating the concentration camps set up by the British Empire, which held tens of thousands of Boer people (mainly women and children).

But they all leave out this pretty crucial point – before Millicent investigated the concentration camps…she was for them. 

Statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett
Statue of Millicent from London’s Parliament Square

First things first – what was the Boer War?

In 1899 The South African Boer War began, between the British Empire and the Boers of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Essentially this was a war over gold, but it was also a war that was very much about empire, race and imperialism. 

This was a huge war on an international scale, it wasn’t just British forces fighting against the Boer people, but troops from all over the British Empire, including Canada and Australia. The Empire’s troops fought with machine guns and deadly explosives, with the Boers using guerrilla warfare to hit back.

In an effort to quell these guerrilla forces, the British Empire set up the first concentration camps. The first camp opened up in 1900 and housed mainly women and children.

It quickly became apparent that for those that entered the camps, the chances of survival weren’t exactly vegas odds. Malnutrition and disease ran rampant. Just a year in, Lord Milner, the man in charge of the camps wrote:

‘The theory that, all the weakly children being dead, the rate would fall off is not so far borne out by the facts….The strong ones must be dying now and they will all be dead by the spring of 1903.’

Within two years, an estimated 28,000 Boer women and children died in the camps. As well as 20,000 black people. 

Boers in a trench in 1899
War! What is it good for!? Nothing…seriously NOTHING – Boers in a trench in 1899

So where does Millicent come into this?

Well, although the deadly nature of the camps was at first only known to those in government (and obviously people on the ground at the camps!) one woman was about to blow this whole genocidal horror show wide open – and that woman was not Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

In 1901 British welfare worker, Emily Hobhouse went to one of the camps, Bloemfontein. She arrived with a host of supplies for those imprisoned there. But she wasn’t just there to deliver aid. Emily spent months visiting camp after camp, collecting testimonies, recording the astronomic numbers of deaths and also estimating the number of black people dying inside the camps. Then when Emily had everything she needed, she publicly reported back on the atrocities being carried out. 

….And Emily was pretty much laughed out the door and labelled a ‘hysterical spinster of mature age’ by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain.

Lizzie Van Zyl during a vist by Emily Hobhouse to the Bloemfontein camp
Seven year old Lizzie Van Zyl, a picture used by Emily Hobhouse to illustrate the danger of the camps. Lizzie would die in the camps from typhoid fever

However, some people were listening to Emily and eventually the number of people that wanted the government to answer or at least investigate her claims grew too much.

It became clear the government had to act. BUT we know that at least some people in charge of the war knew of the horror happening at the camps (remember Milner’s letter). So they didn’t want a band of Emily Hobhouse’s turning up to investigate and then blowing the whistle on this whole war.

Which is why the person they put in charge of investigating the concentration camps was Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

From the start of the war, Millicent had been openly ‘anti-boer’. This was not rare position to take. As Millicent herself would recall in her 1924 biography, What I Remember (arguably the most hilarious yet best title for a biography) the war split England in two. On the left those who were ‘pro-boer’ argued that the boers were innocent and being attacked, however the majority of people (‘anti-boer’s like Millicent) were outraged at this, believing those against the war to be not just unpatriotic, but traitors. 

So the fact that someone staunchly ‘anti-boer’ was now investigating these camps, understandably didn’t go down well with everyone. After all, that’s not exactly the neutral third party you want undertaking such a vital job.

Emily Hobhouse herself voiced concerns about Millicent’s appointment. Worrying that although Millicent fought for women and children’s rights in Britain, she didn’t seem to express any empathy for the Boer women and children.

Still, the Fawcett Commission (also known as the slightly ridiculously named, Ladies Commission) was happening whether Emily liked it or not.

Emily Hobhouse and Millicent Fawcett
Emily Hobhouse and Millicent Fawcett

Alongside Millicent, some of the other ladies in the commission were’nt exactly impartial. Among this number was, Lady Alice Knox, who was married to one of the senior officers of military leader, Lord Kitchener. In fact, Millicent would later write that Alice saw the Boer people as ‘socially equivalent to where Scotland were 200 years ago’ (that’s some serious 1900s shade!).

Ok. So I think we can all agree that Millicent and her crack team of incredibly bias women we’re probably not the best team to take on this job. But it’s about to get so, SO much worse. 

Just before she was set to head off to investigate the concentration camps, Millicent wrote an article for The Westminster Gazette, where she tore apart Emily Hobhouse’s report and said that the camps were:

‘necessary from a military point of view’

Bad right? Don’t worry, it gets worse! Because then Millicent argued that as Boer farms were possibly supplying information on the British Empire forces, the women that were helping in this deserved to go to the camps:

‘They have taken an active part on behalf of their own people in the war, and they glory in the fact. But no one can take part in war without sharing in its risks, and the formation of the concentration camps is part of the fortune of war.’ 

And with that, Millicent packed her bags and set off to investigate the concentration camps.

Boer War concentration camp example
Example of one of the concentration camps

If all of this made you angry, then good, it should. I think we can all recognise this as in no way ok. But that’s also why it is so important it’s so vital that this part of Millicent’s life isn’t airbrushed away.

Because, what happened next was that Millicent made it right. On arriving at the camps, Millicent did a total 360. She realised she’d been wrong and led her ladies commission in gathering every scrap of evidence needed to rectify the atrocities going on.

Not only that, but her commission knew that the camps wouldn’t shut down overnight, so the women came up with immediate solutions to the most pressing issues facing those that lived in the camps and ensured they were put in place (which resulted in a dramatic drop in the death rate).

On their return to England, Millicent and her Ladies Commission became one of the most outspoken forces against the camps. 

It’s good that when Millicent’s story is told, we talk about her work on the Boer War concentration camps. But we shouldn’t just tell the end of this story. Not just because to do so isn’t so much telling history, as cherry picking, but because it does a disservice to Millicent.

Millicent Garett Fawcett was first and foremost, a woman. She wasn’t some kind of feminist deity, she was human and flawed. Through her life she did a lot of really amazing things, but she also said and did some really shitty things. Which would make her like pretty much everyone else. In this era of cancel culture and pedestaling, it’s important to remember that.

To make our history heroes shiny blameless beacons, is dangerous. It takes away not only the things that built them into the people they were, but robs us of any lessons we can possibly learn from them.

Further reading on Millicent Fawcett and The Boer War concentration camps:

Gender, Race, and the Writing of Empire: Public Discourse and the Boer War by Paula M. Krebs

Why calling Millicent Fawcett a suffragette is not o-fucking-k

Yesterday was a landmark day for women’s history; the design for Millicent Fawcett’s Parliament Square statue was unveiled. It’s truly momentous, with the statue set to become both the first woman to stand in this memorial to political powerhouses and also the first statue in the square designed by a woman!

Twitter was immediately a buzz; finally women’s history getting the acknowledgment it deserves! Even mainstream media joined in on the excitement with both The Guardian and The Independent leading with headlines on the amazing new ‘suffragette statue’!

BUT…there’s just one problem:

Millicent Fawcett wasn’t a suffragette.

Well, this is awkward…

Millicent Fawcett was the leader of the NUWSS (which was the largest suffrage organistion in the country) and among many other amazing things, she spent decades tirelessly campaigning for women to have the vote.

So why is calling her a suffragette a big deal? Well, the difference between the suffrgattes and the suffragists is huge; let me break it down:

The Suffragists were (broadly) members of Millicent’s NUWSS, whilst suffragettes were members of the much smaller WSPU (run by Emmeline Pankhurst). Both groups wanted the same thing; the vote. But they went about getting it in very different ways.

Millicent was for peaceful protesting and working to get politicians on side…. While Emmeline was for extremism, using bombs, weapons and all out illegality.

I think we can all agree…


yep gif.gif
Yeah…bombs and petitions, kinda not the same thing

Probably due to their  more, er… explosive methods, Suffragettes are the most well known organastion from the women’s suffrage movement. They’re the group you learn about in school and the face of the movement in TV and film; from the eponymous, Suffragette to Mary Poppins!

Seriously, if you went into the street right now and asked 10 people who were the suffragists, I would bet you good money that :

A ) 90% don’t know how they are

B) The other 10% would think you just said ‘suffragette’ wrong

Don’t get me wrong, the suffragettes should get their due; they had a huge impact in getting the vote…but they should not be the only thing we’re taught.

The WSPU was very much a fringe group, with a few thousand members. The NUWSS on the other hand, had tens of thousands members, made up of hundreds of nationwide groups. That’s a lot of women to have been forgotten by history. millicent fawcett giving a speech

Historian Bettany Hughes recently said that:

‘women have always been 50% of the population, but only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history.’

That’s slowly starting to change (hooray!) as historians do ever increasingly incredible work to uncover untold stories and get them out there.

But the fights not over! Don’t forget that in 2015, a promised museum to the women of the East End, turned out to be nothing more than a shrine to a sex worker killing ass hat.  Last year, English Heritage asked people to name just 3 women from history and they really bloody struggled (with one guy saying Ada Lovelace was Kim Kardashian…)

for fucks sake.gif
I mean…..

So yes:

  • Calling Millicent Fawcett a suffragette matters.

  • Calling a woman who self identified as a suffragist, something entirely different, matters.

  • Overlooking the fight and struggle of tens of thousands of women, matters.

It’s not being pedantic, it’s ensuring that we treat women’s history with the same respect as we do every other facet of history.


Note: The Guardian and The Independent have now both changed their wording to Suffragist – hooray!

Why Millicent Fawcett was the fucking best

Think votes for women and you think Pankhurst’s, you think fearless suffragettes risking everything, committing violent acts to win the day.

And you would be wrong. 

Well this is awkward

Ok fine, not entirely wrong, but you would only be seeing about 10% of the picture. Women’s suffrage was a fight that had been going on since the early Victorian period, decades before the suffragettes were formed – it’s a battle thats largely been forgotten, but thanks to some bad ass feminists & historians thats all changing!

So how do you get up to speed with this unsung era of history? Well theres no better place to start than Millicent Garrett Fawcett.


Feminist hero and Queen of fidly up-do’s

Millicent was born in 1846, one of the youngest of 10 (yep that’s right, 10!). She was raised right; taught to think for herself and pursue her passions.

When Millicent was 12 her older sister Elizabeth moved to London to study medicine (FYI- Elizabeth went on to become Britain’s first female doctor – you will soon learn that these sisters had badassery hardwired in their genes) it was whilst visiting Elizabeth in London that the young Millicent had her first brush with the women’s rights movement.

Elizabeth introduced her younger sister to Emily Davies, a fervent campaigner for women’s rights. Soon the two friends descended into talk of overcoming gender barriers in education (Emily) and medicine (Elizabeth) deciding that it was only after achieving equal rights in fields like these that women would be able to fight for the vote; then as if in an after thought the women turned to Millicent and Emily said:

You are younger than we are, Millie, so you must attend to that.”

Older sisters, right!

But attend to it Millie did. She threw herself into reading up on the law and female rights. She went to a talk given by radical MP John Stuart Mill in favour of women’s rights and became his ardent supporter…she did all this before she was 19, and she wasn’t done.

Now lets pause for a moment and think about what your life’s greatest achievement at 19 was. I’ll admit that working out jäger bombs do not a good evening make is an achievement. But it’s not got shit on 19 year old Millie.

Because In 1866 she delivered a petition to parliament calling for women to have the vote.

That’s right. At 19 Millicent kickstarted things, with the first official move in the loooong battle for equal votes.

Yup it’s both amazing and sickening   via giphy 

Having fired the opening shot, Millicent was keen to continue her campaign. She started writing and working at getting more politically active. Then in 1867 she met Henry Fawcett a radical liberal MP and scholar, the two had a lot in common and Millicent felt like she had met a kindred spirit. BUT Henry was a decade older than her and was also newly blind..not your stereotypical dreamboat.

Yet against everyone’s wishes the pair married with Millicent helping Henry come to terms with his new disability and he supporting her to find her feet in politics.

Henry and Millicent
Henry and Millicent Fawcett 

As  part of Millicents’ effort to get womens’ right to vote into the public consciousness, she gave her first speech in 1869. She hated every moment of it.

public speaking.gif
Urgh public speaking! via giphy

But without any real mass media to spread the word on women’s suffrage she didn’t really have a choice. So Millicent fought through it, chucking herself in at the deep end she went on a speaking tour in 1871. She kept pushing through and eventually became one of England’s most popular and passionate public speakers.

Whilst overcoming her fears Millicent published several in depth political and economic books and founded Newham College, Cambridge – you know as you do. A boss at multitasking she also found time to give birth and raise a daughter, Philippa (who went on to become an acclaimed mathematician and educator btw) 

Everything was coming up Millicent, and she was fast becoming one of the most vocal proponents for women’s rights in the world; her husband, Henry one of the most loved and respected figures in British politics (not an easy feat being a liked politician!) it seemed nothing could stop this power couple.

And then Henry died. it isnt fair.gif


But Millicent persisted. Now a single mother, she buckled down on women’s rights. Soon becoming the clear figurehead for the movement in the U.K. Millicent fought for the campaign to seek more than the vote, fighting for women’s sexual rights, working rights and so much more.

In 1897 she helped form the NUWSS (The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies- also known as the suffragists) bringing the majority of the countries women’s rights groups together and making their voice even louder. Suffragist

Though the Suffragists means were peaceful that didn’t mean Millicent couldn’t get militant.

She had an active role in the Personal Rights Association who sought to shed light on men with, er, nefarious intentions when it came to young women. Once throwing flour at a seemingly untouchable Army General who had been sexually harassing a maid; Millicent then pinned a sign to his back which outlined his deeds and sent him packing down a crowded street of onlookers (because seriously, fuck that guy)

A witness said Millicent ‘had no pity and would have cashiered him if she could’

But it wasn’t just women’s rights that concerned Millicent. In 1900 NUWSS member Emily Hobhouse traveled to South Africa and shone light on the treatment of the Boer People who were at war with England (The Boer War)

The Boer People were being sent to concentration camps (never not a good time to to remember that the British invented them!) and their land overturned and scorched. This quickly became a hot topic in Parliament with all around liberal bae David Lloyd George declaiming the British military’s actions as an extermination of a people.

Believing Hobhouses’ claims to be vastly exaggerated, The British Government created a commission of women with the purpose of travelling to South Africa and reporting back on the camps. Millicent was made head of the commission, which was met with criticism…as Millicent was in favour of the camps


Yes, I’ll admit this is pretty awkward, but bear with me!

Millicent went out expecting to find the conditions in the camp slightly grim but with the people well fed, clothed and sheltered. This was not what she was met with.

To say the conditions in the camps were grim would be a gross understatement (emphasis on the gross). Disease and famine were widespread and by the end of the war of those in the camps 1 in 4 had died.

Despite a (pretty darn racist) government release defending the camps; The Fawcett Commission backed up Hobhouses claims and made their damning evidence very public knowledge. The Boer War ended in 1902, the camps quickly removed. cheering.gif

But it wasn’t all good news. Back in England the women’s rights movement hit a wall.

The Suffragists arguably had most MPs persuaded that votes for women was the right thing to do, but as anyone who has spent 5 minutes in Parliament will tell you – just because MPs know it’s right…doesn’t mean they will do it. And so from 1901-1914 the Liberal government refused to do anything around women’s votes.

what the dick?
Yeah don’t try and look for logic in that bullshittery             via giphy 


In this climate the suffragettes were born. With the WSPU (The Women’s Social and Political Union) forming in 1903. The suffragettes were a much smaller movement than the Suffragists (by a David and Goliath level comparison) but their violent methods caught the eye of the media and they stayed in the headlines for much of the decade suffragette


Yet Millicent maintained that the NUWSS wouldn’t enter the violent fray, intent on keeping the dialogue with politicians open; saying:

‘I can never feel that setting fire to houses and churches and litter boxes and destroying valuable pictures really helps to convince people that women ought to be enfranchised.’

Then in 1914 England entered the First World War and the suffrage movement met a cross roads. Should they halt their actions and support the war effort, or continue none the less? The WSPU agreed to halt activity, with the government releasing all imprisoned suffragettes the movement threw themselves fully into recruiting soldiers.

BUT the NUWSS disagreed with the war. Millicent was torn; to publicly call for peace would lead to a public outcry against the suffragists; horrific considering the fight for the vote hadn’t actually been won – but to do like the WSPU and drive recruitment would splinter the party.


In the end Millicent opted to stay neutral, not calling for peace, but not actively speaking out for the war. It meant she lost some face within the party and the NUWSS lost some members, but crucially it ensured the public remained on side and lines with politicians open. munitions ad

Throughout the war women from all over the country took up the job roles men had left behind. Both the NUWSS and the WSPU were key to this work effort, which did far more than help the British military…it showed on a practical level that women were just as capable as men on every level.

And so in 1916 Millicent wrote to the Prime-minister urging him to take into account the tremendous daily work being carried by women and reconsider the vote.

And this time he did.

In 1918 women over 30 who were householders or wives of householders were granted the vote.

A year later, now in her 70s, Millicent stepped down from her role leading the NUWSS. But of course, her fight was not over. As she always campaigned for women’s rights, calling for equal access in the fields of civil service and law and fighting for better divorce rights for women.

In 1928 Parliament granted women the same voting rights as men.

Millicent was one of the only original suffrage campaigners to see their decades long campaign win out. After over 60 years of campaigning, she watched the bill be carried out in Parliament.

Forgotten for decades, Millicent’s story is finally getting the attention it deserves and in 2018, she will become the first woman with a statue in Parliament square. Millicent Fawcett

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