At the beginning of the 20th century, two sisters had a vision to achieve and protect the rights of children. Their vision has survived into the second decade of the 21st century.
Beginnings: Arrested in Trafalgar Square
"A Starving Baby and Our Blockade has Caused This". That was the headline on a leaflet drawing attention to the plight of children on the losing side of the First World War. Save the Children's founder, Eglantyne Jebb, was arrested and fined for distributing it in Trafalgar Square.
After the war ended, the British government kept up a blockade that left children in cities like Berlin and Vienna starving. Tuberculosis and rickets were rife.
"The children's bones were like rubber. Clothing was utterly lacking. In the hospitals there was nothing but paper bandages." Dr Hector Munro, Save the Children, 1919.
Eglantyne Jebb and her sister Dorothy Buxton decided that direct action was needed as well as campaigning. The Save the Children Fund was set up at a public meeting in London's Royal Albert Hall in May 1919. From that day to this we've been raising funds to provide relief to children suffering the effects of war.
Early years: Fight the famine
"Thousands of people . . . tired, sick and hungry. I had to carry my youngest brother. One day I saw that he was not moving or crying for bread any more. I showed him to my mother and she saw that he was dead. We were glad that he was dead because we had nothing to feed him on." Armenian refugee child, 1921
Fight the Famine raised money very quickly. Single donations ranged from two shillings to £10,000. It gave the money to organisations working with children in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, the Balkans and Hungary and for Armenian refugees in Turkey.
Save the Children was not expected to be a permanent organisation, but it was called on to deal with emergency after emergency.
The organisers used a range of media to raise money, including:
- page-length advertisements in national newspapers
- film footage of famine and disaster work in operation.
Dorothy become less involved with Save the Children to concentrate on political campaigning. But the charismatic Eglantyne Jebb, honorary secretary, was a force to be reckoned with.
Eglantyne was persuasive and committed, and her ideas about children's welfare were well ahead of her time.
Under her leadership, Save the Children quickly became known as a highly effective relief agency, able to provide food, clothing and money quickly and inexpensively. For example, during the 1921 famine in Russia, the organisation was able to mount an operation to feed 650,000 people - for a shilling per person per week.
1920s: Children's rights
"I believe we should claim certain rights for the children and labour for their universal recognition, so that everybody - not merely the small number of people who are in a position to contribute to relief funds, but everybody who in any way comes into contact with children, that is to say the vast majority of mankind - may be in a position to help forward the movement." Eglantyne Jebb
Eglantyne Jebb wanted to make the rights and welfare of children a major issue around the world. Her 'Declaration of the Rights of the Child' was adopted by the League of Nations and inspired the present UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
After 1923, with fewer emergencies to deal with, Save the Children focused on research and children's-rights projects. In the UK, we:
- opened a recuperative school at Fairfield House in Kent for children from inner-city areas
- helped young miners' families in poverty-striken areas in Wales and Cornwall.
In Hungary, we supported a school based on the principle of co-operation and children having a say in the running of the school.
1930s: Growing organisation
"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. It must not be content to save children from the hardships of life - it must abolish these hardships; nor think it suffices to save them from immediate menace - it must place in their hands the means of saving themselves and so of saving the world." Eglantyne Jebb
Eglantyne Jebb died in 1928. Her ambition had been to extend the work of Save the Children outside Europe, and we went on to:
- establish the Child Protection Committee, which lobbied for the rights of children in Africa and Asia throughout the decade
- set up a nursery school in Addis Ababa in 1936
- set up nursery schools in several depressed areas in the UK, including the first nursery school in Wales.
Our 1933 research report Unemployment and the Child: An Enquiry showed that mass unemployment affects children's nutrition. We campaigned for children's right to adequate nutrition until the Education Act of 1944 provided school meals and milk throughout the UK.
We worked with refugees from the Spanish Civil War and were part of the Inter Aid committee that organised the Kinderstransports of Jewish refugees.
1940s: Another war
"Thirty vagrant children who had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto were publicly drowned in a pool at the Glymianski brickworks...The only place where the Jewish children of Warsaw can see grass and trees is the cemetery." Children in Bondage, 1943
During the Second World War we were forced to withdraw from projects in occupied Europe.
In the UK, we set up:
- residential nurseries for young children who had been evacuated from the cities
- day nurseries for children whose parents were working in wartime industries
- playcentres in air-raid shelters in large cities
- junior clubs for older children who often played unsupervised on bombsites
- Hopscotch - the first playgroup in the UK and the start of a major area of work for many years.
Save the Children started planning for overseas post-war work in 1942 by publishing the report Children in Bondage. It painted a picture of widespread violations of children's rights and consequent suffering.
In Asia and Africa, we:
- supported a child welfare centre in Calcutta
- set up a health centre was set up in Ibadan, Nigeria.
Most work was planning to meet the needs of children in Europe after the war. By the autumn of 1946, we had 105 staff working with children, displaced people, refugees, concentration camp survivors in devastated areas of France, Yugoslavia, Poland and Greece.
1950s: Work in Asia
""People have found it convenient to forget Korea. But the war there left - in the south alone - over 100,000 homeless children, over a million people with active TB; and the fourth largest army in the world." Stephen Peet, director of A Far Cry, 1958
By the 1950s there were still many displaced families and Save the Children continued working in Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece. It sent extra teams to Austria in 1956 to help Hungarian refugees fleeing after the failed revolution.
Outside Europe, the Serendah project gave orphaned boys an education, training and a safe place to live in Malaya. Save the Children tried to set up projects in Nigeria and Sudan, but failed. Work in Somaliland, Syria and Lebanon was more successful.
The Korean War began in 1950. Two years later the first Save the Children workers arrived. They stayed for more than 20 years. Many children were left destitute by the war, living unaccompanied on the streets. Malnutrition and associated diseases were rife.
In 1959, Save the Children and Oxfam produced the film A Far Cry, which showed how far Korean children were from basic housing, food, education and healthcare. The BBC showed the film on Easter Sunday that year.
By the end of the 1950s, most of the organisation's money was going towards work in Asia.
Save the Children is non-political and non-sectarian, and has a philosophy of international co-operation. But international politics affect the organisation.
- The Iron Curtain compelled it to withdraw from some areas in post-war Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Yugoslavia and Hungary.
- It was forced to withdraw from some areas in the Middle East following the Suez crisis in 1956.
1960s: Development decade
The Fund now had full medical and welfare teams in 17 countries and its total help, including that in Great Britain, extended to 26 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the West Indies. Freedom from Hunger projects were beginning to show results in Korea, Morocco, Nigeria and the West Indies.
The 1960s were hailed as the 'development decade'. Western governments and the public were prepared to give money and resources for development projects.
We were able to get more funding for long-term development projects and emergency response. We:
- participated in the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, which aimed to prevent the causes of famine and food shortages
- handed projects in Malaya and Somalia over to local management
- started new work, such as the Mwanamugimu project at Mulago Hospital, Uganda, which taught mothers about nutrition
- started the first hospital play group in the UK at the Brook Hospital, London in 1963
- worked with refugees from the Chinese invasion of Tibet, children in Vietnam and children on both sides of the civil war in Nigeria.
This decade also saw the death of Dorothy Buxton, Save the Children's co-founder, in 1963.
1970s: Around the world and at home
Coates Street Playcentre . . . "These children, drawn from both sides of the Peace Line, play together most successfully with no sign of animosity. The mothers too are meeting in a friendly relaxed way, which is helping to foster a better relationship in this district of rioting." Save the Children Fund Northern Ireland Annual Report ,1971
In 1972, Save the Children organisations in several countries, including Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the US, formed the International Save the Children Alliance. We continued to work around the world and at home, in emergency situations and to improve children's health generally. We:
- were active in development work and emergency situations in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Sahel region of Africa
- existed as separate Save the Children organisations in other countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the USA. The organisations formed the International Save the Children Alliance after the Nicaraguan earthquake of 1972
- launched the Stop Polio Campaign as part of an attempt to eradicate polio worldwide in 1979
- worked for young people from both Catholic and Protestant communities during the period of civil unrest in Northern Ireland
- began working on projects with Gypsy and Traveller children
- helped provide for unaccompanied children arriving from Vietnam
Princess Anne became president of the organisation in 1970 and the first national Save the Children Week was held in 1974.
1980s: Protecting people's dignity
"During the bad years when people suffered from hunger, Save the Children came." Athi, 13, Mali
Disasters dominated the 1980s, with the most high-profile emergency being the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.
TV coverage of this and other disasters caught public attention. Donations to Save the Children increased and we were able to work more widely around the around the world. But the news coverage had a negative effect as well. It perpetuated negative and destructive stereotypes of people in developing countries, who were seen as dependent and helpless.
We worked to protect the dignity of children and their families by:
- starting education, prevention and treatment projects to combat the prejudice and misconception around the spread of HIV and AIDS
- pioneering work with prisoners' children and working towards Intermediate Treatment (an alternative to custody for young offenders)
- working on equal opportunities in education.
1990s: Children's rights
"The bandits killed my father. They killed my mother. And my brother. They took me to their base camp. Yes, I was with the bandits. I had a gun." Fernando, 14, Mozambique
During the 1990s we continued to work with children affected by war in Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Angola and the Balkans. We:
- campaigned for the rights of child soldiers and for the protection of children forced from their homes by war
- encouraged young people to speak out about their experiences and fight for positive change.
Buy the newly published bio of our founder: The Woman who Saved the Children: A biography of Eglantyne Jebb