Dale Hess, Victoria Regional Meeting.
This is the story of Stephen Hobhouse (1881 – 1961), who became one of the most respected English Quakers of the twentieth century.
Stephen’s leadings emerged slowly. He was born into a wealthy family. His father, Henry Hobhouse V, was the squire at Hadspen House, a large manor-farm and mansion with 1,717 acres. Henry had a distinguished career in Parliament as a Liberal or Liberal-Unionist, and served as Chair of the Somerset County Council and its Education Committee. His mother, Margaret, was the sister of the famous social reformer, Beatrice Webb.
There were seven children in the family, but Stephen remained aloof from his siblings, in part because he struggled with ill-health all of his life. He had an enlarged heart, which made him very frail, and he suffered from dyspepsia and nervous breakdowns. He received a sound classical education at Eton and the University of Oxford. Although frail, he was a keen participant in cadets at Eton and the University Rifle Volunteers at Oxford. As the eldest son Stephen was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and study law and enter politics.
At age 17 his worldview began to change. He visited the East End of London for the first time and was astonished to see the squalid living conditions there. He expressed his indignation to his parents that such conditions should be tolerated in a civilized Christian country. His mother’s reply, that the laws of economics necessitated that many should live like that for the whole country to prosper, didn’t satisfy him.
Another challenge occurred when he was 18 and the Second Boer War broke out. Being immersed in the philosophy of Empire, he originally supported the war, but his views were soon challenged by his cousin Emily Hobhouse, an outspoken opponent of the war. This experience began a process of reflection for Stephen. He became disturbed by the aggressive nature of the wars carried out in the name of Empire and by the miserable conditions in which the London poor lived. Stephen decided he would visit Toynbee Hall, where people of privilege would pay for the opportunity to live in the poorest area of London. Seemingly by accident while he was there, he happened to come across a pamphlet, How I Came to Believe, written by Leo Tolstoy. Reading this pamphlet transformed his life and caused him to reject all participation in war and violence, and the pursuit and possession of wealth; he became a lifelong pacifist.
Edmund Harvey, Warden of Toynbee Hall and prominent Quaker, introduced Stephen to Frank Lenwood. Lenwood was someone with whom Stephen could share his feelings about Tolstoy, and doubts about the Church. Lenwood invited him to attend the summer conference of the Student Christian Movement where he was speaking; other speakers included the Quaker Rendel Harris.
Upon graduation from Oxford with a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Classics, Stephen’s father arranged a job for him with the Education Office. Stephen worked in this field for seven years, although he really wanted to work at Toynbee Hall to serve the poor. When he left his job, his father was distressed that Stephen had given up a promising career, but he was willing to give Stephen an allowance on which to live.
In 1905 Stephen started to attend Friends Meeting at Hampstead. An opportunity arose for him to travel to the United States in 1912 with a group of young Friends, including Corder Catchpool, in an attempt to heal some of the divisions among Quakers there. Soon after he returned Stephen was invited to go to Constantinople to assist Rendel Harris in providing relief to the Christian Armenians who were under attack in the Balkans War. In spite of the rigours of such a trip (he was not in robust health) and the threat of violence and cholera and smallpox, he accepted.
Stephen returned by way of Belgrade, Serbia. His heart was charged with bitterness against the Great Powers of Russia and Austria-Hungary for inciting the corrupt governments of the Balkan states to marshal their subjects to bloodshed and hatred. He left Serbia with a feeling of foreboding. Joshua Rowntree, the Quaker Liberal MP and Mayor of Scarborough, took a keen interest in Stephen’s journey and they had kept in close touch. Joshua was supremely gifted with wisdom and loving kindness. He radiated sympathy as of Christ himself. Joshua arranged a series of meetings for Stephen to recount his experiences and the lessons he learned as to the conduct of pacifists in wartime, while appealing for aid for the victims of war. Stephen also visited the Cadbury family at Birmingham, and came away profoundly disturbed by their high standard of luxurious living.
Stephen now felt the kind of work he did was of minor importance compared to where and how he lived. He decided to live in the London slums but close to a Friends Meeting. He chose Hoxton because its poverty included being deprived of a view of any natural beauty of trees, grass and flowers. It was at this time his friend and mentor, Edmund Harvey, recommended him as a suitable person to write the biography of the great Birmingham Quaker, Joseph Sturge. Sturge was a pioneer in the abolition of slavery movement, in the peace movement and the moral force section of the Chartist Movement, Adult Schools and among other causes.
Stephen looked for ways to keep England out of World War I. He brought the matter of providing assistance to aliens who had lost their livelihoods, because their employers felt it was unpatriotic to pay them, before the Meeting for Sufferings. The Emergency Committee for the Assistance of Germans, Austrians and Hungarians in Distress (i.e. innocent ‘enemy’ aliens) was set up three days after the outbreak of the war. In spite of popular opposition and media attacks as being ‘Hun-coddlers’, the work flourished and the Committee was usually on good terms with the police, the Home Office and the War Office. Stephen was Chair of the Executive Committee for the first two years of the war. The Committee provided regular allowances to alien families who had lost their bread-winner and a regular visiting program of interned civilians and prisoners-of-war.
It was at this time that Rosa Waugh came into his life. Rosa was a member of Westminster Monthly Meeting and knew of Stephen through his articles published in Friends Fellowship Papers. She had independently taken up the task of visiting Germans in distress. Stephen and Rosa met at a gathering of Christian pacifists and were married six weeks later. They shared the high Christian ideals of voluntary poverty and identification with the oppressed, and the absolute rejection of any kind of war service. With her support Stephen renounced his inheritance and they adopted a lifestyle of voluntary poverty.
When conscription was introduced in 1915 Stephen did everything he could to encourage the absolute resisters among Quakers and in the ranks of the No Conscription Fellowship. His own position was unique. As Chair of the Emergency Committee for Innocent Alien Enemies he was doing work of which both the Home Office and the War Office approved. His family was in touch with members of the Government and began to pull strings behind his back to secure his exemption. Foreseeing this, Stephen resigned from his work with the Emergency Committee and spent his time helping other COs. Rosa completely supported him, but his family was distressed and showed their disapproval. In contrast to him, his three brothers joined the military. His brother, Paul, would later be killed in the war.
In August 1916 Stephen went before the Tribunal to make his protest against war and conscription public, rather than plead for exemption. He refused to appeal the decision and refused to taken a medical examination. He was offered the opportunity to join the Quaker Ambulance Unit which he did not accept. Stephen ignored the summons he received. He was handed over to the military and refused to put on the military uniform. He was court-martialled, and imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs. In May, 1917, after a second Court-Martial, he was returned to prison. Stephen decided that he must make an open protest to the Governor against the inhuman rule forbidding prisoners talking. “The spirit of love requires that I should speak to my fellow-prisoners, the spirit of truth that I should speak to them openly.” To prevent him from talking openly he was put into solitary confinement in Exeter Gaol.
His health was badly affected by his imprisonment. He was medically examined by the Army doctor, and found unfit for hard labour; nevertheless, he was given hard labour. By mid-1917 his health began to fail rapidly and the authorities obtained a medical report on Stephen and some others who had fallen ill. Fearing the effect of public opinion of the deaths in prison they released five COs, including Stephen, unconditionally in December 1917, after fourteen months in prison.
On the initiative of the Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Stephen’s aunt and uncle, a Prison System Enquiry Committee was appointed to produce a comprehensive report on the state of the prisons with suggestions for reform. Although Beatrice had no sympathy with conscientious objectors, she suggested Stephen be invited to become secretary and editor of the project. She mistakenly thought it would be a kindness to him. Stephen was interested in the challenge because prison reform was very much on his heart. After collecting all of the necessary information Stephen found his capacity for working on the Report was diminishing. He hadn’t really recovered from his fourteen months imprisonment. The editing of the Report was completed by his fellow anti-war activist, Fenner Brockway. The Report had a major impact and led to a wave of prison reforms which still continues.
So what can we learn about leadings from Stephen’s life? First he was sensitive to the world around him. When he first saw the poverty in the East End, he was appalled and asked why it was allowed to exist. He felt a desire to take action to eliminate it. Secondly his life was transformed by reading the writing of Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s ideas about nonviolence and poverty gave him a vision by which to live. He became willing to move out of his comfort zone and the life he had known, and live his beliefs about voluntary poverty and solidarity with the poor. Stephen was influenced and mentored by many people, including his cousin, Emily Hobhouse, Edmund Harvey, Frank Lenwood, Rendel Harris, and Joshua Rowntree. They each perceived something special about him. His wife, Rosa, was especially important. She provided vital support and guidance, and gave him strength and encouragement. She shared his vision and allowed him to test his leadings. And lastly, he had a deep spiritual faith which provided him with a solid base that sustained him. These factors also enabled him to take an absolutist position in regard to conscription, when he could have chosen the easier option of exemption.
So far the process he used to test his leadings relied on personal contacts with Friends, mentors and his wife. At the time of World War I, he also used a formal process. He brought his concern about the welfare of enemy aliens formally to the Meeting for Sufferings to be tested.
Yet even with these support systems, it was not easy for Stephen to follow his leadings, which went counter to the understanding and wishes of his family, and society in general. He had to live with this tension. The way forward emerged only slowly. He was 30 years of age before he reached a stage of independence that allowed him to follow his dream. His health was always fragile, and it was made worse by his imprisonment. He was unable to work full time afterwards, and had to give up his vision to live in voluntary poverty without diminishing his health further. He and Rosa were unable to earn sufficient income to support themselves. Fortunately Stephen’s family came to their rescue. Two trust funds were set up and Stephen and Rose lived chiefly on the dividends from these two trust funds.
Although Stephen and his family held different worldviews they seemed to respect and love one another even though they didn’t fully understand the other. His mother supported World War I and worried about the safety of Stephen’s brothers serving in the Army, yet she lobbied tirelessly in Parliament on Stephen’s behalf while he was in prison. She was unable to understand why he was an absolutist, yet she wrote a book, So I Appeal unto Caesar, which told of the injustice of the prison treatment. It sold 14,000 copies.
Stephen spent his last forty years in retired seclusion gardening and doing some writing on faith-based pacifism and mysticism. He also wrote a biography of his mother. He had to live with the tension that he was no longer able to follow his leadings of living in solidarity with the poor and be actively involved in social and peace movements, but instead was reliant on the wealth of his family. The trust funds were set up as a safeguard, because the family feared that Stephen and Rosa might give the money away to the poor otherwise. Stephen and his family apparently came into an acceptance of their different worldviews. The family showed its concern for others in a top-down approach, and Stephen and Rose showed their concern for others in a bottom-up approach. He adjusted to not being able to pursue his original leading, and found a new one.
Stephen was happy to pursue mysticism, especially Jacob Boehme’s and William Law’s writings. Yet, sadly, for all of his interest in mysticism, he never had a mystical experience. . He contributed an invited essay for celebration book, honouring Gandhi on his 70th birthday, Essays and Reflections, and wrote Christ and our Enemies, an essay on loving our enemies.
In spite of living in seclusion for so long, Stephen nevertheless had a profound impact on English Quakers and the wider community, including Muriel Lester and her work at Kingsley Hall in London’s East End. He is usually described as ‘the saintly Stephen Hobhouse’, and it is said he was revered and beloved by all who knew him.