Eglantyne Jebb

By: Mick Yates

Eglantyne Jebb was the founder of the Worldwide "Save the Children" Alliance. She not only created one of the world's first International development agencies, but her work led directly to the UN's "Rights of the Child".

In many ways, she seems an unlikely Leader, as she was unsure of her own worth, often seemed influenced by others, and was continually searching to find herself.  Yet, the impact she had, the values she espoused, and the way that she achieved what she did, speaks volumes about effective Leadership.

Eglantyne Jebb was born into a well-to-do country family, in Shropshire, England, in 1876. She was one of 6 children of Arthur Jebb of Shropshire, and his wife Eglantyne - who by coincidence was also a Jebb from Killiney, Ireland. It was in 1919 that Eglantyne co-founded the Save The Children movement, the first truly effective international aid organization. Later, in 1923, she drafted a declaration of the Rights of the Child.  These five simple statements were endorsed by the League of Nations in 1924.  Eventually an extended, seven statement declaration became the UN’s “Rights of the Child”, now ratified by all but one country on earth – the United States.  But that is another story ….     


To understand Eglantyne, it is necessary to understand her background and family upbringing.  Quoting comments on Eglantyne from the Save the Children (UK) website: 

“She was a tomboyish child, leading her brothers and sisters in mock battles in the gardens, and used to enthrall them with the stories she made up. She loved to go riding - she preferred to ride with men, she claimed, as women tired too easily - swimming and boating, and would spend ages reading the books in her father's large library. But her mother worried that she seemed to spend a lot of time daydreaming.

The children grew up with a love of the simple country life. Eglantyne enjoyed solitary pursuits, living cheaply and wandering alone in the countryside. She was very fond of ordinary people, and hated the effects of the class system: "Respect accorded to [people] should not depend upon the way in which they spend their working hours. In a social sense there should be only one class - the great class of humanity", she said. Eglantyne was very unworldly, and preferred to wear simple, inexpensive clothes".

The best biography of Eglantyne is "Rebel Daughter of a Country House", by Francesca Wilson (George Allen & Unwin, 1967), who analyzed hundreds of family letters. Quoting this biography: 

“Eglantyne herself was the most inventive of the children. The two younger ones obeyed her implicitly in the endless games of soldiers, the marching, drilling, band-playing and storming of the forts of the 2nd. Lyth Regiment of Light Cavalry. So strong was Eglantyne’s personality that she was able to rope in her elders: Bun [her aunt, of whom more below], always ready for fun, became Field Marshall, Em and Lill [her sisters] were sometimes Captains, sometimes demoted to Lieutenants.”

The biography also points out that there were many intellectually challenging and “modern” influences on the young Eglantyne.   For example, for three years Eglantyne edited the family newspaper, and consistently coaxed articles (letters, poetry, essays) from her entire family.

Family influences

Her family owned a Country House called the Lyth, in Ellesmere, Shropshire.  They were a most interesting group of individuals.  

Her mother (“Tye”) was an avid proponent of the Arts and Industries (Crafts) movement, which helped people prosper via their own craft endeavors, and became “high art”, thanks to designers such as William Morris. In fact Tye’s greatest achievement was to stage the first Home Arts Exhibition in London, which was attended by Royalty, Artists and many celebrities.

Her maiden aunt Louisa (“Bun”) was almost an institution.  She lived with the family at Lyth, as was often the case in Victorian England. Almost despite the formal governesses and tutors, Bun was directly responsible for much of Eglantyne’s education. She was strict with her lessons, but not above some really “naughty pranks” – such as taking Eglantyne out of school to go trout poaching! More seriously, Bun was a truly modern thinker, studying closely Darwin’s new ideas, actively supporting Votes for Women, yet at the same time being an avid supporter of Tye’s Arts and Crafts activities. Bun encouraged Eglantyne to take her education seriously, and was one on the principal influences on her decision to study at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford – something of a novel idea for a “well bred” country lady! 

Eglantyne’s father, Arthur, was a combination of forward thinker and classical Victorian. He was a well educated and well read Barrister, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Anglo-Saxon times.  Arthur was seen as a generous man, both of his time and his help.  Perhaps a small but telling example is that for over 50 years the Jebb family celebrated their Christmas lunch with their employees in their quarters. A liberal-minded landlord, Arthur had a passion for debating and democracy. Whilst he had Conservative political leanings, he nonetheless was happy to be in the company of Liberals – who his sister Bun used to invite to garden parties at the Lyth.  As far as his children were concerned, he had mixed feelings. On the one hand he encouraged their intellectual, political and artistic pursuits.  On the other, he almost hated the idea of his “precious” daughters going to University, not to mention the expense of so doing, whilst he thought they should be simply making a “good” marriage. One wonders whether his sister Bun helped straighten out his thinking … 
Richard (“Dick”), Eglantyne’s brother, was very close to her. He took Greats at Oxford, and traveled the world – later to write books about it. He was married to a Canadian woman, Ethel. Dick was a “liberal” conservative, contributing articles to the Morning Post, and writing modern commentary on the British Empire. His books on the “white commonwealth” were considered enlightened and widely read, becoming textbooks at Oxford. Dick was most affectionate to his family, took up many good causes, and continued his father’s tradition in dealing with the employees on the estate. Whilst he was disappointed in his efforts to pursue a political career, he loved the country life, although his children lived all over the world, including Canada and India.  
Dorothy ("Dora")  her sister, was a true partner in the setting up of Save the Children. For example, it was Dorothy who first moved the “Fight the Famine Council” in 1915 to set up a separate committee to consider the needs of children. She was the first Secretary of the “Save the Children Fund”. However, she realized she was better in the political arena,  and so she turned this post over to Eglantyne. Dorothy studied Moral Science and Economics at Newnham, Cambridge, and married Charles Buxton in 1904. Charlie became a Liberal Member of Parliament in 1910, and it was he who “converted” Eglantyne to Liberalism.  By 1917, both Buxton’s had moved on to become firm Socialists, when bearing that label was a sign of care and action for people less fortunate than themselves. They also became Quakers. At that time, Dorothy was also a committed pacifist.  Funnily enough, Eglantyne, always rather self-deprecating, saw Dorothy as “superior” to herself in almost every way.

Another of Eglantyne's sisters, Louisa ("Lill") went to Cambridge, studied Agriculture, and went back home to effectively manage the family farm - an unusual occupation for a "Lady". She was a Governor of the Agricultural Organization Society (AOS). In 1919 Lill organized the Women's Land Army, an effort for which she received an OBE.  In many ways, Lill was the best business person in the entire family.

There were more members of the family who led distinguished lives.  For example, her cousin Gem ended her career as Principal of Bedford College, London. Her mother’s brother was Richard Jebb, a brilliant Greek scholar.
 And there were many other influences.  One such was Mrs. Margaret Keynes, who was the mother of Maynard Keynes, the famous economist.  Mrs. Keynes was Secretary and driving force of the Cambridge based “Charity Organization Society" (COS), an organization aiming to define the best ways to run charities and aid groups via research and scientific methods. She was the founder of the “Boy’s registry” (later the Juvenile Labour Exchange) and a lifelong social activist. The COS is discussed more below.  


At Oxford from 1895, Eglantyne was an avid student, and an energetic debater. When she first arrived at Lady Margaret Hall,  she threw out all of the furniture in her room, believing it too pretentious for a "mere student" - and was only persuaded by the College Vice Principal to put it back on aesthetic grounds! She thoroughly enjoyed the lectures in Political Science from A.L. Smith - something of a University legend. Eglantyne also became a favourite of the principal, Mrs. Wordsworth (the great niece of the poet). 

When Eglantyne left University, Arnold Toynbee’s widow helped persuade her to go to a teacher training college (Stockwell) in 1898. In itself this was again ‘different’, as it was unusual for someone of Eglantyne's background to become a teacher. She acknowledged her time at the college was difficult, and she was shocked at the poor health of the student teachers.  On the other hand, she felt lucky as the college schooling was progressive and child-friendly.  


In 1899, she started teaching primary students, in Marlborough, Wiltshire. This turned out to be a quite progressive school, using "Froebel methods", and advanced teaching methods. Eglantyne was rather taken aback that the children played war games, and was puzzled that they showed no apparent horror at the killing and fighting.  The children were at that time knitting things for the soldiers of the Boer War.  She always wanted to challenge the children, trying to get her pupils away from books, and to learn from observation and experience. Much to her surprise, her students loved her, as did her principals. 

Still, Eglantyne felt she was a failure as a teacher.  It was clear to her by then that there must be other ways she could help children.


Of great importance, it was also at this time that Eglantyne became a committed Christian, partly reflecting her own sense of "despair", but partly also reflecting a true vision of Christ.  For the rest of her life she saw this as a pivotal event. In 1901, she stopped working at Marlborough due to ill health, but remained very active in the education of her cousins.   


In 1903, Mrs. Keynes employed Eglantyne in the COS – giving her the first real taste of effective charity work, and the opportunity to write a well received book on poverty in the city called “Cambridge: A Social Study” (Macmillan, 1906).  This sets out some forward thinking ideas and practical suggestions – laying the ground for Eglantyne’s focus on education and continuing development programs as keys to helping the disadvantaged. The book, and her work at COS, gave her a good understanding of how to make a charitable organization work. Eglantyne worked at the COS until Spring,1908.  One of her constant companions and helpers through the years was Mrs. Keynes's daughter Margaret, who later married A.V. Hill.  Hill became a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a Nobel prize winner.  Margaret founded 8 homes for "Old People" in London, and wrote a well regarded book "An Approach to Old Age and its Problems" (Oliver & Bond, 1961). Such were the circles that Eglantyne traveled in all of her life!

For a while Eglantyne confessed in her diaries that she was ill, although she also wrote “My fatigue is a fatigue habit, and as such surely should be subjected to mind cure.  I must experiment in order to try to and get stronger”. In truth, Eglantyne had a thyroid problem, which became a goitre later on. 

A Novel

1910, Eglantyne’s mother, Tye, was also once again ill, and decided to live outside England for a while. So, for two years Eglantyne wandered Europe with her mother, visiting various health resorts.  Whilst she didn’t enjoy this, it did give her a chance to write a long novel, “The Ring Fence”, which has many autobiographical sections and detailed pictures of English Country life.  In the book, she attacks the attitudes of the “ruling classes”, and examines the miseries of a manual laborer of the times. As a work of art, it is too long and prosaic, so it failed, making her feel of even less self-worth.  Still, in retrospect it must have served to nudge Eglantyne further along her path.      

The Balkans

During 1913, Eglantyne, spurred on by Charles Buxton, Dorothy's husband, went to the Balkans (Skopje and Prizend) to help the Macedonian Relief Fund.  Her job was to deliver money raised to alleviate the tragedy. The aim was not just to give relief to the victorious Serbs and their allies, but also to the largely Muslim Albanians - who as allies of the Turks had lost. This tangled Balkan situation, fraught with longstanding rivalries and religious disagreements, made a major impression on Eglantyne. From the Wilson biography, Eglantyne wrote:

"Unfortunately religion has become tangled up in politics. Nationalities are so mixed: a man's religion is the readiest label to show to which party he belongs ... To be a Roman Catholic is therefore understood to  mean you are not Serbian by blood, that you oppose Serbia and that you will favour any advance that her powerful neighbour (i.e. Austria) may make to her detriment"

She saw the terrible suffering and displacement of refugees, and, in a moment of lucidity during a nasty attack of delirium from influenza, she said “I must get back to England.  The people are dying, dying, dying”.

On her return to England, she campaigned both politically and to raise money, but to little avail. It was then that her sister Lill gave Eglantyne her next job – to edit the AOS magazine, “The Plough”.

At the outbreak of World War I, Eglantyne became a complete pacifist.  In 1915 she was forced by ill-health to stop editing the AOS magazine, and turned instead to her diaries.  Interestingly, she seemed almost to ignore the war and its suffering in her writing.        

The Cambridge Magazine

1915, her sister Dorothy became concerned that the British newspapers were only carrying “one side of the war story”.  So she got a license from the Government to import “enemy” newspapers, and published a newsletter balancing the facts. It is rumoured that Dorothy directly negotiated the license with Lloyd George, then Prime Minister, such was her determination. She imported more than 100 papers in all, from across the whole of Europe. After publishing a few simple leaflets, Dorothy was invited to include the material in “The Cambridge Magazine”, and that became widely followed internationally as a purveyor of accurate news about the state of the war, related to social and economic issues. People such as General Smuts and Maynard Keynes were regular readers.  
Eglantyne  had operations on her goitre in 1916, and her health improved. During 1917 she volunteered to help Dorothy at "The Cambridge magazine", taking over the Italian, Swiss and French papers.  It became clear that not only was the war drawing to a close, but that there were terrible social effects from the allied blockade. Thus, the magazine served not only to increase the two sisters resolve to make a difference, but also made them amongst the most well informed people on the state of European society at the war’s end. News was bad – with much shortage of food, linen for newborn babies and other daily necessities.

Eglantyne Jebb - Page 2

The Woman Who Saved The Children


Read more about Eglantyne in Clare Mulley's recent book - "The Woman Who Saved The Children".

Clare Mulley does a great job, and the book is an enthralling read. It is a well researched and interesting biography about one of a great social change agents of the 20th century.

Yet few people today even know Eglantyne's name.




Visit Save the Children Global Alliance.

For information on the US organization, check out Save the Children (USA).

Visit the website of sister organization, Save the Children (UK).

See the yates family school program in Cambodia, with Save the Children (Norway).

And note the progress of HIV/AIDS programs for orphans in Sub-Saharan Africa.