Saturday, September 4, 2010


The Woman Who Saved the Children: a biography of Eglantine Jebb, founder of Save the Children
by Clare Mulley
First published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England 2009.
Released in Australia as a Paperback in 2010

A slab of marble in St Georges Cemetery two miles south of the city of Geneva in full view of Mount Salève, and on the end of a sparsely populated row by a gravel path, marks the last resting place of the body of Eglantine Jebb. A simple brass cross is inset into the marble slab. Underneath are the dates and locations of her birth and death; an acknowledgement in French of her role in the foundation of the International Save the Children Union; and a quote in English from Matthew 25:40

Eglantyne's grave Geneva Switzerland December 1928
As for Eglantyne, I imagine her today back on her mountain from where she looked down over the city and scribbled the notes that were to become the basis for ‘Declaration for the Rights of the Child’, still agonising over the plight of children across the globe … still dreaming,

Who is this woman?
I had not heard of Eglantyne Jebb, before author Clare Mulley introduced her and led me back in time to late nineteenth century rural England and Eglantyne’s family — part of the Shropshire gentry.
Eglantyne Jebb c1920
... In the 1990s, when working as a fundraiser for the Save the Children UK, Clare Mulley came upon Eglantyne in a photo — a woman sitting poised at her desk looking down at her work —hung over her supervisor’s desk. Intrigued, Clare set about uncovering the person behind the ‘woman who saved the children’. Her research revealed a close-knit family, instilled with their parents’ social conscience and keen love of literature, and who, throughout their lives, supported each other’s work.
... Named after her mother, Tye, Eglantyne quickly established her special place among her five siblings as the family storyteller and scribbler. Her imagination and daydreams often found substance in stories and poems. … characteristics she never lost. Home schooled and strongly influenced by her Aunt Bun who lived with the family, Eglantyne went on to make a series of decisions that broke social convention. With the encouragement and financial backing of Bun following the death of her father in December 1894,
Eglantyne became the first daughter to undertake a degree course — almost unheard of in that time.
... Each of Eglantyne’s life experiences contributed toward and prepared her for what was to be her greatest challenge —to make the international community respond to the needs of children irrespective of race or creed.
... Her writing begun in childhood, her University education and teaching in working-class schools proved an invaluable apprenticeship for things to come. Through her frequent travels abroad with family and friends she became familiar with cultures outside her own. Fundraising for the Cambridge Women’s Memorial for Queen Victoria and her direct involvement in relief work in the Balkans in 1913 sowed the seeds of her vision for countries around the world to acknowledge the place children’s welfare and human rights.
... At the age of forty-four she found the task for which her life to date had prepared her. The year was 1919. Eglantyne, outraged that despite the armistice following the World War of 1914-18, the British government of the period continued the economic blockade of Europe in order to push through harsh peace terms with the defeated countries, embarked on the fight of her life. Children and the elderly, particularly in Austria and Germany, were starving to death in huge numbers. She could not stand idly by and watch while this humanitarian crisis unfold. Against all odds she secured the active support of the churches and through them the sympathy of many of the British people formerly sceptical of aiding the children of their enemies. The Save the Children Foundation UK was born.
... Eglantyne became the soul of a movement that transformed a one-off British ‘relief’ fund to a permanent international organization prepared to focus not just on emergencies but on economic reconstruction, education, health and nutrition, and housing.
... Legend has it, writes Clare Mulley, that one cloudless summer Sunday in 1922, Eglantyne Jebb climbed to the summit of Mount Salève, the great rocky plateau on the edge of Geneva. From the top she had a fine view of the city sprawling out from around the curve of the lake, and, on the far bank, the League of Nations’ offices. Here she settled down on the crisp turf, her hair flying in the breeze and, in the silence and calm above it all, she took out pencil and paper and drafted a five-point ‘Charter for Children’. It was the first major statement of children’s universal human rights — the precursor to one of the world’s most influential pieces of international legislation: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. After some modification 17 May 1923 ‘The Declaration of the Rights of the Child’ was adopted by the International Union.

The personal cost
From an early age, Eglantyne was driven by powerful imagination and bursts of boundless energy often followed by severe bouts of exhaustion. Her almost fanatical sense of personal social responsibility and keen sense of justice brought with them lengthy periods of ill-health. She was torn between her need for society and solitude; work and withdrawal; her private life conflicted with unrequited, impossible love affairs and personal tragedy. Within a sixteen month period, as Eglantyne was planning and embarking on her university studies, both her father and younger brother, Gamul, died. Grief left its indelible mark upon her as she struggled to find a new way to express her Christian faith and became attracted to mysticism.
... In keeping with her sense of mission, and upon completion of her studies, Eglantyne taught in two under-funded schools for working class girls. At times she doubted her ability to teach or even like children. Despite her own assessment of her abilities in this role, she proved more adept and creative than she recognised. However, the personal cost was great. Worn out by class sizes that no teacher of today would be expected to manage, and with the meagre resources available, Eglantyne’s health failed. Despite these setbacks, part of her legacy lies in her enduring interest in education.

A brief comment
The 19 March, 2010 somewhat harshly headlines an article by author, Clare Mulley: THE WOMAN WHO HATED CHILDREN...AND SAVED THEM. It seems a little unfortunate that publicists and promoters felt justified in latching onto the author’s discussion of Eglantyne’s maternal instincts (a small part of her overall story) and use it as a headline-grabbing selling point.There are two sides to every story. Did Eglantyne, who once called children 'the little wretches', really dislike children? Or could these words be cast in a more sympathetic context? Some historical evidence provided in this book hints at an alternative view. In the end it is left up to the reader to decide.
....That aside, meticulous research is the real hallmark of Clare Mulley’s book. Not only is each chapter convincingly written and compelling reading, but the supporting information provided by (1) the foreward by Anne, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal; (2) the Family Trees; (3) the Cast of Characters; and, (4) the detailed Endnotes, add an impressive dimension to the book. The fourteen pages holding twenty-nine black and white photo plates provide a poignantly visual timeline of the life and work of Eglantyne Jebb.■

All author royalties are being donated to Save the Children.


Saturday 28 August, 2010: Clare Mulley introduces Eglantyne Jebb
Saturday 4 September, 2010: Book Review by Mabel Kaplan
Saturday 11 September, 2010: The Research Process – An Interview with Clare Mulley

This book is available through all good bookstores and online at


  1. An excellent review, Mabel. Sounds like an amazing story about an amazing woman.