Eglantyne Jebb - Page 2

By: Mick Yates

Fight the Famine 

The blockade against the defeated German Kaiser and his allies was extended after the 1918 Armistice, at least partly because of the “patriotic” pleas from Lloyd George  – to help him win a post war General Election.

The "Fight the Famine Council” was thus started in order to get political agreement to raise the blockade.

Save the Children

April 15th, 1919, Eglantyne’s sister Dorothy succeeded in getting this largely politically oriented pressure group to agree to a separate “Save the Children Fund”.  This would aim to provide real aid to children across Europe.

On May 19th, Eglantyne, aided by her sister, led a major meeting at the Albert Hall to announce the fund. To quote the Save the Children website again.

“An associate of Eglantyne's describes the scene: "The public arrived supplied with rotten apples destined to be thrown at the head of 'the traitors who wanted to raise money for enemy children'. But they did not insult Eglantyne Jebb; they were forced to listen to her. She began hesitantly, then, gaining by the fervour of her mission, her voice became louder. Did she convince you? It was not by the arguments, but by the passionate conviction for the cause that she defended." 

Not long after that Eglantyne was arrested for handing out photographs of starving Viennese children (Austria was particularly hard hit) in an attempt to end the blockade. Once arrested Eglantyne probably hoped to go to jail to make a point, but instead was fined £5, and ended up persuading the prosecutor to make a donation to the Save the Children Fund! All in all, the launch of the Fund was a big success, and money came in from across the country. Within weeks of starting up, Save was distributing aid in Berlin and Austria.

The first branch was opened in Fife, Scotland in 1919. This was a novel way to build funds via local communities, and in 1920 professional area organizers were employed. By the end of 1921, there were 300 branches across the UK.  Unfortunately, necessary cutbacks closed them all in 1924, and it was only in 1944 that the branch structure started to be rebuilt.      

Modern methods

It was at this point that Eglantyne showed her true genius for effective aid work.  She decided that modern methods of publicity were required, and hired professional publicists to conduct a mass advertising campaign. 

Eglantyne Jebb“We have to devise means”, she wrote “of making known the facts in such a  way as to touch the imagination of the world”. She also wrote “we must have the same clear conceptions of its objects and seek to compass them with the same care, the same thoroughness, the same intelligence as are to be found in the best commercial and industrial enterprises”. Consequently she secured the help of professionals in all fields – doctors, journalists, and business people.


Skeptics were confounded, when an investment of £5,000 brought in £120,000.  In the first year, Save the Children raised £400,000 (equivalent to about £8,000,000 in today’s money). It was also in 1920 that Save the Children started individual child sponsorship as a way to engage more donors.

Eglantyne also was quoted in 1919 as saying something which became a principle of Save's future work.

"All wars are waged against children" 


Throughout 1919 and 1920, Save the Children received many protests, as they were providing aid to both the victors and the vanquished of World War I. They were also accused of being wrong in allowing Mrs. Lloyd George, wife of the blockade “villain”, to appear as a supporter on their notepaper! Eglantyne replied personally to many of the letters received.  The Wilson biography quotes her as saying:

“The SCF pays no regard to politics, race or religion.  A child is a child, whether red, white, brown or black”

Pope Benedict XV

During 1919, Eglantyne toured the Balkans once more. Then in December 1919, she had a crucial audience with Pope Benedict XV in Rome.  It was during this audience that the Pope unequivocally supported Save the Children, to the extent of declaring Innocents Day (December 28th) a day to collect funds via the Church.  He wrote two encyclicals on the subject. Save got support from many other religious groups, ranging from the Jewish community to Theosophists. To quote Eglantyne again:

“The only international language is a child’s cry”.

Save the Children International 

It was on January 6th, 1920, that Eglantyne succeeded in starting the International Save the Children Union, in Geneva.  The Union’s first major conference was in February, mixing people from all sides of the World War I conflict, but Eglantyne was too ill to attend. Nevertheless Eglantyne built up excellent relationships with other Geneva-based organizations, including the Red Cross who supported Save’s International foundation.

Eglantyne believed that every country should do its best to help its own people, and not just rely on aid. So as Save became a success across the British Empire - and spread to Ireland, the United States, Scandinavia and many other countries - the focus was not just on relief for war victims, but also for the disadvantaged children of each country.  Whilst many other aid agencies (such as Herbert Hoover’s American relief Organization) were helping across Europe, most of the aid was channeled to adults.  It was Eglantyne’s firm opinion that Children had the greatest need.  She wrote

“Every generation of children, in fact, offers mankind the possibility of rebuilding his ruin of a world”.  

Through the children she saw the best hope of lasting peace.

Russian Famine

By August of 1921, the UK Save the Children had raised over £1,000,000, and Central European conditions were slowly getting better. However, at that time a massive famine struck the “bread basket” Volga region of Russia. Eglantyne and Save needed to go to work with renewed vigour. It was this event that also forced Eglantyne and Dorothy to realise that Save the Children needed to be a permanent organization, and could not simply be disbanded once the job of repairing war damage in Europe was done. So, from 1921 to 1923, despite many protests against helping the closed and communist state of Russia, Save the Children swung into action.  Press campaign and movies were made, and feeding centres set up. 157 million meals for 300,000 children were provided during the Russian famine.  Save the Children demonstrated their efficiency by proving they could feed a child for a shilling a week .. five pence. 

Principles of operation 

All along this effort was guided by Eglantyne’s principles.  Quoting again from the Save the Children website, in 1922 the Fund’s first President said: 

“ … the work of the Save the Children Fund is constructive as well as palliative … our earnest endeavour is always to ensure that a just proportion of the money with which we are entrusted shall be devoted to works which will bear increase in permanently bettered conditions for children."

The professional approach, and the proven ability to get the funds and aid to where it really needed to be, gave Save the Children a world class and leading reputation.  Yet this gave Eglantyne food for thought.  If people’s attention could only be got when there is a major disaster, how could Save, and more importantly, the children, get permanent support? So, the work of Save needed to change. 

Rights of the Child

This led directly to the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, authored by Eglantyne in 1923, and first published in Save’s magazine, “The World’s Children”.  This was immediately adopted by the Save the Children International Union, and with Eglantyne’s lobbying was then adopted by the League of Nations in 1924.  It reads:

“Formulated by the Save the Children International Union, Geneva, 1923, and adopted by the Fifth Assembly of the League of Nations, 1924. 

By the present declaration of the Rights of the Child, commonly known as the declaration of Geneva, men and women of all nations, recognizing that mankind owes to the Child the best that it has to give, declare and accept it as their duty that beyond and above all considerations of race, nationality or creed:

(i) THE CHILD must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.

(ii)THE CHILD that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward  must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and waif must be sheltered and succoured.

(iii)THE CHILD must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.

(iv)THE CHILD must be put in a  position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.

(v)THE CHILD must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow-men.”

The 5 paragraph statement later became 7 paragraphs, and in 1959 was the basis for the United Nations “Declaration on the Rights of the Child”. 

As well as using the Declaration as a mission statement and rallying cry around the world, Save the Children conducted serious research into the most forms of effective aid – always guided by Eglantyne’s belief that “Help must be given in return for help”.  Many of the results were published in Save’s “The World’s Children”, which became the leading journal on the subject.  Summer training schools for Save the Children staff were run in Geneva. And Save organized the first International Child Welfare Congress in 1925.

New approaches

As early as 1913, Eglantyne had suggested settling Macedonian refugees on the land, so in 1925 Save the Children embarked on new projects.  One such was the establishment of  villages in Bulgaria for refugees. The people were given tools and seeds, and encouraged to re-start their lives via self - sufficiency. This was a great success, and was a forerunner of many similar development programs for Save and other Agencies.  The idea was quickly rolled-out to Albania. And in Hungary, Save’s school offered job training for young people.

In the UK, in 1926 schools were started to help inner city areas, and free school milk was offered at the time of the General Strike.  A report published by Save the Children in 1933 confirmed the importance of school meals to children’s nutrition and development – leading to a campaign by Save which eventually got school meals to become mandatory in the UK (in 1944).

Beyond Europe

It was also in 1926 that Eglantyne began to look farther afield. In particular she was interested in China. In 1927, she was quoted in the Wilson biography as writing: 

“As there are undoubtedly children who are suffering more in Asia and Africa than in Europe, we should prove the sincerity of our claim to universality by undertaking work in these continents directly we are able to raise sufficient funds for this purpose”

Even though Save the Children had raised over £4,000,000 by the end of 1928, Eglantyne remained haunted that the funds would dry up. She was aware that working beyond Europe could be a risky change in Save’s strategy, so wanted to organize an international conference to get the effort moving in the right direction.  She started to learn Chinese.  Unfortunately, she died before the conference could be run. In fact, partly because of World War II, it was only after 1950 that Save the Children UK was able to devote more of its resources outside Europe.

Eglantyne's death 

It was in June 1928 that she had three successive operations.  Whilst she was convalescing in a nursing home in Geneva, her poetry of the time suggested she thought she was soon to die. December 17th, 1928, she indeed did die of a stroke.  She was buried in St. George’s cemetery, Geneva.  A memorial service in London, at St. Martin’s in the Fields drew a large crowd of distinguished mourners.


Eglantyne was selfless, and tireless in working for the good of others, even when she was not in the best of health. She was a pacifist, a democrat, egalitarian, rather intellectual, and yet she also had a poetic streak. 

She was a committed Christian, and whilst she flirted with Christian Science and other novel approaches, she settled on a simple, deeply spiritual Christianity.  Yet, she never forced her religion on others. Eglantyne was a true Universalist, in not discriminating between the race, politics or religious faiths of people she worked with or helped.  This breadth drew Liberals, Conservatives, Socialists, Catholics, Muslims, Baha'i adherents and many others to follow her.

In the 1920's Eglantyne was reported as saying:

"Relief work does not consist entirely .. in wearisome meetings, wearisome appeals, wearisome statistics, and  a yet more wearisome struggle against uninteresting misery.  It has its moments of enchantment, its adventures, its unexpected vistas into new worlds".

Other people sometimes saw her as mystical and a daydreamer, yet she was a practical thinker and doer, always seeking  action.  Eglantyne was for ever looking for real solutions, and not short term fixes. She worked very hard at everything she tried. A simple example of the effort she put in was when she was helping to edit “The Cambridge Magazine”- it apparently took three people to handle the work when she left.

These values, built partly from her family background, her own experiences in the Balkans and elsewhere, and her own keen sense of right and wrong, drove her to want to alleviate the suffering of others wherever she found it.  Whilst she always found herself "lacking", she literally wanted to change the world.


Eglantyne’s vision was nothing less than improving the lives of all Children, through a combination of scientific research into development methods, self help, financial aid and professional management programs.  Whilst it seems that in her earlier years she moved from one thing to another, it is also clear that this devotion to the cause of children was her driving force. 

She was able to articulate this vision, notably in the “Rights of the Child” and most importantly turn it into concrete and sustainable action plans. It was a living vision, which adapted and changed in its expression in her lifetime, and has done so after her death.  From the original focus on victims of the War in central Europe, to the self-development efforts in her own country, to seeking to broaden Save’s horizons into Africa and Asia – the vision was always evolving.


Eglantyne laid down very clear principles of action, enabling others to map their own paths and programs, even after her death. To quote Save the Children’s website, these can best be summarized as :-

  • aid should be given in a planned, scientific manner

  • aid should be preceded by careful research

  • aid should be directed towards families

  • aid should be given on the basis of need and not any sectarian basis

  • aid should be constructive, self-sustaining

  • aid should stimulate self-help

  • aid should be pioneering, and able to develop models for others to follow

Eglantyne was thorough, an excellent organizer, and she consistently helped develop practical and long-term oriented programs.

A great action-plan example was her insistence on using modern management methods to run the fledgling Save the Children Fund. Building an effective area management structure in the UK branch system was another, organizational enabler.

There are the examples of International meetings and Conferences which she set up, to achieve specific goals, and not just to “talk politics”.

After inaugurating the International Save the Children Union, the Enabler with arguably the greatest impact was Eglantyne’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child. This was not only an aspirational statement,  but it also provided clear rules for action and measurement. It truly changed the way the World thought about and acted upon children’s issues.


Eglantyne empowered people in many ways.  First, and most obviously, through the activities of Save the Children she empowered children (and often their entire families) to escape from their troubled backgrounds. 

Second, she empowered the people she worked with.  Whilst her first instinct was always to trust the people she employed at Save and elsewhere, she demanded of them what she demanded of herself – thoroughness, professionalism and dedication to the cause.  In fact, she could be quite tough minded in “replacing” people that did not perform well.  Thus she “executed” empowerment as a two-way contract, giving space for others to act freely, but holding them accountable for the results. 

Third, her encounter with the Pope, and her Universalist approach to religions and cultures, demonstrated empowerment across traditional boundaries, getting people to pull together in a common cause - by finding values and programs which they could unite behind.

Finally, the relative decentralization of the Save the Children groups in different Countries meant that each was empowered to pursue the goals it felt most worthy, whilst still following closely the operating principles of the Alliance. 

Net, Eglantyne clearly demonstrated the characteristics of en “empowerment’ Leader – trusting, self-effacing, leading through values and principles, with a powerful personality … but then holding others accountable, and helping them define the tools needed to do the job. 


Let’s start with simple examples.  Eglantyne persuaded the prosecutor at her trial in England to make a donation to Save the Children! She presided over the public launch of the Fund, facing much opposition, and rising to the occasion with an emotional and effective speaking style.  She talked the Pope into supporting Save. Eglantyne also encouraged modern publicity methods – even having films translated into Japanese. Whilst controversial, these methods all contributed to income growth for Save and its programs.

More complex: Eglantyne found aid methods which not only gained support amongst potential donors, but also helped the recipients of the aid develop themselves.  The donors were energized to help, and the recipients to grow.

More broadly: Once Eglantyne realised that Save the Children needed to be a permanent institution, and the “emergency relief” funds would dry up, she developed the “Rights of the Child” to provide an “energizing” rallying cry to people all over the world.  She was then its most active advocate, helping to persuade the League of Nations to adopt the charter. She also started to seek ways to enter China, amongst other places, although this work was cut short by her death. 

Often seen as charismatic, yet always seen as practical, Eglantyne seemed to energize everyone she came into contact with. 


Save the Children operates in 130 countries across the world.  It is one of the world’s largest aid agencies, and one of its most innovative – ranging from individual child sponsorship, to child “work training” schools, to playgroups, to school meals, to land mine removal programs, and to scientifically driven “positive deviance” education and health programs to teach people how to learn for local best practices.  Save the Children still follows Eglantyne’s principles, in all the countries the Alliance operates in.

Her principles, in the form of the “Rights of the Child”, have also been fully embraced by the United Nations.  Few people have left such a positive legacy for the world’s social well being.

Eglantyne Jebb - Page 1



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.