After the First World War war ended, Britain kept up a blockade that left children in cities like Berlin and Vienna starving. Malnutrition was common and rickets were rife. An eye witness reported that “in the hospitals there was nothing but paper bandages."
Save the Children's founders, sisters Eglantyne Jebb and Dorothy Buxton, were part of the Fight the Famine movement, spreading information about what was happening in Europe.
In 1919, Jebb was arrested for distributing leaflets in Trafalgar Square. They bore shocking images of children affected by famine in Europe, and the headline: ‘Our Blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death'.
Jebb was tried for her protest and found guilty. But the prosecuting counsel was so impressed with her that he offered to pay the £5 fine himself.
Soon, the sisters decided that campaigning alone would not be enough - direct action was needed. In May 1919, the Save the Children Fund was set up at a packed public meeting in London's Royal Albert Hall.
This was just the start.
In 1921 Save the Children raised considerable funds for refugee children in desperate need. Single donations ranged from two shillings to £10,000. 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.
Later, famine in Russia saw children struggling in dire conditions.
To raise money for these children, Jebb and her colleagues used page-length advertisements in national newspapers and footage of famine and disaster work in operation. Films showing the conditions children were facing, screened in cinemas up and down the country, were unlike anything else seen at the time.
With the funds raised, Jebb and her colleagues filled a ship with 600 tons of aid bound for Russia. From winter 1921 through much of 1922, daily meals provided by Save the Children helped keep 300,000 children and more than 350,000 adults alive - for just a shilling per person per week.
Save the Children had not been set up as a permanent organisation, but it soon became one after it was called on to deal with emergency after emergency.
As Buxton moved to focus on political campaigning, the charismatic Eglantyne Jebb, as honorary secretary, became a force to be reckoned with. Persuasive and committed, Jebb quickly established Save the Children as a highly effective relief agency, able to provide food, clothing and money quickly and inexpensively.
She said: "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."
Jebb's 'Declaration of the Rights of the Child' was adopted by The League of Nations, a forerunner to the UN, and it inspired today's 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, and helped young miners' families in poverty-striken parts of 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.
Eglantyne Jebb died in 1928, leaving behind a powerful vision of ending the cycle of poverty that blighted so many children's lives.
She 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.
"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."
1930s: After Eglantyne
Eglantyne Jebb's ambition had been to extend the work of Save the Children outside Europe. In the decade after her death, we went on to establish the Child Protection Committee, which lobbied for the rights of children in Africa and Asia throughout the decade.
We established a nursery school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1936, and we set up nursery schools in several 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 also worked with refugees from the Spanish Civil War. And we were part of the Inter Aid committee which organised the rescue mission of predominantly Jewish children from continental Europe to Britain just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
1940s: World War II
In the UK, we set up residential nurseries for young children who had been evacuated from the cities and day nurseries for children whose parents were working in wartime industries.
In large cities, we created playcentres in air-raid shelters, as well as junior clubs for older children who often played unsupervised on bombsites. We also launched Hopscotch - the first playgroup in Britain, that would be the start of a major area of work for many years.
Save the Children started planning for post-war overseas work in 1942, publishing the report 'Children in Bondage'. It painted a picture of widespread violations of children's rights and consequent suffering. In India, we supported a child welfare centre in Kolkata, and we set up health centre in Ibadan, Nigeria.
But the majority of Save the Children's work outside the UK concerned planning for the needs of children in Europe after the war. By the autumn of 1946, we were working with children, displaced people, refugees and concentration camp survivors in devastated areas of France, Yugoslavia, Poland and Greece.
1950s: Work in Asia
The Korean War began in 1950. It left many children destitute and living unaccompanied on the streets. Malnutrition and associated diseases were rife. In 1952, the first Save the Children workers arrived. They stayed for more than 20 years.
In 1959, Save the Children and Oxfam produced the film A Far Cry, which showed how far Korean children still were from achieving basic housing, food, education and healthcare. The BBC showed the film on Easter Sunday that year.
Throughout the 1950s there were still many displaced families in Europe. 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. 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. However, international politics do affect the organisation.
The Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union compelled us to withdraw from some areas in post-war Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Yugoslavia and Hungary. And we were forced to leave some areas in the Middle East following the Suez crisis in 1956.
1960S: THE DEVELOPMENT DECADE
By this time, Save the Children had full medical and welfare teams in 17 countries and its work extended to 26 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the West Indies.
In Korea, Morocco, Nigeria and the West Indies, our Freedom from Hunger projects, which aimed to prevent the causes of famine and food shortages, were beginning to show results.
We were able to get more funding for long-term development projects and emergency responses. We worked with refugees from the Chinese invasion of Tibet, children in Vietnam and children on both sides of the civil war in Nigeria.
In Malaysia and Somalia, we handed projects over to local management, and we started new work in other areas, such as the Mwanamugimu project at Mulago Hospital, Uganda, which taught mothers about nutrition.
1970s: Around the world and at home
HRH the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, became President of Save the Children in 1970 - the first major charity with which she had been closely associated.
In 1972, Save the Children organisations in several countries, including Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the USA, formed the International Save the Children Alliance.
Throughout the 1970s we ran development programmes and emergency responses in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Sahel region of Africa.
During the civil unrest in Northern Ireland, we worked for young people from both Nationalist and Unionist areas. Our Coates Street play centre brought together children from the two communities, as described in Save the Children Northern Ireland's 1971 annual report:
"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."
In the UK, we began working on projects with Gypsy and Traveller children, and helped provide for unaccompanied children arriving from Vietnam.
1980s: Protecting people's dignity
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.
In Mali, thirteen-year-old Athi said: "During the bad years when people suffered from hunger, Save the Children came."
We also initiated new programmes designed to protect the dignity of children and their families. To combat the prejudice and misconception around the spread of HIV and AIDS, we set up education, prevention and treatment projects.
1990s: Responding to conflict
We campaigned for the rights of child soldiers and for the protection of children forced from their homes by war. We also encouraged young people to speak out about their experiences and fight for positive change.
Fourteen-year-old Fernando, in Mozambique, told us, "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."
Following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, large numbers of returning child refugees had become separated from their families. We helped set up a family tracing and reunification programme to help unaccompanied children find their parents, or other relatives who could care for them.
2000s: A new ambition
The new millennium saw a new ambition to tackle global problems. The Millennium Development Goals decreed that by 2015 child mortality should be cut by two-thirds, extreme poverty and hunger halved, and that all children would be able to go to school.
Save the Children became an important part of the global effort to achieve these aims, and our progress in many areas has been impressive. Between 1990 and 2011, the number of children dying before the age of five fell from nearly 12 million to less than seven 7 million.
Between 2006 and 2009, our Rewrite the Future campaign helped 1.4 million more children into school in countries affected by conflict. And we launched a global campaign to save children from preventable illnesses, laying the foundations for our No Child Born to Die campaign the following decade.
As humanitarian crises continued to have a devastating impact on children, we massively increased our capacity to respond to emergencies.
Our five-year response to the 2004 Asian tsunami was one of the largest in Save the Children's history, benefiting around one million people. During the conflict in Dafur, Sudan, we reached children in intensely hostile environments. And in the aftermath of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake we found our way through to children whose communities had been completely cut off.
2010s and beyond: No Child Born to Die
We responded to a series of devastating disasters – from brutal conflict in Syria, to devastating food crises in East and West Africa, and the worst ever outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.
Faced with the growing number of emergencies around the world, we expanded our humanitarian staff and resources, including joining forces with frontline health charity Merlin in 2013. We 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 emergency response, we developed a portfolio of ambitious, long-term 'signature programmes' – from Rwanda to Bangladesh to Indonesia – to support millions of children. These programmes involved 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 for world leaders to take action to stop children dying, this ground-breaking campaign helped bring about breakthroughs – in vaccination, nutrition and newborn health – to save millions of children’s lives.
In 2017, we started to look at creating transformative change in the key areas of protecting children in conflict, battling pneumonia - the world's biggest child killer - and early years education around the world.
By focusing on these issues, as well as our continuing work in emergencies, we played a full part in helping the world meet the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Signed by 169 national leaders in 2015, the SDGs aim to end preventable child deaths and provide health care and quality education for all children by 2030.
These are challenging goals in uncertain times but as we approached our centenary in 2019, our past shone a light on our commitment to transforming the future for children.
In 2020, we provided spaces to play for children affected by wildfires in Australia. When COVID-19 hit the UK, our emergency response plan made sure 10,000 children were well-fed, safe and able to keep learning. We provided shelter and support for children affected by the August explosion in Beirut, while our campaign for a Winter Plan for Children saw over 90% of Britain's MPs contacted by our supporters, calling for help for families with children living in poverty. In an unprecendented and challenging year, our supporters helped the global Save the Children movement support millions of children through the pandemic.
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.
Page updated January 2022.
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