Founding mothers: Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928) and Dorothy Buxton (1881-1963)

From the middle of the 19th century, women played a key role in laying the foundations for the modern voluntary sector. In the first of a series, Third Sector columnist Gill Taylor and her daughter Bridget recall the work of the two sisters who founded Save the Children. Next week: the Victorian social reformer Mary Carpenter

Eglantyne Jebb: helped to found Save the Children
Eglantyne Jebb: helped to found Save the Children

Eglantyne Jebb and her sister Dorothy Buxton were joint founders in 1919 of Save The Children. Eglantyne, the older sister, was a complex character – a pragmatic idealist who rebelled against the class and gender restrictions of her time, and whose fundamental belief in the importance of humanitarian aid and internationalism remains as relevant today as ever. She was a passionate, dedicated and inspiring champion for children and their rights.

Born into the English country gentry, the sisters grew up on the family estate in Shropshire. Although Eglantyne described her barrister father as "a grand old Tory", he helped to set up the Ellesmere Literary and Debating Society, which discussed topics including state socialism. Their mother founded the Home Arts and Industries Association for the local children, which became an influential arts and education charity.

Eglantyne was largely taught by her father’s unconventional sister, a Victorian "new woman" who introduced her and her siblings to such things as carpentry, fishing and melting lead to cast bullets. These early influences go some way to explaining the surprisingly radical politics that later drove Dorothy’s work in particular.

Eglantyne studied at Oxford when women had only recently won the right to university education, and wanted to go into teaching. But family duty meant she returned home to act as her mother’s companion in 1900. She became involved in social work locally and wrote a report on poor working and living conditions, although she was sceptical of the role of upper-class philanthropy in eradicating them.

Dorothy – encouraged by her radical aunt – went to study at Cambridge University in 1900. Four years later she married the Liberal MP Charles Buxton and moved with him to Kennington, then a poor district of London. They were radicals and wanted to live among the people whose hardships they were attempting to alleviate. Dorothy was on the Council of the Women’s Liberal Federation.

The couple had an international outlook: Charles had helped to found the Macedonian Relief Fund in 1903, a response to the massacre of Macedonian insurgents by the Ottoman Empire. By 1912 a second humanitarian crisis was developing there, and they encouraged Eglantyne to travel to the region the following year to help organise the distribution of funds. This allowed her to witness at first hand the impact of war on civilians.

After the First World War broke out, Dorothy was concerned by the demonisation of the German people in the British press. She began importing foreign newspapers to provide evidence of the opposition to German militarism in Germany, and to emphasise the common humanity of the enemy. Helped by Eglantyne, she published Notes from the Foreign Press from 1915 to 1920, organising a team of translators, typists and experts in foreign affairs from her own home.

This activity was not popular with the British public, but was influential because of Dorothy’s connections with powerful individuals such as David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Her view was that every government implicated in the war was responsible for the conflict and their actions were creating a humanitarian crisis across Europe that would not foster a stable and lasting peace.

Even after fighting stopped, the British government continued to blockade German ports, creating the conditions for famine. The Fight the Famine Council was set up in 1919, with Dorothy as its secretary, to criticise the government’s actions, disseminate information and assert the need for relief in hunger-stricken areas. The council emerged from the new spirit of internationalism that developed in reaction to the horrors of the war.

In the same year the sisters founded the Save the Children Fund as a branch of the FFC to raise funds for humanitarian agencies already working on the ground. Dorothy is credited with having the initial idea for the charity; she also realised that, if it was to raise funds, the organisation needed to raise awareness, and an effective way of doing this was to create controversy.

Dorothy was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a radical internationalist movement to which many former suffragettes belonged and which had played a role in the founding of the FFC. They influenced the first publicity stunt by the Save the Children Fund – Eglantyne’s distribution in Trafalgar Square of leaflets showing starving Austrian children. She was arrested, taken to court and fined, but managed to persuade the counsel for the prosecution to make a donation.

In 1916 Dorothy had joined both the Independent Labour Party and the Society of Friends, the Quakers. The SCF attracted and accommodated pacifists who had engaged in humanitarian relief work during the war, and internationalists from both socialist and liberal perspectives who recognised the urgent need for greater international solidarity to prevent future wars.

But it soon became apparent that the charity would need to come across as apolitical if it were to gain maximum support from a more conservative British public. In 1921 the right-wing press accused it of aiding the next generation of German soldiers and Russian Bolsheviks, which made the sisters reconsider the charity’s image and hand the leadership to Eglantyne, who did not have a political reputation.

By the mid-1920s the charity was working in 24 European and Asian countries, providing relief to children regardless of nationality, religion and the political views of their parents. It gathered a lot of support through its innovative use of advertising, including full-page adverts in The Times and endorsements from George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy.

The charity’s appeals began to draw on the Victorian ideology of the child as a universal object of sympathy beyond national borders, rather than as a means of creating political bonds across borders. Eglantyne believed the sisters would have to sacrifice some of their earlier, more radical commitments in order to save the greatest possible number of children.

Besides providing relief on the ground, the SCF was also involved in international lobbying. Eglantyne wrote the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the League of Nations in 1924. She saw the declaration largely as educational and emphasised that it should be one simple document, easily transmitted by the media.

After many years of ill health with a thyroid problem, including three operations, Eglantyne died in a nursing home in Geneva in 1928, where she is buried in St George's cemetery. She would probably have resisted the term "feminist"; she was even, she said, "rather against" university degrees for women. Her main focus was child welfare, and she believed children could act as a catalyst for internationalism.

Dorothy lived much longer. She had had a nervous breakdown in 1923, exhausted by the fundraising work of the SCF and the campaigning work of the FFC, and haunted by vivid dreams of child famine victims. But she recovered, and during the 1930s she campaigned on behalf of German refugees.

Having learnt about the concentration camps from refugees, and attempted to publicise them, she travelled to Germany in 1935 to meet Hermann Goering. Although she recognised the inevitable futility of the mission, she believed in doing everything in her power to try to challenge the worsening situation. She died in 1963.

Dorothy was a determined character, prepared to combat human suffering, whether in Britain or abroad. Her political perspective made her recognise that the causes of this suffering were not inevitable and that unjust economic policies of the government should be challenged by fostering international solidarity to create the conditions for lasting peace and a hunger-free world.   

Save the Children today works in 120 countries and with more than 10 million children.

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