Eglantyne Jebb

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Eglantyne Jebb
Eglantyne Jebb 1920.jpg
Jebb in 1920
Born25 August 1876
Died17 December 1928 (aged 52)
Geneva, Switzerland
NationalityUnited Kingdom
Alma materUniversity of Oxford
Known forfounder of Save the Children

Eglantyne Jebb (25 August 1876 – 17 December 1928) was a British social reformer who founded the Save the Children organisation at the end of the First World War to relieve the effects of famine in Austria-Hungary and Germany. She drafted the document that became the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.[1][2][3]

Early life[edit]

She was born in 1876 in Ellesmere, Shropshire, and grew up on her family's estate. The Jebbs were a well-off family and had a strong social conscience and commitment to public service. Her mother, Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, had founded the Home Arts and Industries Association, to promote Arts and Crafts among young people in rural areas; her sister Louisa would help found the Women's Land Army in World War I. Another sister, Dorothy Frances Jebb, who married the Labour MP Charles Roden Buxton, campaigned against the demonisation of the German people after the war. She also served as a faculty member at Wellesley College in 1929, teaching courses in English literature.[4] Another aunt, Eglantyne's father's sister, a Victorian "new woman", introduced her and her siblings to carpentry, fishing and melting lead to cast bullets, and inspired her to go to University at a time when very few women did.[1]

Social activism[edit]

Having studied history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford,[5] Jebb trained to become a school teacher, but a year's experience as a primary school teacher, at St. Peter's Junior School in Marlborough, convinced her that this was not her vocation, though it increased her awareness of the difficulties and widespread nature of poverty faced by young children.

She moved to Cambridge to look after her sick mother. There she became involved in the Charity Organisation Society, which aimed to bring a modern scientific approach to charity work. This led her to carry out an extensive research project into conditions in the city, and in 1906 she published a book, Cambridge, a Study in Social Questions based on her research.[6]

The Cambridge Independent Press, a weekly Liberal-supporting newspaper, published a number of articles covering Eglantyne's campaigning and political activities in Cambridge in the run up to the First World War. She was appointed to the Education Committee of Cambridge Borough Council in 1907, although in her first year only attended 13 of a possible 31 meetings.[7] She was also on the committee of the newly formed League for Physical Education and Improvement, but resigned citing pressures from other workloads.[8]

Under the watchful eye of Florence Ada Keynes Eglantyne and Florence's daughter Margaret set up and ran the Boys' Employment Registry, shortly followed by a similar one for girls.[9] There is now a Blue Plaque above 82 Regent Street where the employment registry was sited.[10] Eglantyne and Margaret would engage in a homosexual relationship for a few years until Margaret's marriage to Archibald Hill in 1913.[1]

In 1913 she was influenced by Charles Roden Buxton to undertake a journey to Macedonia on behalf of the Macedonian Relief Fund.[6] She returned shortly before the First World War broke out, and soon was drawn into a project organised by Dorothy, who had begun importing European newspapers – including ones from Germany and Austria-Hungary for which a special licence had to be obtained from the government – and publishing extracts in English in the Cambridge Magazine, which revealed that everyday life in the enemy countries was far worse than government propaganda suggested.[1]

As the war was coming to an end, and the German and Austro-Hungarian economies came near to collapse, it was clear to Dorothy and Eglantyne that the children of these countries were suffering appallingly from the effects of the war and the Allied blockade, which continued even when an armistice was signed. A pressure group, the Fight the Famine Council, was set up in 1919[6] to persuade the British government to end the blockade.

Save the Children[edit]

Memorial garden to Eglantyne Jebb on the ICRC site in Geneva.

Soon, however, the focus shifted to organising relief. On 15 April 1919, the Council set up a fund to raise money for the German and Austrian children – the Save the Children Fund. Unexpectedly, this organisation, launched at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 19 May 1919, quickly raised a large sum of money from the British public, and officials were dispatched to organise relief work.

The success of the Fund led Eglantyne and Dorothy to attempt to set up an international movement for children. The International Save the Children Union (Union International de Secours à l'Enfant) was founded in Geneva in 1920, with the British Save the Children Fund and the Swedish Rädda Barnen as leading members.

In London, it was now Eglantyne who was in charge, and she ensured that the Fund adopted the professional approach she had learnt in the Charity Organisation Society. A manager, Lewis Golden, was recruited to put the organisation on a businesslike foundation. He adopted the innovative – and controversial – approach of taking full-page advertisements in national newspapers; it was highly effective, and raised very substantial amounts of income for the Fund's work.

As the problems in central Europe receded, there was a new focus of the Fund's attention – a refugee crisis in Greece and the surrounding areas, a consequence of the continuing conflict in the area. Then in 1921, just as this situation was coming under control, there was a new and bigger emergency. Partly as a consequence of the devastation of war, revolution and civil war, and partly due to the disastrous economic policies of the Bolshevik government, the people of Soviet Russia faced a famine as crops failed. A new fundraising effort brought a surge of donations, and a Save the Children team was dispatched to the city of Saratov, one of the main famine centres.

Declaration of the Rights of the Child[edit]

In all the work the Fund did, a major element in Eglantyne's thinking was the importance of a planned, research-based approach. In 1923, when the Russian relief effort was coming to an end, and the Fund's income was sharply reducing, she turned to another issue – that of children's rights. She headed to Geneva, to a meeting of the International Union, with a plan for a Children's Charter. The result was a short and clear document – drafted by Eglantyne – which asserted the rights of children and the duty of the international community to put children's rights in the forefront of planning. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, or the Declaration of Geneva as it came to be known, was adopted a year later by the League of Nations.[6]

With peace returning to Europe, and relief efforts in decline, the focus of the Save the Children movement shifted to promoting the Declaration. In 1925, the first International Child Welfare congress was held in Geneva. The Declaration was widely discussed and supported by organisations and governments. An expanded version would be adopted by the United Nations in 1959, and it was one of the main inspirations behind the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Personal life and legacy[edit]

Jebb's grave in Geneva

For several years prior to World War One Eglantyne had what today would be respected as a lesbian relationship with Margaret Keynes (sister of Maynard Keynes). In their extensive correspondence they shared their wish for a time when they could live together or even live as a married couple. The correspondence reveals a very loving and intense relationship.[1] Sadly, the social mores of the time (and Margaret’s mother’s intentions for her daughter) meant that their relationship came to an end with Margaret’s marriage.

After many years of ill health due to a thyroid problem, including three operations for goitre, Eglantyne Jebb died in a nursing home in Geneva in 1928, and is buried there in Saint Georges cemetery. Her epitaph features a quote from Matthew 25:40:

«Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.»

Save the Children, which she and her sister Dorothy (who converted to the Society of Friends with her husband) founded in England in 1919 and as an international organisation based in Geneva the following year, remains active today. Also, the Church of England remembers her life and service annually with a commemoration on its liturgical calendar on 17 December.[11]

Archives & Further Reading[edit]

- Archives of Save the Children are held at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.[12]

- More of Jebb's papers are held in the Archive of the Canton of Geneva.

- Clare Mulley, The Woman Who Saved the Children, A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, Founder of Save the Children (Oneworld, 2009), republished 2019 to mark the centenary of Save the Children. Winner of the Daily Mail Biographer's Club Prize. All author royalties donated to Save the Children.


  1. ^ a b c d e Mulley, Clare. (2009). The woman who saved the children : a biography of Eglantyne Jebb founder of Save the Children. Oxford: Oneworld. ISBN 9781851686575. OCLC 271080917.
  2. ^ Francesca Wilson, Rebel Daughter of a Country House, London, 1967.
  3. ^ Clare Mulley, The Woman Who Saved the Children: A Biography of Eglantyne Jebb, Founder of Save the Children, Oneworld Publications, 2009, ISBN 978-1-85168-657-5
  4. ^ Wellesley College, "The Wellesley News (05-31-1928)" (1928). The Wellesley News. Book 796.
  5. ^ "LMH, Oxford - Prominent Alumni". Retrieved 22 May 2015.
  6. ^ a b c d "Jebb, Eglantyne (1876–1928), philanthropist | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34165. Retrieved 22 May 2019. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  7. ^ "Cambridge Independent Press". Cambridge Independent Press. 8 November 1907.
  8. ^ "Cambridge Independent Press" (17 May 1907). Cambridge Independent Press. 17 May 1907.
  9. ^ "Cambridge Independent Press". Cambridge Independent Press. 18 December 2008.
  10. ^ Mulley, Clare. "Blue Plaque-tastic!". Archived from the original on 15 March 2017. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
  11. ^ "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  12. ^ Catalogue of Save the Children archives held at University of Birmingham