Our history

At the beginning of the 20th century, two sisters had a vision to achieve and protect the rights of children. That vision continues to guide all our work almost a 100 years later.

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 (right), was arrested and fined for distributing it in Trafalgar Square.

After the war ended, Britain 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.

- Read our CEO's blog on Eglantyne Jebb

Early years: Fight the famine

Russian children fed by Save the Children during the 1921 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, Hungary, the Balkans 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

In the 1920s, we started working here at home, in Britain.


"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 forerunner of the UN, The League of Nation,s and inspired the current 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 cooperation and children having a say in the running of the school.

1930s: Growing organisation

The 1930s saw us expand our work beyond Europe for the first time.


"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, Ethiopia, in 1936
  • set up nursery schools in several depressed areas in Britain, 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 which organised the rescue mission of predominently Jewish children from continential Europe to Britain just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

1940s: Another war

Our experience working with children in conflict started in the UK during the World War 2.


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 postwar 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 Kolkata.
  • 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 were working with children, displaced people, refugees, concentration camp survivors in devastated areas of France, Yugoslavia, Poland and Greece.

1950s: Work in Asia

Save the Children worker with children and mothers in the aftermath of the Korean War.


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, in what was to become Malaysia, the Serendah project gave orphaned boys an education, training and a safe place to live. 

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 Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union 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 1960s saw a new emphasis on development in the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa.


The Fund now had full medical and welfare teams in 17 countries and its total help, including that in 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 Malaysia 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

A Save the Children worker vaccinates a child against polio.


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 USA, 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
  • launched the Stop Polio Campaign as part of an attempt to eradicate polio worldwide in 1979
  • worked for young people from both Nationalist and Unionist communities during the 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

A camp for displaced people during the 1984 Ethiopia famine.


"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. 

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

Helping to reunited families after the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.


"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.

2000s: A new ambition

A new century saw us focus on helping children everywhere reach their potential through education.


The new millennium saw a new ambition to tackle global problems with the Milennium Development Goals decreed child mortality was to be cut by two-thirds, extreme poverty and hunger halved, and all children would be able to go to school.

This decade saw Save the Children become part of the world’s impressive progress against many of these goals.

Between 2006 and 2009, our Rewrite the Future campaign helped 1.4 million more children into school in countries affected by conflict.

We launched a global campaign to save children from preventable illness, laying the foundations for our No Child Born to Die campaign today.

And, in a decade of terrible humanitarian crises, we massively increased our capacity to respond to emergencies. Our five-year response to the 2004 Asian tsunami was one of the largest in our history, benefitting around 1 million people. We worked to reach children in intensely hostile environments during the conflict in Dafur, Sudan, and in completely cut-off communities in the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake in 2005.

2010s: No Child Born to Die

In response to the Ebola crisis, we ran one of Sierra Leone's most important specialist treatment centres. (photo: Louis Leeson/Save the Children)

During the current decade we’ve continued to expand our reach and impact. In 2014 we reached 17.4 million children through our work on the ground – more than double the number of children in 2010.

Since the start of the decade, we’ve responded to a series of devastating disasters – from brutal conflict in Syria, to devastating food crisis in East Africa, and the worst-ever outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

Faced with the growing number of emergencies around the world, we’ve expanded our humanitarian staff and resources, including joining forces with frontline health charity Merlin in 2013. We responded to 97 emergencies in 2014 – more than any other year in our history. We’ve also set up the Humanitarian Leadership Academy to help train the next generation of humanitarians, primarily in countries affected by crisis.

Alongside the growth in our our emergency response, we’ve developed a portfolio of ambitious, long-term 'signature programmes – from Rwanda to Bangladesh to Indonesia –  to support millions of children. These programmes involve partnerships with local communities, governments and global companies.

In 2011 we launched our five-year No Child Born to Die campaign, to engage broad public support for our cause. Through raising awareness and calling from action from world leaders to stop children dying, this ground-breaking campaign has helped bring about breakthroughs – in vaccination, nutrition and newborn health – to save millions of children’s lives.

Recent years have also seen a particular focus on our work with disadvantaged children in the UK. We’ve launched successful new programmes to tackle child poverty, and a national coalition, Read On. Get On., to get every child reading well by age 11 by 2025.

The Save the Children archive is deposited at the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections at the University of Birmingham. For visitors’ information and to view the archive catalogue click here.