2018 Conference blogs – The Invention of a Boer Home Industries

Laura Breen (University of Huddersfield), Helen Dampier (Leeds Beckett University) and Rebecca Gill (University of Huddersfield)

The Invention of a Boer Home Industries

Our interest in the philanthropist and pacifist Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926) initially came through her extensive and fascinating collection of letters, newly deposited at the Bodleian Library (now online).  For the first year of our project, our noses were buried in the archive, rummaging through Hobhouse’s scrapbooks, her reports and her correspondence.  One of the first stories we uncovered was Hobhouse’s attempts to set up a Boer Home Industries school in South Africa after the South African War (1899-1902).  This was Hobhouse’s scheme to replenish artefacts such as blankets and rugs lost in the farm burnings, to create employment for Boer women, and “to draw together the broken threads as only one known by both sides can do, and place them in official hands to weave the web of peace” [Hobhouse to Smuts, 29 October 1917].  Spinning and weaving had no indigenous history in South Africa.  Hobhouse thus attempted to invent a heritage for the Boer people, using imported antique Swiss spinning wheels from her supporters in Geneva and Basle to do so.  Her project was quickly taken up by Boer leaders who were attempting to overcome the divisions in Boer society and were embracing cultural nationalism as part of becoming the ‘Afrikaners’.  Later the original Spinning and Weaving Schools were expanded to include lace production (the lace school was founded on the de Wet farm at Koppies, where items still exist in the retirement home there).  This was run by Lucia Starace, recruited in Italy by Hobhouse to establish the lace school (and whose family’s textile business, De Viti De Marco, is now the subject of a project by Elena Laurenzi at the University of Salento).

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‘Boer tweed’, HH/MCG/130. Courtesy of the  Alfred Gillett Trust

In tracking down the story of these textiles in the UK, our first calling point was Street in Somerset, where the archive of the Clark family is stored in old Clark shoe boxes and where there is preserved a natural-dye jacket belonging to Margaret Clark Gillett, Hobhouse’s assistant at the Boer Home Industries School in Philippolis.  Textile curator Judeth Saunders (also in attendance at CHORD this time) opened out the jacket to show the higgledy piggledy hand-stitched seams and the ridges on the jacket’s sleeve head which meant that Margaret Clark Gillett would always have worn this jacket slightly misaligned and ill-fitting.  This prompted the immediate question of why she would have worn such a jacket and wished to keep it.  Out of this has evolved an interest in the value of the homespun aesthetic and the politics of crafting – and it is this interest which brought us to the CHORD workshop in June this year.

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Margaret Clark Gillett Boer Home Industries jacket, HH/MCG/128. Courtesy of the Alfred Gillett Trust

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Margaret Clark Gillett Boer Home Industries jacket, detail, HH/MCG/128. Courtesy of the Alfred Gillett Trust

At the workshop we learnt from Hannah Rumball at the University of Brighton, who is working on Quaker bonnets of Elizabeth Pettipher Cash, that the Quakers had an ethics of plain dress and a tradition of refusing to wear dyed clothing, helping to make sense of the unadorned, humble textiles made by the Boer Home Industries and worn by Margaret Clark Gillett and her fellow Quakers in solidarity with Hobhouse’s ethics of production and her vision of Boer self-sufficiency and independence following the war.  The theme of the workshop – ‘Ordinary and Everyday Textiles and Dress’ –  was also illustrated by Helen Wyld in her paper on Samplers from Scotland in which she read these textiles as texts of women’s lives and the hidden history of people whose stories have not traditionally been written down.  Time and again at the workshop our attention was drawn to the ways in which textiles can be read as artefacts of social, and particularly women’s history, in ways that resonate with our own concerns to uncover the meaning of the design and production of Hobhouse’s textiles and their links to her informal politicking and her place in the cultural history of South African nationalisms.  No better symbol of this was Jan Smuts (Colonial Secretary for the independent Transvaal) overcoming the itchiness of Hobhouse’s homespun tweed to parade in public in a Home Industries suit.

We have just returned from a visit to South Africa where we were fortunate to meet textile curators AnneMarie Carelson and Sudre Havenga, and weaver and teacher Carla Wasserthal, who told us about the collections of Hobhouse textiles in the National Museum in Bloemfontein – textiles which the letters in the Clark archive in Street show had been collected by Trudi Kestell for her textile gallery at the National Museum in the 1950s.  This prompted further questions about the curatorial history of Hobhouse’s textiles, how they were exhibited and by whom, and the uses to which they were put as part of the Afrikaner nationalist project.  AnneMarie, Sudre and Carla are looking for contextual information of the type of wool used, where it was sourced, the kind of dye and the specificities of production – clues which we hope to provide from reading the letters between Margaret Clark Gillett and Hobhouse – and would welcome advice on.

These interests have come together in the next iteration of the project which will be a conference in the Spring/ Summer of 2019, on Humanitarian Arts and Crafts, held in Huddersfield in conjunction with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (University of Manchester) and aimed at exploring how humanitarians and humanitarian organisations have favoured, and encouraged, the production of artisanal products and ‘folk’ artwork over the past 100 years and more.  We can think of no better illustration than the ethnic pieces on sale in most Oxfam shops today.

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Oxfam Shop, Ilkley, West Yorkshire, May 2018

We welcome expressions of interest to join us to explore these artefacts from anyone working in the fields of textile history, heritage or the history of humanitarianism, or currently involved in craft projects for humanitarian organisations.  We are also keen to hear about any collections of Boer Home Industries textiles still in existence in museums or private collections.

Please contact emilyhobhouseproject@gmail.com

See also:

Bodleian online catalogue of Emily Hobhouse collection

Alfred Gillett Trust

National Museum of South Africa, Bloemfontein

Elena Laurenzi project


Laura Breen is the Impact Support Officer for the School of Music, Humanities and Media at the University of Huddersfield. She works with researchers across the School to develop partnerships, projects and activities that will help to shape life beyond academia. Prior to this, Laura worked in the museums sector for many years, managing collections of social and military history and decorative and fine arts. Her doctoral thesis, which explored the link between contemporary ceramic practice, museum practice and public policy, will be published by Bloomsbury later this year. She is currently undertaking further research into craft, identity and community building.
Email: L.Breen@hud.ac.uk

Helen Dampier is based at Leeds Beckett University, UK. Her background is in South African history and her previous research projects have focused on women’s accounts of the 1899-1902 South African War, and on the letters of Olive Schreiner. As part of the Emily Hobhouse Letters Project team she is particularly interested in Hobhouse’s role as collector, editor and publisher of women’s wartime testimonies, and in the commemoration of Hobhouse in South Africa.
Email: H.Dampier@leedsbeckett.ac.uk

Rebecca Gill works on the history of humanitarianism. She is particularly interested in relief work in twentieth-century war, and in women’s activism. As part of the Emily Hobhouse project team, she is researching Hobhouse’s work in Germany following the First World War. She is based at the University of Huddersfield, UK.
Email: R.Gill@hud.ac.uk

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