Great Lives – Eglantyne Jebb

Eglantyne Jebb was a charity crusader with an enduring legacy which can be measured in countless children's lives saved or improved.

Eglantyne Jebb.
Eglantyne Jebb.

She was a woman whose drive and fundraising commitment pioneered techniques which are today basic concepts of international aid agencies.

Just over a century ago, she founded Save The Children.

In the wake of the Great War, there was profound international suffering among children, and she was determined that people would not look the other way.

Eglantyne, who would have been a remarkable woman in any era, was the Bob Geldof of her own time and, like Sir Bob, was prepared to make a stir to get things done.

Her vision was a world where every child received a healthy start, was protected from harm, had a chance to learn, and could enjoy a brighter future.

And while that dream has not yet come to pass, her lasting impact can be judged by the fact that last year Save The Children supported nearly 200 million children in over 100 different countries.

Save The Children volunteers at work in Africa

As the new millennium dawned, the Shropshire Society in London, a body which fosters the links between the county and the capital, made its choice of The Most Influential Salopian of the 20th Century.

Announced in 2005, the accolade went to Eglantyne Jebb, who faced tough competition, with 24 nominations in total.

As it happened, a poll showed that Eglantyne was not the most popular choice among Star readers, which says something else about her – she is, relatively speaking, a forgotten heroine.

No less a person than the Princess Royal, who was President of Save the Children since 1970, and became its Patron in 2017, has called for her profile to be raised.

Eglantyne at her desk in the Save The Children Fund office in about 1921.

Eglantyne realised that it was important to get her charity’s message across and gain publicity for its appeals for aid. She took out page-length newspaper advertisements – seen by some as “vulgar commercials” – and battled on behalf of starving infants against an initial tide of apathy in Britain about conditions in former enemy countries.

This was carried on the front page of the Daily Herald in May 1919 to galvanise support for the inaugural meeting of the Save The Children Fund.

She championed the cause of the forgotten child victims of the First World War across Europe, and inspired ordinary people to help them.

“The world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative and very busy,” she wrote.

According to the charity she was one of the world's most charismatic, fiercely intelligent and influential champions of human rights.

Ironically, she doesn't appear to have been particularly fond of children.

She did not have any and once called them "little wretches," and said that the dreadful idea of closer acquaintance never entered her mind.

Eglantyne was born into a prosperous Shropshire family at The Lyth, Ellesmere, in 1876.

The Lyth, Ellesmere.

It was a happy Victorian country home and a privileged existence – there were, for example, 12 servants. Her pet family name was Doey.

Eglantyne grew into an attractive – some say beautiful – young woman with a social conscience and a taste for solitude. She was not prepared to accept the narrow horizons which were available to women in her time, and was determined to do some good in the world.

Eglantyne in her student days.

She studied history at Oxford where she created something of a legend by moving virtually all the furniture out of her room, including the carpet. She was persuaded to take some of it back.

Despite her fundamental seriousness – “strange” and “living on another plane” were descriptions of her – she had a sense of fun and adventure.

She loved dancing and was a daring horse rider. She punted, fenced, and went for long walks and cycle rides. Later in life she went rock climbing, skiing and toboganning. She was religious, and also something of a mystic.

Although there was no shortage of admirers, she did not marry.

Eglantyne Jebb.

Seeking to lead a useful life, and against the wishes of her mother, Eglantyne decided to become a teacher. She was not cut out for it. Unruly pupils while training at Stockwell, London, (“very bad” was the supervisors’ verdict on one lesson) were followed by misery in the field at Marlborough.

Unhappy, and her health slipping, she gave up. She was, she felt, a failure, and became depressed, feelings which were to dog her from time to time, together with thyroid trouble which would eventually hasten her early death at the age of 52.

Nevertheless the experience had given her an insight into the deprivation suffered in stoicism by many children.

She then lived in Cambridge, staying with her widowed mother. Essentially she was at a loose end. They travelled round Europe, and Eglantyne wrote a long novel called The Ring Fence which was never published.

These years also saw the beginnings of her involvement with charities. She worked for the Charity Organisation Society and produced a study of poverty called “Cambridge, A Study in Social Questions”, in 1906.

In 1913, at the request of the Macedonian Relief Fund in London, she went to Macedonia on what today would perhaps be called a fact-finding mission following the Balkan Wars which had devastated the area and created a refugee crisis. On her return she raised relief money. But an even greater tragedy was looming – the First World War.

As the war drew to a close she and her younger sister Dorothy Buxton gathered evidence that millions of children were starving in Europe. An allied blockade of European ports was causing great hardship.

As those places hit hard were former enemy countries Eglantyne risked being accused of treachery in doing anything to alleviate their suffering. Nevertheless her simple humanitarian message struck a chord.

A Fight the Famine Council was founded which paved the way, in 1919, for the Save The Children Fund to be set up.

Eglantyne with her Save The Children Fund armband.

Some members of the public arrived at the public meeting to launch the appeal armed with rotten apples which they planned to throw at the head of the traitor who was speaking up for “enemy children”. Instead, as she spoke with passion, they listened.

Inadvertent advance publicity came when, in May 1919, Eglantyne was fined £5 in a case heard at the London Mansion House for distributing leaflets and posters showing a starving baby headlined “A Starving Baby and Our Blockade has Caused This." The material had been published in April 1918, while the Great War was still on.

Eglantyne and Mrs Ayrton Gould were charged under Defence of the Realm regulations with procuring publication.

The Wellington Journal & Shrewsbury News report of the case was headlined SEDITIOUS LEAFLETS – AUTHORS FINED, and said: "Miss Jebb had admitted that she prepared one of the leaflets and sent it to the meeting at Trafalgar Square without the knowledge of the Fight the Famine Council, of which she is hon. secretary."

How the Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News of May 17, 1919, reported her court appearance.

Accounts of the case variously say that the prosecutor, Sir Archibald Bodkin, was so impressed by Eglantyne's cause that he paid the fine for her, or that she persuaded him to give a contribution – the first donation to Save The Children, the inaugural meeting of which was just four days later at the Royal Albert Hall in London, on May 19, 1919.

However, the Wellington Journal report simply says that no costs were awarded and the women were given a week to consider an appeal.

Hard hitting leaflets like this caused a stir – and got her into trouble.

Save The Children was a dramatic success not just in Britain but throughout the British Empire. By August 1921, a total of £1 million had been raised.

In the autumn of 1921, Eglantyne and Save The Children chartered a cargo ship, the SS Torcello, to carry 600 tons of lifesaving food and medical supplies to combat famine in Russia – an impressive feat of international negotiations and logistics that saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

A few years later at the 1924 League of Nations convention in Geneva, Eglantyne presented a Declaration of the Rights of the Child to leaders from around the world.

Written by her, this short but clear document asserted what she believed were the human rights of every child. Stressing the need to especially remember “forgotten” children, the rights she called for read, “the child that is hungry must be fed, the child that is sick must be nursed, the child that is backward must be helped, the delinquent child must be reclaimed, and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured.”

The declaration was adopted a year later and adopted in an extended form by the United Nations in 1959. The declaration later inspired the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a landmark human rights treaty comprising 54 articles which set out children's rights and how governments should work together to make them available to all children.

Since it was adopted by the United Nations in November 1989 a total of 196 countries have signed up, with as of May this year only two countries still to ratify. Those countries are Somalia and, surprisingly, the United States, although the US has signed the convention and contributed to its original drafting.

In her personal life Eglantyne had a loving friendship with a young woman who was on the outskirts of the free-loving Bloomsbury Group.

They signed their letters to each other with pen names so that people could not identify them if the letters were found.

Eglantyne's hair went white prematurely and in her final years her health deteriorated. She went to Geneva to extend her work, and died in a nursing home there in 1928.

Eglantyne's grave in Geneva.


BORN: August 26, 1876, at The Lyth, Ellesmere.

EARLY YEARS: Went to Oxford to study history, then became a teaching trainee in 1898 at Stockwell College, London. Unsuccessful teaching career followed. Published an acclaimed study of poverty in Cambridge, in 1906.

CHARITY WORK: Went to Macedonia for the Macedonian Relief Fund in 1913. Founded Save The Children Fund in 1919. It was a dramatic success, and during the 1920s she devoted her time to its work.

PERSONAL: Eglantyne was considered an attractive, even beautiful, young woman but thyroid problems affected her health. She never married and died relatively young on December 17, 1928.

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