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Eglantyne Jebb 1876 - 1928

Children Starving in Europe

One very serious consequence of the First World War, which almost certainly contributed to future conflicts throughout the twentieth century, was the blockade Britain imposed on materials reaching the triple alliance countries, Germany and Austro-Hungary. The blockade was meant to stop goods reaching Germany, from which armaments could be made, but many blockaded goods were needed to help grow food, or were foods themselves. This resulted in severe shortages.

People died of starvation, or suffered serious illness as a result of malnutrition – bread gradually became made up with potato flour due to lack of grain – for many, meat wasn’t available during the last two years of the war.

Eglantyne Jebb,

a Shropshire woman who changed the lives of millions by setting up the Save the Children Fund

Eglantyne Jebb 1876 - 1928

Eglantyne Jebb 1876 – 1928

Studio portrait of Miss Jebb (courtesy of Shropshire Star) SA ref PH/S/14/8/61

The Jebb family: Eglantyne Jebb was born in 1876 in Ellesmere, one of a family of six children. The girls of the family were taught at home and then studied at university. This is the story of Eglantyne who made a tremendous difference to people’s lives, along with her younger sister Dorothy.

Eglantyne’s older sister Louisa (Lil) Jebb Wilkins also had an incredibly important role in WWI – she was the first woman to study agriculture at Cambridge University, and used her knowledge to start the Women’s Land Service Corps which became the Women’s Land Army.

Fight the Famine

During the war Eglantyne Jebb and her sister Dorothy Buxton had been part of the Fight the Famine movement, spreading information on what was happening in Europe. They were concerned about the situation for German civilians, obtaining information about ordinary life behind the German lines. British wartime propaganda made it very difficult to know the truth about why the war was lasting so long and taking so many innocent lives. In the last two years of the war Eglantyne helped translate articles and Dorothy published Notes from the foreign press, a survey of news from European not available anywhere else in Britain.

Eglantyne was appalled that, even after the First World War ended, Britain kept up the blockade that left children in cities like Berlin and Vienna starving and suffering from rickets, a condition affecting children’s bone development. A doctor named Hector Munro, who witnessed the effects of the famine, said “children’s bones were like rubber. Tuberculosis was rife, clothing was utterly lacking. In hospitals there was nothing but paper bandages.”

Eglantyne realised that the future peace of Europe would depend on people learning to live and trade with each other. This would be difficult for ordinary German people who had suffered so much starvation. She also realised that British people would find it difficult to feel compassion for the people of the Triple Alliance but would feel differently about helping innocent starving children. She said that “Every war is a war against children.”

In 1919 Eglantyne was arrested for distributing these leaflets in Trafalgar Square showing a shocking image of a starving Austrian child and this message ‘Our Blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death!’ She was outraged at the British government’s policy to continue the blockade to Europe after the war had ended, to push through war reparations, whatever the human cost.

The government hoped that by arresting Eglantyne they might shut up this passionate but irritating woman. They were wrong. When Eglantyne was tried for her protest and found guilty, the prosecuting counsel was so impressed with her that he paid the £5 fine himself. She used that £5 to start a fund, which became the Save the Children Fund.

After the court case, Eglantyne held a packed public meeting at London’s Royal Albert Hall in May 1919. Many people came to object to the idea of helping German people, but Eglantyne was very passionate and had great skill in public speaking. The audience responded, and actually collected £10,000 which was immediately sent to Austria to provide relief. This was first action of the Save the Children Fund. It gave the money to organisations working to feed and educate children in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Hungary, the Balkans, and for Armenian refugees in Turkey. Over the next decades Save the Children would grow to become the global organisation it still is, saving thousands of children’s lives each year. Before she died in 1928, Eglantyne said:

If we accept our premise, that the Save the Children Fund must work for its own extinction, it must seek to abolish, for good and for all, the poverty which makes children suffer and stunts the race of which they are the parents.


  • Imagine you are a patriotic soldier’s wife and give your opinion of Eglantyne’s work translating German newspapers during the war.
  • Describe for yourself the impact her actions had in the aftermath of World War I
  • How do you think Eglantyne would feel about Save the Children still having to work with children suffering from wars and famines today?

You can find out more about Eglantyne here:

At the height of the crisis in 1921, Save the Children was feeding 650,000 children a day – an impressive feat of international negotiation and logistics that saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Persuasive and committed, she soon established Save the Children as a very effective relief agency, able to provide food, clothing and money quickly and inexpensively.

Early research Eglantyne had commissioned showed that while adults can, to some extent, recover from a period of starvation, children may never be able to make up the lost ground both physiologically and psychologically, so they really should be the first to receive relief.  Also children were the next generation, responsible for delivering what Eglantyne hoped would be a more just and peaceful international society.