At the time of the Boer War the Victorian era was coming to an end, and many changes were taking place that influenced the way in which the war was perceived, and the responses of society to it. There was a greater freedom from domesticity, and greater personal freedom for women, including travelling abroad. This was reflected in both literature and the press.
It was also a time when empire and imperialism dominated both political and social discourse. This was echoed in the formation of societies like the Guild of Loyal Women, founded in Cape Town in 1900, and later, after Queen Victoria’s death, the Victorian League.
Some of the society ladies drawn to South Africa were involved in these societies and wanted to further the aspirations of women in society. Lady Violet Cecil was a co-founder of the Guild of Loyal Women. She went to South Africa with her husband, who was on the Staff of Baden-Powell. She took on humanitarian projects around Cape Town, and frequently acted as hostess at Government House1.
Not all ladies went to South Africa for these reasons. When war broke out in South Africa in 1899, people thought that it would be a brief war, that the British and Commonwealth forces would quickly push back the Boers, and that there was no threat to the colonies of Natal and the Cape. Cape Town became a focus for those society ladies who had more wealth and more leisure time at their disposal, for example Lady Sykes, who recorded2:
“I went to the Cape last November because I had some three months at my disposal, and, as I had more experience of travel in foreign and even barbarous countries than most of my countrywomen, I thought I would go to the Cape, and spend some little time there, and see if I could not be of some little use or service”.
The service that many wished to give was to nursing the sick and wounded. The large base hospitals around Cape Town became overwhelmed with the numbers of visitors wanting to offer their services. Some believed that their skills and experience in looking after domestic households equipped them for service as a nurse. Some patients made use of their services to both read and write letters. For others the constant visitors proved more difficult to cope with3:
“‘What can I do for you, my poor man?’ a lady visitor inquired of a sick soldier at a base hospital in 1899. ‘Shall I wash your face?’ The soldier was acutely embarrassed. ‘Thank you kindly, ma’am, but I’ve already had to promise fourteen ladies that they shall wash my face!’.”