Jebb, Eglantyne (1876–1928)

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Jebb, Eglantyne (1876–1928)

English philanthropist who founded the Save the Children Fund . Born Eglantyne Jebb in Ellesmere, Shropshire, England, in 1876; died in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1928; sister of Dorothy Buxton; graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in 1898; never married; no children.

Born into a prosperous Shropshire landowning family in 1876, Eglantyne Jebb was an athletic dreamer as a child. She loved riding, swimming, boating, and the books in her father's large library. She also hated the effects of the class system. "Respect accorded to [people] should not depend upon the way in which they spend their working hours," she would later say. "In a social sense there should be only one class—the great class of humanity."

Jebb took advantage of the educational opportunities then afforded to women in Victorian England. In 1895, she entered Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford to study history, graduating in 1898; she then trained at Stockwell in London for a career as an elementary school teacher. Her first assignment was at a school in Marlborough but, within 18 months, ill health forced Jebb to return to her mother's house in Cambridge. During this period, she wrote poetry, traveled, and began working for local charities. In 1906, she produced a study, "Cambridge: A Study in Social Questions," showing a firm grasp of how philanthropies worked.

In 1913, at the request of the Macedonian Relief Fund in London, Jebb went to Macedonia to organize aid for the millions of children left destitute following the Balkan wars. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, she was working for the Agricultural Organization Society. In 1915, her sister Dorothy Buxton , concerned with the lack of reportage on the realities of life in wartime Europe, began publishing a newsletter which contained translated extracts from European newspapers, including those of the enemy nations—Austria and Germany. Jebb joined her endeavor in 1917.

The people of Europe were starving and, though the end of the war was near, the Allies continued their blockade to force the defeated powers to quickly agree to a peace treaty. Eglantyne and Dorothy were aware of the devastation; they knew that there was such a shortage of linen that newborn babies had to be wrapped in newspapers; that families were living on cabbage and turnips; and that six-year-olds were so malnourished they looked like two-year-olds.

Those who felt the blockade should be lifted founded the Fight the Famine Council, and Jebb and Buxton took part. It was an unpopular position in a country still at war. While handing out a leaflet with a picture of a starving Austrian baby under the heading "Our Blockade Has Caused This," Jebb was arrested and fined for publishing it without reference to the censor.

Soon aware that the Council was too focused on campaigning for direct action, Jebb set up a separate fund, Save the Children, for immediate help of the thousands in distress. The fund was earmarked for children, "beyond any consideration of race, nationality, or creed." At a public meeting at Royal Albert Hall on May 19, 1919, Jebb spoke to a large crowd that had gathered. "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,'" reported an associate who viewed the scene. "But they did not insult Eglantyne Jebb; they were forced to listen to her. She began hesitantly, then, gaining by the fervor 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."

Jebb worked as her own publicist and fund raiser, often pushing herself to the point of exhaustion. At her insistence, the Fund hired a professional publicist, and page-length advertisements were placed in national newspapers. Charities had never advertised on such a massive scale, and Jebb was chastised by outsiders for wasting the charity's money. "We have to devise a means," she countered, "of making known the facts in such a way as to touch the imagination of the world." The fund expanded quickly, allowing her to feed and provide for children in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Armenia, and Poland. In 1921, when the world learned of extensive famine in Russia, Save the Children organized an operation to feed up to 650,000.

During the last years of her life, Eglantyne Jebb was based in Geneva. In 1924, at the Declaration of Geneva, her Children's Charter was adopted by the United Nations, the first Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The document, of international importance, was also central to the work of her fund. The Fund's journal, The World's Children, became a record of children's welfare in many countries, and summer schools in Geneva were held for staff and supporters. Eglantyne Jebb wanted to organize a conference on the needs of the children of Africa; she wanted to provide an alternative to child labor in China and began to learn Chinese. But she died in 1928, age 52.

suggested reading:

Wilson, F.M. Eglantyne Jebb: Rebel Daughter of a Country House, 1967.