Woman who saved the children – even though she didn’t actually like them

She once described children as sounding like “pigs when they heard food coming” and even went as far as to label them “wretches”.

But Eglantyne Jebb also poignantly declared: “The only international language is a child’s cry.”

Despite seeming an unlikely champion of the young, 100 years ago this week she fought to found the charity Save the ­Children in the face of ­protests.

Eglantyne was driven by the knowledge children in post-First World War Germany and Austria were starving to death in their thousands due to Allied sanctions.

Last Monday, newsreader and charity ambassador Natasha Kaplinsky helped unveil a bronze bust of Eglantyne at the Royal Albert Hall, where, during her first rally, she was pelted with rotten fruit and labelled a “traitor” for wanting to save “the enemy’s” children.

“Surely it is impossible for us as normal human beings to watch children starve to death without making an effort to save them?” she asked, as half the crowd jeered.

Well aware of the personal irony of her compassion, she later wrote: “It is a ­judgment on me for not caring about ­children that I talk all day long about the universal love of humanity towards them.”

Eglantyne, or “White Flame” as friends christened her for her unrelenting passion, was born in 1876. She grew up in a wealthy Shropshire family, part of the educated, upper-class, liberal Cambridge set.

But even by their standards she was unconventional. The red-head with huge blue eyes rejected servants, and sensible suitors, and threw herself into social causes – as well as affairs with both sexes.

Her most passionate and lasting one was with the sister of economist John Maynard Keynes, Margaret, who was nine years younger than her. Stacks of love letters were written ­between the pair from 1907 until 1912, after they met in Cambridge, ­sometimes multiple exchanges a week.

They went climbing in the Dolomites, and seemed to contrive to share a bedroom whenever they were able, although it is not clear if their relationship became physically sexual.

Certainly, it was passionate.

“I very often dream about you, and last night I kissed and hugged you in my sleep,” Margaret once wrote.

“I really seriously don’t believe I should live without you,” Eglantyne admitted.

But Margaret went on to marry and have children.

It was said Eglantyne attended her wedding in mourning, but instead of pursuing a conventional new relationship of her own, her social conscience took priority.

She had tried teaching, keen to help working-class girls gain an education. But her dislike of children didn’t help.

“The value of my work is nil,” she admitted. “I have none of the ­qualities of a teacher.” Perhaps it was in the school dining hall where that idea was cemented.

“I don’t care for children. I don’t care for teaching… they fall on me with shrieks and howls and inarticulate sounds like pigs when they see food coming,” she said.

But the suffering of children was something else entirely.

In 1913 she visited ­Macedonia and saw it at close-­quarters in the form of Albanian ­refugees persecuted by the Serbs. And it was the ­children and babies starving to death in Europe, due to the economic blockades of David Lloyd George’s Liberal government, that impelled her to act.

Eight hundred children were dying every week in Germany alone.

In 1918, she and her sister Dorothy set up a Famine Council For Europe.

But Britain wasn’t in the mood to feel pity for the offspring of the enemy.

The government censored photographic evidence of the famine to make sure of it.

That didn’t stop Eglantyne picking the most shocking illustrations of ­malnutrition, and reproducing them on leaflets which she handed out in Trafalgar Square. When she chalked the pavements amid calls of traitor she was fined in court – but morally she won.

The judge, Sir Archibald Bodkin, paid her fine – £5 – and that note, handed to her publicly in court, became Save the Children’s first donation.

Driven on, Eglantyne and Dorothy hired out the Royal Albert Hall for a rally.

Her exploits had made headlines, and although half of the hundreds who showed up – there weren’t enough seats – were there to lambast them as traitors, the Save the ­Children Fund was born.

“We have one rule,” she said, “to help them whatever their country or religion.”

An incredible £10,000 was raised and delivered in aid to Vienna within 10 days. Next, she tried the church. Archbishop Randall, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declined to donate. So she wrote to the Pope, who spent two hours listening to her cause.

By the end he donated £25,000 of his own money, and promised Catholic churches would contribute. The Church of England had to follow suit.

Eglantyne raised the equivalent of £29million in today’s money.

Two years later, Save the Children was ­delivering 600 tons of lifesaving food and medical supplies to Russia.

In 1924, Eglantyne presented the League of Nations with a Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which inspired the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. She died six years later, aged 52, in a nursing home in Geneva after years of suffering thyroid problems. But what a legacy she left.

Last year, the charity changed the lives of more than 155 million children from 120 ­countries around the world.

“To succeed in life, you must give life,” Eglantyne once said.

She did both – always on her own terms.

  • To donate, visit savethechildren.org.uk

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