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June 2012 Meeting Report

Clare Mulley on The Woman who Saved the Children

The woman in question was Eglantyne Jebb and it was obvious that she was Clare’s heroine.  Eglantyne was born into an upper middle class family in Shropshire in 1876.  Her father, Arthur Jebb, a barrister, and her mother Eglantyne Louisa Jebb aka Tye (a distant Anglo- Irish cousin) married in 1871 and had 6 children, Eglantyne being the 4th.  She was very fond of inventing stories to tell to her younger siblings and also enjoyed painting in water colours.  Perhaps significantly her paternal aunt Louisa (known as Bun) also lived at the family home; an ardent supporter of women’s rights and one of the pioneering students at the new Newnham College, Cambridge.  During her childhood Eglantyne was becoming increasingly aware of the prevalent social injustice in the late Victorian era and wrote some, unpublished 'social' novels precociously challenging the prevailing social assumptions.  At this time she also dabbled in spiritualism, perhaps not unconnected with her father’s death in 1894.

Eglantyne entered Oxford University in 1895 to read History, although facing some opposition from her father as, at that time, it still wasn’t quite the thing for a young lady to go to Uni, even Oxford!  She did not particularly like Oxford life, finding it sexist and class ridden (there’s a thing, all those posh Etonians!) and had to be persuaded to stay on to complete the course.  Her brother Gamul’s death from pneumonia in 1896 also caused her great distress.  During this time she attended some Christian Science conferences, some of which appeared to be less than interesting as she spent much of time doodling caricatures including some unflattering ones of two named archdeacons, which she then lost.  After graduating with (to her) a disappointing 2nd class honours, she was increasingly anxious to work with the socially disadvantaged.  With the help of Charlotte Toynbee, a well known Oxford social worker, she was accepted at the Stockwell Teacher Training College in 1898, but soon discovered that she had no real aptitude or liking for teaching.  Possibly not surprising when the poor girl was confronted with classes of up to 60 'students', many of whom were not necessarily too bothered about learning and no doubt taking a great delight in making the posh young teacher’s life a misery!

Perhaps the next important event in Eglantyne’s life was her mother’s decision to sell the family home and relocate to Cambridge in 1901, to be close to her brother, Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, taking Eglantyne  with her, who was happy to move.  This put  antyne in close contact with the Cambridge Trinity circle, including George Darwin, son of Charles, and Eglantyne soon befriended George’s daughter Gwen, (later to write and illustrate “ Period Piece” about her childhood).  Eglantyne soon became involved in fundraising activities for her uncle’s wife, Carrie.  At this time Eglantyne also renewed her friendship with Marcus Dinsdale, a 'brilliant' Cambridge academic.  This entailed lots of walking in the Gogs and horse riding but, it seemed, not much else as, much too her dismay, he married one of her best friends.

In 1906 she founded the Boys Employment Register (BER), based on an idea of Florence Keynes, mother of the famous economist J M Keynes and, in 1908, her daughter, Margaret, became Eglantyne’s assistant.  During the next four years they had a very close friendship, ending in 1913 when Margaret married the eminent Cambridge physiologist AV Hill.  Eglantine was heartbroken.

In 1913 Eglantyne travelled to the Balkans to oversee the distribution of  aid for the Macedonian Relief Fund, where she experienced the devastating effects of war, especially on children.  She was forced to return home after becoming very ill with influenza and then urged the MRF to increase their relief work and to organise a refugee repatriation scheme.

In August 1914 war broke out. resulting in the inevitable anti-German xenophobia.  Eglantine and her younger sister, Dorothy, became involved in the distinctly dangerous pursuit of obtaining newspapers from the belligerent states and translating and publishing them in the Cambridge Magazine.  Interestingly, there was some significant reporting in the German press, such as the Berliner Tageblatt, of a strong anti-war sentiment.  These press reports also highlighted the considerable suffering and starvation being experienced in Austria as a result of the economic blockade, as well as the Allied refusal to countenance a negotiated settlement with the German and Austro-Hungarian governments.

At the end of 1918 Eglantyne and Dorothy were instrumental in forming the 'Fight the Famine Council' which was formerly inaugurated at the Central Hall, Westminster on Jan 1st 1919.  A series of leaflets were printed with headings such as 'Shall Babies Starve', and both sisters gave speaking tours about the conditions of starvation in many war torn European countries as a result of the economic blockade still being enforced.

In mid 1919 Eglantine produced a leaflet entitled 'A starving baby' with a photograph of an 2 year old Austrian child in a state of advanced malnutrition.  Eglantyne was arrested for distributing these in Trafalgar Square in April 1919.  In May 1919 she was tried under the provisions of the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act.  She was found guilty and fined £5 but was not required to pay any costs, which could have been considerable.  But, much to her pleasure and surprise the fine was paid for by the Director of Public Prosecutions.  She and Dorothy cleverly capitalised on the publicity resulting from the trial by organising a public meeting in the Albert Hall on 19th May 1919, where she made a short but impassioned speech,   “It is impossible for us as normal human beings to watch children die without making an effort to save them”.  Dorothy then made the case for launching the Save the Children Fund and memorably ad libbing, “ … there is more practical morality in this tin” (waving a tin of condensed milk) “than in all the creeds”.
Thus the SCF was launched with a spontaneous collection.  From this auspicious beginning the SCF prospered with its influence and work being felt the world over.  Eglantyne was invited to present the Children’s Charter to the Save the Children International Union in Geneva, which was adopted as the 'Declaration of the Rights of the Child' in May 1923.  It would be nice to think that this was universally obeyed!

During this time Eglantyne was increasingly suffering from a thyroid complaint and, although she had several operations, she died in December 1928.  No doubt she would be delighted that her legacy, 'The Save the Children Fund' is still arguably the most respected charity world wide.

Her Cambridge connection is acknowledged in a blue plaque at 82 Regent Street.

Clare has just completed an excellent biography of Eglantyne Jebb entitled 'The Woman who saved the Children', published by One World.
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