Her father was rector of the Anglican Church while her mother was the daughter of Sir William Trelawney who represented East Cornwall in parliament. After her mother’s death Emily took care of her father who was often unwell. After his death in January 1895 she left for the United States where she did welfare work among the many Cornish emigrants working in the mines in Minnesota. She became engaged to John Carr Jackson but broke off her engagement in 1898 and returned to England. When the war with South Africa broke out in October 1899, Leonard Courtney, a liberal MP, invited Emily to join the women’s branch of South African Conciliation Committee of which he was president. In July 1900 she learnt about the plight of the Boer women in war torn South Africa. She now started the South African Women and Children’s Distress fund. She also learnt about the existence of a camp for women in Port Elizabeth. She sailed for South Africa on 7 December 1900 and landed at Cape Town on the 27th. Here she learnt of camps in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom, Norvalspont, Kroonstad, Irene etc. She immediately applied for permission to visit the concentration camps.
Her chances of visiting the camps were not good as martial law had been declared over large parts of the Cape Colony. Lord Milner agreed that she could visit the camps, subject to the approval of Lord Kitchener. He granted her permission to proceed only as far as Bloemfontein. She left Cape Town on 22 January 1901 and arrived at Bloemfontein on the 24th where she stayed at the home of the Fichardt family. The camp was "dumped down" as Emily put it, “on the southern slope of a kopje (small hill) right out on the bare brown veld." When she arrived in the camp she finally met the women she had come to help. There were then almost two thousand people living in the camp: the majority was women and children with a few surrendered men known as “hands-uppers." She had come with the object of providing such articles as could not be expected to be provided for by the authorities, "but I soon found out", she wrote, and “that there was a scarcity of essential provisions. The accommodation was wholly inadequate. When the eight, ten or twelve people who lived in the bell tent were squeezed into it to find shelter against the heat of the sun, the dust or the rain, there was no room to stir and the air in the tent was beyond description, even though the flaps were rolled up properly and fastened. Soap was an article that was not dispensed. The water supply was inadequate. No bedstead or mattress was procurable. Fuel was scarce and had to be collected from the green bushes on the slopes of the kopjes by the people themselves. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine." Sicknesses such as measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid had already invaded the camp with fatal results. There were very few tents who did not house one or more sick persons, most of them children.
When she requested soap for the people, she was told that soap was a luxury. She nevertheless succeeded in having it listed as a necessity. She was aware of the difficulties involved in obtaining supplies from the coast on a railway line constantly threatened and disrupted, but she could not forgive what she called :"Crass male ignorance, helplessness and muddling… I rub as much salt into the sore places in their minds… because it is good for them; but I can’t help melting a little when they ...confess that the whole thing is a grievous and gigantic blunder and present almost insoluble problems...”
She also visited the camps at Norvalspont, Aliwal North, Springfontein, Kimberley and Orange River and Mafeking. Everywhere she directed the attention of the authorities to the inadequate sanitary measures, meagre rations, and to inefficient organization. When she returned to Bloemfontein the military operations of March and April had brought a large number of extra families into the camp .She wrote that the population had redoubled and had swallowed up the results of improvements that had been effected. The appalling increase in illness and death and the fact that nobody in authority listened to her pleas, led to a decision to return to England. She hoped that once back in Britain she would be able to persuade the Government and the public to make an end to the conditions of misery and distress in the camps.
At the request of the Minister of War, St John Brodrick, she submitted her report on the camps to him in writing. Her report was also made known to the public by the committee of the Emergency Fund. It directed the attention of the public to the concentration camps and created a deep feeling of sympathy in all parts of the country but the debate on the report in the Houses of Parliament, was extremely disappointing as it was a picture of “apathy and impatience.” In spite of fierce opposition from newspapers supporting the Government’s standpoint Emily continued to address meetings about the plight of the women and children. The Government appointed a ladies' committee under Mrs. Millicent Fawcett to inspect the camps in South Africa. Hobhouse was not part of this committee. The committee’s report however repeated her findings and resulted in important improvements.
In October 1901 she decided to resume her work in South Africa. She steamed into Table Bay on 27 October 1901 but was not allowed to land. Five days later she was deported. The disappointment caused by her reception came as a great shock to her. She retired to the south of France to work on her first book “The Brunt of the War and where it fell”.
When the war ended in 1902 she saw it as her mission to support every effort aimed at rehabilitation and reconciliation of the war ravaged country. With this objective in view, she visited South Africa once more in 1903. Back in England she finalized her plan, conceived during her visit, of starting Boer home industries. She, accompanied by two helpers, returned to South Africa in 1905. They came equipped with the required apparatus to teach the women and girls the art of spinning and weaving. The first school was set up at Philippolis in the Free State. Eventually 27 schools were established in the Transvaal and the Free State. A lace school was also established at Koppies in the Free State.
The unveiling of the Women's Monument at Bloemfontein took place on 16 December 1913. Emily Hobhouse was asked to unveil the monument but eventually her ill health prevented her from completing her journey and personally delivering her speech. On the initiative of Mrs. Steyn, a sum of £2,300 was collected for her in 1921 with which she purchased a house at St. Ives in Cornwall. She died on 8 June 1926. Her ashes found a final resting place in a niche at the Women’s Memorial at Bloemfontein on 26 October 1926.