Sunday, 27 January 2019

Save the Children Centenary by Janie Hampton

Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928)
This year is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Save the Children, one of Britain’s most notable charitable institutions. It was started by two indominatable sisters, Eglantyne and Dorothy Jebb. Their father was an English land-owning barrister and founder of a literary and debating society, while their mother started a charity for ‘Home Arts and Industries’. Both Anglican parents gave their daughters a keen sense of social justice, and a responsibility to challenge inequality; their French governess Heddie taught them about Prussian oppression; while their unconventional aunt Bun taught them carpentry, fishing and even how to make lead bullets.
As one of the first female students at the University of Oxford, Eglantyne attended meetings of the Christian Socialists and the Salvation Army. The established church did not appeal to her and she felt a close, personal relationship with the God who had chosen her to do His work. She had one complaint ‘which does for every­thing,’ she said, namely: ‘The world is wrong.’ As a young woman she investigated the working and living conditions of the poor, although she was sceptical about the effect of upper-class philanthropy, and her own poor health prevented her from doing much. At the age of 40 her health improved, and the injustices and suffering of the 1914-18 world war provided the motivation she needed. She became a passionate, dedicated and inspiring champion of children’s rights – though didn’t actually like individual children very much.
Dorothy Buxton (1881-1963)
Dorothy Jebb went to Cambridge University and in 1904 married Charles Roden Buxton whose family had been steeped in political campaigning since the 18th century. Both Charles and his brother Noel were radical Liberal, and later Labour, MPs who campaigned against the Macedonian massacres and together survived an assassination attempt in the Balkans. Their great grandfather was the slave liberator Thomas Fowell Buxton MP and their great great aunt was the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Dorothy, Charles and their children lived in unfashionable Kennington, London, among the people whose hardships they hoped to alleviate.
During the First World War, Dorothy and Eglantyne were distressed by the demonisation of the German people in the British press. To emphasize the common humanity of all Europeans, they published Notes from the Foreign Press. Dorothy was a member of the radical Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and believed that all governments shared responsibility for the suffering caused by war, and were creating a humanitarian crisis across Europe that could not lead to lasting peace. In 1916 she and Charles both joined the Independent Labour Party and became Quakers.
After the Armistice in 1918, the British government continued to blockade German ports, which led to a devastating famine. In 1919 the sisters founded the Save the Children Fund to help humanitarian agencies already working on the ground. They understood that controversy would help to raise awareness, so Eglantyne distributed leaflets in Trafalgar Square showing starving Austrian children. She was arrested, taken to court and fined. However, as well as gaining valuable publicity, she managed to persuade the prosecuting counsel to make a donation.
When Eglantyne asked Randall Davidson, the Archbishop of Canter­bury, to make an appeal on behalf of the children starving in Europe, he showed no interest. So she wrote to Pope Benedict XV. Clare Mulley, a former History Girl and Eglantyne’s biographer, recounts: ‘Pope Benedict had already been impressed by Miss Jebb’s lobbying to end the British economic blockade of Europe after the Armistice. In December 1920, he took the unpre­cedented step of issuing an encycli­cal, Annus Iam Plenus (On Children of Central Europe), in which he asked Catholic churches around the world to collect for Save the Children. It was the first time that the Roman Catholic Church had sup­ported a non-denominational cause.
‘Just before the appeal, Miss Jebb and her colleague Dr Hector Munro, who had witnessed the famine in Vienna, were granted a papal audience. Because she had been brought up in the Church of England, Miss Jebb was nervous about jeopardising the meeting by some slip in etiquette. In the event, her anxiety was forgotten in the drama of the moment: the Pope had fallen behind schedule, and, as Miss Jebb’s appointed slot approached, “The man who was showing us the way turned to us with violent gesticulations,” Miss Jebb later recounted to her sister. “Then he turned round again, and, to my utter amazement, took to his heels and ran. He was wearing a purple flowing garment like a dressing gown, which blew out all around him as he ran, so that he had the odd appearance of a purple ball bounding along the corridor.
“There was nothing for it but to run, too. Grasping my mantilla to prevent it falling off, I ran after him, through one gorgeous antechamber after another, where groups of soldiers and gentlemen-in-waiting turned to look. At last, through an open door, he turned, apparently too breathless to speak, with a wild wave of his arms. Precipitating myself in his wake, I perceived a small lonely figure, like a ghost, standing stock-still in the vast room, and, recollecting that popes always dressed in white, dropped on one knee. To my relief, I found that Dr Munro had run, too, and was making the poorest attempt at a genuflexion that I ever saw.” ‘
Dr Munro was not im­pressed by Eglantyne’s “attempt to curtsey” either, but the Pope didn’t notice. After asking many questions, he donated £25,000 to launch the appeal, insisting that it should be allocated to all children, irrespective of their faith. This prompted Archbishop Davidson to change his mind, and soon many other faith groups, from the Jewish community to the Theosophists, followed. Save the Children became a global appeal on an unequalled scale.
Children starving in the 1921 Russian famine were helped by Save the Children
Although Dorothy had the initial idea for the charity, her radical political activities were well known, and vilified by the right-wing British press. When in 1921 they claimed that Save the Children was aiding the next generation of German militants and Russian Bolsheviks, she handed over the reins to Eglantyne.
Save the Children was soon working in 24 European and Asian countries, assisting children regardless of their nationality, religion or their parents’ politics. In 1924 Eglantyne’s Declaration on the Rights of the Child, was adopted by the League of Nations. It later evolved into the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child, which remains the most universally accepted human- rights instrument in history. ‘Miss Jebb had launched an international aid operation, saved the lives of thousands of children, redefined how child welfare oper­ates, and had written social policy of permanent world significance, all in an era when women did not even have the vote,’ wrote Mulley. Yet like so many successful women, she still felt a failure. Only eight years later, at the age of 52, she died of heart failure.
SCF began working in Africa in the 1930s.
Exhausted by fundraising and campaigning, and haunted by dreams of child famine victims, in 1923 Dorothy had a nervous breakdown. After her recovery, she campaigned on behalf of refugees from Germany and against concentration camps, and in 1935 went there to challenge Hermann Goering. She knew it was probably futile, but felt doing nothing was worse. She died in 1963, aged 82.
SCF assisted children affected by war in Britain, 1939-45 .
Eglantyne and Dorothy rebelled against both class and gender restrictions, and their belief in the importance of humanitarian aid and internationalism remains as relevant today as ever. Save the Children today works with more than 10 million children in 120 countries.
The Woman Who Saved the Children by Clare Mulley won the 
Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize. All the author's 
royalties from this book go to Save the Children.


abigail brieson said...

Two couragous and compassionate role models. Wonderful.

Susan Price said...

'The world is wrong.' Can't argue with that. It still is.

Clare Mulley said...

Thank you Janie, for the whole blog but also for including mention of my biography of the inspirational Eglantyne Jebb, 'The Woman Who Saved the Children', at the end. I love that portrait of her sister, Dorothy, too. For those interested, Dorothy Buxton is also the subject of a biography, 'Campaigning for Life' by Dr Peta Dunstan.