Eglantyne Jebb - The Victorian Activist!


Eglantyne Jebb was an educator and economist, a philanthropist and social activist, a political campaigner for womens' rights and childrens' rights and refugees' rights in the era of Queen Victoria. Her story can be pinned to her family home which still exists called “Springfield” on the corner of Sidgewick Street and Queens Road overlooking the backs at Queens Green. And although Queens Green and Road were named such to mark the visit of Queen Victoria to Cambridge in 1842 and 1847, Eglantyne was not herself born until 1876 in Shropshire but frequently came to stay in Cambridge because she came from a powerful intellectual family, her Uncle being the Professor of Classics who socialized with the Darwin family and the founders of Newnham College, filled with feisty educated women with progressive ideas and activist attitudes.  It is no surprise that Eglantyne went to College too, first to Oxford and then to teacher training college, showing a quirky streak by chucking out most of the furniture so she could study in a room with no distracting objects. Importantly for Cambridge, she returned to live there in 1900 and was put to work by the infamous social reformer and economist Florence Keynes, to research the poverty and inequality between town and gown that most in the University overlooked.  In 1906 Eglantyne published this survey of economic inequalities and the social consequences of poverty , which was called “Cambridge: a Social Study”  highlighting the poor working and living conditions, especially the diseases and deaths arising from bad sanitation. Her activism made a difference to Cambridge and then to the UK, because Eglantyne joined the marches and processions of the suffragettes to campaign for the vote for women. And after that, her work made a difference internationally when she campaigned as a refugee organizer in the Balkans during the First World War, fundraising for the relief of famines and food distribution to refugees, becoming a particular expert about the plight of displaced children in war, going on to co-found the Save the Children Fund on 6th January 1920, a charity that works in war torn situations to this day.  Her determination to change the world for the better did not stop there, and her most important achievement in terms of safeguarding child protection which still has resonance today, was that in 1924 the League of Nations endorsed her Declaration on the Rights of the Child.

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Eglantyne Jebb was born in 1876 at The Lyth, Ellesmere, Shropshire. She was the third daughter and fourth child to a close knit family of seven and born to Arthur Trevor Jebb and this wife Eglantyne Louisa Jebb. Her parents had a strong social conscience which was rooted in their Christian faith. Eglantyne was educated at home and had a happy childhood, with the opportunity to play outside and enjoy the countryside where she lived, climbing trees, swimming and riding, which was one of her greatest loves. Eglantyne didn't go to school and her governess when she was growing up was a lady called Heddie from Alsace in France. Heddie taught her German and French, alongside literature from these countries. She also told her about the cruel Prussian occupation of her country, where many people had longed to be free from oppression of the rulers at the time, which happened during her lifetime. This gave Eglantyne an early and poignant lesson into understanding the suffering of others, where the minorities of a country had a real longing to be freed from their oppressors. Both her parents were also highly intelligent and well educated, as well as her Aunt Bun who also supervised lessons and had a great passion in higher education for women. Her Aunt Bun had previously taken a course at Newnham in Cambridge, which was unusual in the 19th Century when educational opportunities were still limited for women.

In 1895 Eglantyne went to study at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she had a self confessed ‘mania’ for books and a lack of interest in creature comforts or friends. Whilst at Lady Margaret Hall she chose to move nearly all the furniture out of her room, so she was only left with a bed, desk and washstand. Her Vice-principle Miss Pearson gently persuaded her to take more of it back, arguing that beauty still had it’s part to play in a socialist society. Eglantyne’s action made a great impression on people and became a kind of legend. Dame Kathleen Courtney, who was a fresher when Eglantyne was studying remarked how different she was- how she already had a real hatred of the division between rich and poor and rebelled again the class-ridden world which she was born into, as a privileged member.

Eglantyne’s appreciation of eccentric and fascinating woman grew over time. She met many interesting people through circles at Oxford and Cambridge, which may have been facilitated through connections, such as her uncle (who was Professor of Greek at Cambridge) and Elizabeth Wordsworth (great niece of the poet) who became the first principle of Lady Margaret Hall. Eglantyne was inspired by many speakers at Oxford including Canon Gore- on Christianity and Property, William Morris- addressing an inaugural meeting of socialists in society in Oxford – ‘an interesting collection of tradesmen, smart ladies, shop girls and undergraduates.’

Whilst at Oxford she had an impatient longing to get out into the world and do something useful. She wondered what she would do with her life, she had always had literary ambitions, having written many stories and poems as a child. Her stories were very varied and included tales of witches and magicians, such as her own version of ‘Pandora’s Box’. Her sister said “Eglantyne’s imagination transformed everything it touched. The trees in our big garden became castles and palaces. The laurel bushes offered hiding-places where exciting plots could be hatched and secret plans discussed.” Other stories included a story about Skrinties, the rats who lived in the attic, terrified the cook and nibbled at old chests. She also wrote a parody of the May Queen about her Uncle Bob “I never knew my Uncle Bob go anywhere he ought, For he got lost in every train except the train of thought.” However she also wanted to be able to do something of worth and to be of service, which stemmed from her Christian values.

Charlotte Toynbee was a great influence and support for Eglantyne, especially when things for difficult for her at the end of Schools, when she fell into a mood of despair, feeling useless in a world that was out of joint and full of wrongs. But Charlotte encouraged her to go to Teachers Training College and showed her the importance of teacher training, through taking her to visit a Poor Law School in Oxford.

‘Another important experience for Eglantyne was her visit to the Bethnal Green Settlement, where she went to the club and danced with factory girls, with whom she felt instantly in touch. More and more she was coming to resent the shackles of caste, the artificialities of class distinction.’ P67 Rebel Daughter of a Country House.

When Eglantyne started teaching she cared a great deal about her pupils, she studied them and visited their homes to try and understand them and was horrified by the poverty they lived in. She longed to be able to see into people’s minds- a thing not every overworked school teacher attempts!

Eglantyne’s mother moved to Cambridge in 1900 following her husband’s death in 1894 and Eglantyne lived there on an off for the next few years.

‘Cultured people to do practical work- that I think is what the world wants.’ P95 Rebel Daughter

Whilst in Cambridge she met a woman called Mary Marshall (wife of Alfred Marshall- first principle of University College, Bristol) who was one of the first women to study at Cambridge, co-founder of Newnham College and a lecturer in Economics, saw that Eglantyne had a gift and didn’t want to see her at a loose end.

‘There was an unknown Cambridge, forgotten except by a handful of earnest people, ignored by the University: a Cambridge where there was squalor, poverty and misery. Eglantyne must work for the Charity Organisation Society (COS) and get some insight into that Cambridge. Mrs Marshall saw from her economic essays that she had the gift for writing. This could be useful.’ P103 Rebel Daughter

Eglantyne jumped at Mary’s suggestion that she should ask Florence Keynes to employ her in the Charity Organisation Society (COS) office. Her work there lasted much longer than she anticipated.

‘Cambridge: a Social Study’ (1906) became not just a register of charities but also a survey of poverty in Cambridge- something which had never been attempted before and that proved very useful.

Wilson describes how there was a shocking need for those who’d been at Cambridge University in the Edwardian Period to realise their complete detachment from the ignorance and poverty at their gates.

Eglantyne describes the poor conditions and sewerage systems in Cambridge in the Victorian Era. There was in ignorance of many in Cambridge, particularly those at the University, of the poverty that was directly on their doorstep. She highlighted the poor living conditions of families in many neighbourhoods, of overcrowding and the lack of proper sanitation and drainage in many areas. In 1849 sewage would still go into the River Cam, with resulted in fever spreading across the city. In 1905 when much of the research for the book was carried out many houses still had to access water from wells or pump (which often provided unclean water), rather than from the mains water supply. Typhoid and scarlet fever, small-pox and cholera were all common as a result of these terrible conditions. There was a lack of education about hygiene, with people not having a good education about how to keep clean and healthy.

The book gave her a deep insight into the suffering, moral and mental wellbeing of people, as well as the physical repercussions of poverty and ill-nourishment. In her book she not only states the reality of the terrible situation they’re in but also makes suggestions of how people can help to make the situation better. Eglantyne also suggested in her book that young people should be trained in voluntary social work, by spending a period of time in the COS office, learning their job from more experienced people.

After leaving the COS in 1908 she had another period where she felt real despair, guilt and failure at her lack of achievements, which can be seen as similar to the inward frustrations of Florence Nightingale.

Eglantyne later became interested in emancipation of the working class and the rights of women. She walked with the Women Suffrage procession in Guildford.

In February 1913 Eglantyne went on a great adventure to the Balkans, which was currently in the middle of war over Macadonia, to be part of a relief mission trip. Inspired by her cousin Charlie Buxton to feel a real concern for Macadonia, she went on behalf of the Macadonian Relief Fund.

It was whilst in the Balkans she witnessed first hand the plight of refugees, she visited refugees in extremely crowded conditions, where family members had to take turns to sleep and children would shiver in the cold waiting for portions of soup or bread to be distributed. It is perhaps these harrowing first hand experiences that later fuelled her passion and determination to set up Save the Children.

Eglantyne feel ill with influenza during her visit and rested in Vienna, however once she recovered she was determined to return to England to seek financial assistance to help stop people dying of starvation. She had seen that it only took two pence to keep a man alive for a day and thought that surely people back home wouldn’t grudge giving a small amount to help this in this dire situation.

On Eglantyne’s return she spent the next few weeks travelling around England and Scotland, making speeches to raise awareness and money for the refugees. Although she didn’t manage to raise large sums of money for the Macadonian Relief Fund, she did succeed in making the problems more widely known.

After the Armistice (November 11th 1918), which marked the end of the First World War, Eglantyne and her sister Dorothy were appalled that Peace had brought no relief. Therefore they took it upon themselves to help rectify the situation by getting together a group of friends and well wishers together to form a ‘Fight the Famine Council’ which held its first public meeting in January 1919. They managed to get the support of some of the most enlightened and influential people in England including university professors, writers, bishops, deans and politicians, who subsequently became members of the Council.

Leaflets about their cause were published and Eglantyne and Dorothy went around the country to preach about their cause. They wanted to enlighten people of the affects of the collapse of Europe on England and also touch people’s hearts and consciences. They wanted them to question how it could be right to let innocent people starve because of the sins of their rulers.

Soon they felt that their efforts were not enough and at an executive committee of the Famine Council on 15th April, 1919 Dorothy Buxton raised the suggestion of a special committee should be appointed to discuss the means of raising a relief fund especially for children. On 19th May at a packed meeting at the Royal Albert Hall the first appeal was made for the ‘Save the Children Fund’.  Dorothy was at first given the role of Hon. Sec. but later she handed this over to Eglantyne, feeling that she was more useful engaging in the political work of the Fight the Famine Council.

Their first appeal was to raise money for the starving children in Central Europe, following the aftermath of the First World War. Many people were dubious about how successful this would be, saying that ‘no one will give for enemy children.’ Pethick Lawrence said to them that although he was in sympathy with their cause, that they’d be lucky to raise £100. However they soon proved him wrong, when Robert Smillie, President of the Miners’ Trade Union, who was one of the speakers at the Albert Hall, had raised £10,000 from his federation within a few days, which eventually increased to £35,000.

However during this time Eglantyne got herself into trouble, following the distribution of a leaflet that had a picture of a starving Austrian baby on it, which she had taken during her time in Vienna. She was fined £5, however it’s thought that she was disappointed that she didn’t go to prison!  At the time people in England liked to think that all the talk of famine was a big exaggeration, but Eglantyne’s photograph was authentic.

Although money did come in from the Albert Hall appeal, it wasn’t enough to sustain their work. Therefore Eglantyne wanted to get help from the Church, who she hoped would want to give due to their feeling of Christian duty to help those in need. In the Summer of 199 she asked the Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davidson for his support, but he refused to make an appeal on behalf of the SCF to the Church of England, and didn’t believe the Pope would make one to Catholics. Not put off by this the SCF drafted n appeal to the Pope and got fourteen eminent people to sign it. Then this led to the Pope asking all Catholic churches throughout the world to collect money for the distressed children of Europe on Holy Innocents; Day (28th Dec 1919). Once the Archbishop was told about this, he didn’t want to be seen as behind in his approach to charity, so asked the Anglican churches to do the same.

‘On 6th January, 1920 Eglantyne inaugurated the Save the Children Fund International Union in the same hall in Geneva where fifty years earlier the Red Cross had been formed. All national SCF’s were asked to subscribe to it and support work outside their own country. This supra-nationalist aspect of the work was an essential part of Eglantyne’s creed. She believed in the unity of mankind, in the underlying unity of religions. That Jews, Hindus and Moslems should support the SCF as well as the Christian churches: this was her ideal and eventually it was fulfilled.’ P 180 Rebel Daughter of a Country House

Charlie Buxton (Dorothy’s husband) wrote to Tye (Eglantyne’s mother, who was also called Eglantyne):

‘There is no doubt that Eglantyne has raised the conceptions and ideals of all those who have in any way come into contact with her, and has in some sense opened a new world to them. The Conference will do a great deal in promoting the idea of a co-ordinated plan of relief all over Europe.’ P181 Rebel Daughter of a Country House

In 1924 The League of Nation endorsed her Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

Discover More


 Rebel daughter of a country house: the life of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children- Wilson (1967)

 Cambridge: a brief study of social questions- Eglantyne Jebb (1906)

 Feminism and voluntary action: Eglantyne Jebb and Save the Children- Mahood (2009)


Eglantyne’s Family Home- “Springfield” house (on the corner of Sidgewick Street and Queens Road overlooking the backs at Queens Green)


Eglantyne Jebb - The Victorian Activist!


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