British social reformer and child advocate Eglantyne Jebb (1876–1928) launched the humanitarian-relief organization Save the Children in 1919 to provide food for the youngest victims of World War I. A philanthropist with formidable organizational skills and a private income that allowed her to push past the traditional constraints that governed women's roles in that era, Jebb bought full-page newspaper advertisements in the London Times that were among the first charity appeals to include images of children in distress.
The Save the Children Fund (SCF), which Eglantyne Jebb founded with her sister Dorothy Buxton, became one of the most active and well-regarded relief organizations of the 20th century, expanding far beyond its initial mission to collect sufficient donations to purchase ten dairy cows for malnourished children in Vienna, Austria. A committed pacifist and descendant of a long line of social-reform advocates, Jebb was unperturbed by the sometimes-vociferous public criticism her mission provoked. “Every generation of children offers mankind anew the possibility of rebuilding his ruin of a world,” she maintained, according to Sunday Telegraph writer Anthea Hall.
Jebb's unusual given name is one she shared with her Irish-born mother and several other women in the family. By definition, Eglantyne refers to a variant of the shrub more commonly known as sweet briar, but it also has roots in British culture: Queen Elizabeth I used eglantine branches in official portraiture and other iconic elements related to her long reign, and a bower of eglantine is mentioned in reference to the character of Titania in William Shakespeare's classic play A Midsummer Night's Dream. Jebb's mother, born Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, hailed from Killiney, Ireland, and her family line was rife with esteemed judges and individuals active in various socialreform movements, including the humane treatment of prisoners. As a young woman, Jebb's mother was known to quip that she was eager to shed her less melodious surname; then, in 1871 she wed a distant cousin from the English branch of the family, Arthur Trevor Jebb. Arthur Jebb was an Oxford-educated barrister with a sizable estate in Shropshire known as the Lyth. Jebb was born there on August 25, 1876.
Jebb grew up near the market town of Ellesmere as one of six children. She was the fourth-born, coming after sisters Emily and Louisa and brother Richard; her mother, who was known as “Tye,” had one more son, Gamul (Arthur), and a fourth and final daughter, Dorothy, with whom Jebb would carry out some of her most significant humanitarianrelief work. At Lyth, the Jebb daughters were influenced by their father's indomitable sister Louisa, whom they called Aunt Bun. Unmarried and cheerfully unconventional, she supervised their home-schooling curriculum, took them on long rambles across Shropshire, and bought them new bicycles. Aunt Bun also insisted that all six children master practical skills, such as basic carpentry.
After earning her Oxford degree, Jebb moved to London to obtain a teacher-training certification at Stockwell College. She spent one year as a grade school teacher at St. Peter's Junior School in the Wiltshire town of Marlborough, but she had little patience for dealing with young children. At a loss, she settled in Cambridge near the home of her maternal uncle, Richard Claverhouse Jebb, a prominent academic at Cambridge University. There, Jebb fell in with a social circle that included classicists, left-leaning political figures, poets and writers, and an emerging cadre of amateur social workers who were organizing reform missions.
At a time when British women were still campaigning to win the right to vote in parliamentary and local elections, Jebb began compiling data on unemployment and living conditions in Cambridge. Her first book, Cambridge: A Brief Study in Social Questions, was published by Macmillan & Bowes in 1906. This slim but concisely written volume is clear in its intent as a practical guidebook for reform. “In our streets we meet occasionally with pitiful caricatures of men and women, poor puny wastrels, starvelings, degenerates, on whose faces the dull suffering of hopelessness has left its indelible stamp,” Jebb wrote. “We meet with many more to whom life has never brought its full heritage, creatures of stunted faculties, of wasted and misused gifts, of poor and mean experience, prisoners of their circumstances, ground down by the difficulties of their lot, or ruined by its dangers.”
In her book, Jebb also described the obstacles to full-time employment and economic self-sufficiency that existed in early Edwardian England, obstacles that troubled many an adolescent of little education who entered the workforce to contribute financially to his or her family's support. For these teens, most laborer-class jobs were physically arduous and offered little chance at social mobility; even young women who managed to avoid domestic service were paid pitiably slim wages as shop clerks. In a city like Cambridge, Jebb wrote in A Brief Study, alcohol-serving public houses were numerous and inexpensive, and more wholesome recreational activities scarce. This imbalance, she contended, was the catalyst for unhealthy lifestyles and unhappy marital unions, ensuring that another generation of British households would send children as young as 12 into the low-wage employment market.
In her book, Jebb suggested various remedies, including improved job-training programs, exercise and outdooractivity clubs, and cooperative savings clubs to encourage thriftiness. She suggested that readers who might recognize themselves as among the most fortunate and privileged might reallocate some portion of the funds they used for clothing or vacation to charitable purposes. As she wrote in her closing summation, “Will luxury and the love of luxury continue to increase, pleasure and pleasant things become more and more indispensable, until it is the recognised habit of good society to pass over to the other side of the road to avoid a suffering neighbour?”
Jebb's book appeared the year she celebrated her 30th birthday. Her personal papers occasionally reference romantic attachments, but she was cognizant of the fact that marriage and motherhood would drastically curtail her freedom to travel, write, and organize her life as she pleased. Taking up the model presented to her by the cheerful and lively Aunt Bun, she served others in her family, including caring for her widowed mother. Around 1910, she began writing a novel that went unpublished, The Ring Fence, in which protagonist Angela vows never to marry after her intended is engaged to another woman.
Jebb was particularly close to her younger sister Dorothy, who in 1904 married Liberal politician Charles Roden Buxton. The Buxtons were active in the Macedonian Relief Fund, established to aid refugees affected by the Balkan War of 1912–13. In this conflict, widely considered a precursor to World War I, Serbian, Albanian, and Bulgarian nationalists successfully fought for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, fractious religious and ethnic differences resulted in an alarming number of civilian casualties and thousands of newly stateless persons living in appallingly grim refugee camps.
Jebb and Dorothy traveled to the Greek-Macedonian border city of Monastir (later renamed Bitola) in February of 1913 to report back on the Macedonian Relief Fund's ongoing projects. She was stunned to see the squalor and piteous conditions among refugees, and as a woman who had campaigned for the right to vote she was especially aggrieved by the plight of homeless mothers and children who, suffering from extreme malnutrition and preventable illnesses, had only a slim grasp of the political causes that had led them to this state.
During World War I, Jebb and Dorothy led an effort to counteract the rabidly anti-German propaganda flooding England by securing government permission to import newspapers from Austria-Hungary and Germany. They selected extracts that revealed the extent of civilian hardship, including dire food shortages, and published translated excerpts in Cambridge Magazine. Sister Louisa, meanwhile, co-founded the British Women's Land Army, which recruited volunteers to assist with planting and harvesting crops. As a political entity, Great Britain was uniquely blessed by favorable geographic conditions and a diversity of food sources; its rulers, furthermore, had long understood that hunger was perhaps the most formidable of all threats to the stability of the kingdom.
On May 15, 1919, Jebb and fellow SCF committee member Barbara Ayrton Gould were arrested for distributing handbills in Trafalgar Square in London that showed a photograph of two malnourished Austrian children. “Our Blockade Has Caused This!,” it read, its text explaining that millions of children were at risk of death from starvation in now-defeated German-speaking lands. The fliers were subject to wartime censorship rules that remained in place until a complicated peace agreement, the yet-unfinished Treaty of Versailles, redrew the borders of continental Europe. A court fined Jebb £5, which she asserted was a pittance if it drew attention to SCF and which resulted in increased donations. As she had when opposing the Balkan War effort, Jebb argued that children were the hapless victims of decisions made by heads of state and military officials. She bought full-page newspaper advertisements in the London Times calling for a lifting of the Allied blockade, which finally ended in June of 1919.
In January of 1920, Jebb and Buxton set up an international office for SCF in Geneva, Switzerland. They focused their efforts on assisting famine-struck populations in Soviet Russia, working with the newly established League of Nations to set up a food and medicine pipeline. After the League of Nations appointed her to serve as an assessor for its Committee for Child Protection, she drafted a Children's Charter for the organization. This document became the Declaration of Geneva and was incorporated into the 1924 Covenant of the League of Nations.
Personally, Jebb had suffered for many years from a thyroid condition that curtailed her philanthropic work. She had attempted to treat it by adopting a strict plantbased diet, but in 1928 she was forced to undergo surgery in Geneva. This failed to resolve the health crisis and she died on December 17, 1928, at a Geneva clinic, at age 52. Sister Dorothy Buxton continued to work on behalf of the SCF, which became one of the most vital relief agencies in the field following the devastation of Europe during World War II. Once again, an international coalition of political and human-rights activists met in the war's aftermath to build another global-based organization to prevent armed conflict. The United Nations, founded in 1945, was the successor to the League of Nations, and it also incorporated the basic principles Jebb set down in her original five-point Children's Charter.
Jebb, Eglantyne, Cambridge: A Brief Study in Social Questions, Macmillan & Bowes, 1906.
Mahood, Linda, Feminism and Voluntary Action: Eglantyne Jebb and Save the Children, 1876–1928, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Mulley, Clare, The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, Oneworld Publications, 2009.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), November 20, 1994, Anthea Hall, “Enduring Legacy of Children's Champion,” p. 21.
Times (London, England), December 19, 1928, “Miss Eglantyne Jebb,” p. 14.□