Eglantyne Jebb, Founder of Save The Children
Can you imagine a world where children were forced to work from the age of nine, in terrible conditions in cotton factories or down mines? Would you have the courage to change it?
Eglantyne Jebb was born in 1876, into a world where child labour and exploitation were facts of life. Although born into an affluent family in Shropshire, her mother’s work as the founder and organiser of the Home Arts and Industries Association (an initiative founded in 1884 that provided training and schooling in traditional crafts for young people) exposed the young Eglantyne to the poverty of working class children and the social issues of her day.
Do you enjoy making things out of wood or clay? Can you draw a picture of your best ever creation and then imagine having to make it for a living?
After studying history at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford (one of the first colleges open to women), Eglantyne trained to become a school teacher, but after a year’s experience she realised this wasn’t the role for her. Between 1894-1910 she lived with her sick mother in Adams Road, Cambridge trying to nurse her back to health. While there she became actively involved in charitable activities, joining the Charity Organisation Society which attempted to reform the approach to tackling poverty by the application of scientific methods. Her most important accomplishment at this time was an extensive and pioneering survey of poverty in the city of Cambridge (including child poverty) which revealed the misery and squalor of working class conditions in the area; it would be an experience that would haunt her for the rest of her life and she even published a book in 1906, Cambridge, a Study in Social Questions based on her findings.
Do you enjoy maths? Could you create a survey on how many old buildings or interesting historic sites are in your local area?
During this time, Eglantyne met and fell in love with another woman, Margaret Keynes; they had a very intense and caring relationship, but at the time homosexual relationships between woman were frowned upon by society (however, it wasn’t technically illegal unlike same-sex relationships between men) and despite their dreams of getting married to each other, Margaret would eventually leave and marry a man in 1913 due to pressure from her parents. Eglantyne, heartbroken, would never enter another serious relationship for the rest of her life.
In 1913, Eglantyne travelled to Macedonia as part of the Macedonian Relief Fund to help starving peasants impacted by the Second Balkan War and when the First World War ended in 1918, she campaigned alongside her sister Dorothy to end the Allied Naval Blockade on Germany and Austria-Hungary which had continued despite their being an armistice in place and was causing famine and the deaths of thousands of children as well as unimaginable suffering. Eglantyne and her sister set up a fund to raise money for German and Austrian children called 'The Save The Children Fund' in 1919 (the basis of the modern charity) and the success of this led to the pair setting up the ‘International Save the Children Union’ in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1920, which turned the organisation into a worldwide movement. Save the Children responded to various crises during her lifetime, including a refugee crisis in Greece due to the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) and a famine in Russia caused by the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) and thanks to her careful planning and research-based approach—which she had refined in Cambridge—these relief efforts were largely successful. Her greatest achievement was ‘The Declaration of the Rights of the Child’ which she drafted in 1923 and was endorsed by the League of Nations a year later and would form the basis of the current United Nations convention on children’s rights today. This was the first time that the basic rights of children to be fed, protected from exploitation and provided with sufficient education had been enshrined in international law.
Aged only fifty-two, Eglantyne died due to thyroid problems in a nursing home in Geneva in 1928. Until her last breath, this extraordinary and unconventional woman fought for the basic right of children everywhere to be valued and cared for by their society, something we now take for granted in modern Britain.