THE preoccupations of Brexit, the horrors of the fires in the Amazon rainforest, the constant stream of depressing news from the USA … perhaps it’s not surprising that many important news stories and events are getting lost in the mist. One of these is the centenary of the international charity, the Save The Children Fund. You didn’t know? Of course not – it has had virtually no national coverage.
I came across this anniversary quite by accident, thanks to this year’s Chalke Valley History Festival. I went to hear the writer Clare Mulley, whose talk was called The Woman who Saved the Children. I hadn’t heard of the writer, and I knew nothing about the founding of a charity which many of us support for its work with children suffering in so many parts of the world – the subject just caught my interest.
Nowadays, we tend to picture SCF helping starving children in Africa or the victims of conflict in Yemen or Syria. But 100 years ago, the problem was right on our doorstep – Eglantyne Jebb, “the woman who saved the children,” was inspired by the plight of children in central Europe.
After the First World War ended, Britain maintained a blockade that had a devastating effect on the demoralised and defeated German population. Reports and photographs showed children in cities like Berlin and Vienna starving. Malnutrition and rickets were common.
Eglantyne Jebb and her sister Dorothy Buxton were part of the Fight the Famine movement, which spread information about what was happening in Europe. The campaigners were attacked as unpatriotic and aiding the enemy.
In 1919, Eglantyne was arrested for distributing leaflets in Trafalgar Square. With the headline: “Our blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death,” they showed shocking images of children affected by famine in Europe,
She was tried for her protest and found guilty – but the prosecuting counsel was so impressed with her that he offered to pay the £5 fine himself.
The sisters quickly decided that campaigning alone would not be enough. Direct action was needed, and in May 1919, the Save the Children Fund was set up at a packed public meeting in London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Over the next few years, with donations that ranged from small coins to thousands of pounds, Save the Children supported organisations working to feed and educate children in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Hungary, the Balkans and for Armenian refugees in Turkey. In the early 1920s they began to help the children who were suffering in the post-Revolution famine in Russia. Eglantyne and her colleagues took page-length advertisements in national newspapers and showed film of famine and disaster work in cinemas.
They raised enough money to pay for a ship to take 600 tons of aid to Russia and from winter 1921 through much of 1922, Save the Children provided daily meals to help keep 300,000 children and more than 350,000 adults alive.
What started as a response to the post war famines, was soon being called on to help with other emergencies, and Save the Children became a permanent organisation. By the mid-1920s, the charity was focusing more on the rights and welfare of children, alongside the essential relief work, overseas and at home.
Eglantyne drew up what became known as the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. This was subsequently adopted by the League of Nations, a forerunner to the UN, and inspired the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history—ratified by 194 countries. The only countries that have not ratified it are Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States.
Eglantyne Jebb died in 1928, aged only 52. Her legacy is remarkable. She not only helped to save millions of lives, but also changed the way the world treats children.
• To find out more about Eglantyne Jebb and her work, read Clare Mulley’s fascinating biography, The Woman Who Saved The Children. For more on the work of Save The Children, how to support SCF and the history of the organisation, visit www.savethechildren.org.uk
Pictured: Eglantyne Jebb, the image of an elegant and leisured Edwardian young lady, who would become a fearless campaigner; starving children in eastern Europe being fed by Save The Children in 1921.