Rule-breaking EGLANTYNE JEBB was an unlikely founder of Save the Children, but she is one of history’s greatest heroes, says writer Charlotte Bogard-Macleod
All wars are wars against the child,” Eglantyne Jebb said in 1924. Although you may not know his name, you know his legacy: Jebb founded Save the Children. Its Declaration of the Rights of the Child – now called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. Jebb achieved all of this even though she didn’t want children – or even though she didn’t really like them.
In 2019 I was asked if I would write a short play about Jebb to mark the centenary of Save the Children. I was trying to finish a drama for the BBC and, although I didn’t have time for a new project, I also knew I had to write it. Jebb had all the qualities I look for in a heroine: she was a maverick, navigating the narrow confines of her society, struggling with a messy love life, and fighting to make the world a better place. I didn’t know why she wasn’t a household name.
Born in 1876, Jebb grew up with her five siblings in Shropshire where she rode horses at gallops, raced in carriages and, at 18, went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to study English. When presented with college rules informing her that she had to be chaperoned to classes, an outraged Jebb wondered whether she should leave or “stay long enough to break all the rules and be expelled.” She stayed, but not quietly. It was at Oxford that she learned how the poorer half of society lived and began her lifelong humanitarian work.
In 1907, she fell in love with Margaret Keynes, who shared her passion for social justice. The two women exchanged promises and tokens of love, but Keynes broke up to marry and start a family. Heartbroken, Jebb vowed to find his life’s purpose through his work.
The only international language is the cry of a child
Although she championed children’s rights to a good start in life, she failed in her teaching, admitting: “I’m not interested in teaching…I don’t care about children.” They pounce on me with squeals, howls and inarticulate noises like pigs when they see food coming.
Instead, she channeled her energies into activism, experiencing the horrors of war in 1914 in the Balkans while distributing aid to starving children. In 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, she protested Britain’s economic blockade of Europe, used to force Germany to accept punitive peace terms. Jebb was determined to help the millions of German and Austrian children who had survived the war only to starve in peacetime. “It is certainly impossible for us as human beings to see children starving to death without making an effort to save them,” she said.
Jebb was arrested in Trafalgar Square that year for distributing protest leaflets which had not been approved by government censors. Vilified by the press – she was nicknamed “the old girl in the brown cardigan” – she had few supporters. Even though she risks a heavy fine and a prison sentence, she insisted on defending herself, hoping to use her trial to hold the government accountable.
Although the judge found Jebb guilty, he was so convinced by his arguments that he not only imposed a minimum fine of £5, but also produced a bank note to cover the costs. Jebb insisted on paying her own fees, but took her £5, saying she would donate it to a new fund to help starving children in Europe. And that’s when the idea of Save the Children was born.
Today the charity is the largest independent international child development agency. Last year, it helped 48.8 million children around the world, responding to 107 emergencies in 66 countries. Its work in the UK includes supporting disadvantaged families with emergency grants, funding projects such as food pantries and baby banks, and securing government reform of child benefits, the expansion of free school meals and the childcare system.
In 2017, Princess Anne succeeded the Queen as patron of Save the Children, having served as its president since 1970. Anne attended a fundraising performance of my play about Jebb in London in May 2019, with Joely Richardson, Helena Bonham Carter, Sue Perkins and children. from the Chickenshed Theatre. Chatting with the princess afterwards, I discovered that we had a mutual admiration for this unconventional heroine.
I’m currently turning Clare Mulley’s biography, The Woman Who Saved the Children, into a screenplay, and Hollywood is interested in it – excited about this little-known activist and the surprising immediacy of her story.
Jebb once said, “The only international language is the cry of a child.” » His words resonate more than ever.