Running to the Pope for cash

by
23 April 2009

Save the Children next month celebrates 90 years since its public launch by Eglantyne Jebb and her sister Dorothy Buxton. Clare Mulley considers Miss Jebb’s life and work

Humanitarian effort: a Save the Children fund-raising advertisement in The Times, 4 March 1920

Humanitarian effort: a Save the Children fund-raising advertisement in The Times, 4 March 1920

“In these tragic days, so full of darkness and terror, what happiness and peace can nevertheless be ours if we can realise Christ in our midst.”

Eglantyne Jebb, 1876-1928

A FEW months after launching Save the Children with her sister Dorothy Buxton, in the spring of 1919, the British campaigner Eglantyne Jebb ap­proached the Archbishop of Canter­bury, Randall Davidson, to ask him to make an appeal on behalf of the distressed children of post-war Europe.

Archbishop Davidson showed no interest. Undeterred, Miss Jebb wrote to Rome to see if Pope Benedict XV might be more amenable.

Pope Benedict had already been impressed by Miss Jebb’s lobbying to end the British economic blockade of Europe after the Armistice. In December 1920, he took the unpre­cedented step of issuing an encycli­cal, Annus Iam Plenus (On Children of Central Europe), in which he asked Catholic churches around the world to collect for Save the Children on Holy Innocents Day, 28 Decem­ber. It was the first time that the Roman Catholic Church had sup­ported a non-denominational cause.

The Pope’s decisive action prompted Archbishop Davidson to reconsider and support the appeal. Soon, Orthodox Churches and many other faith groups, from the Jewish community to Theosophists, fol­lowed suit. It was to be a global appeal on an unequalled scale.

Just before the appeal, Miss Jebb and her colleague Dr Hector Munro, who had witnessed the famine in Vienna, were granted a papal audience.

Because she had been brought up in the Church of England, Miss Jebb was nervous about jeopardising the meeting by some slip in etiquette. In the event, her anxiety was forgotten in the drama of the moment: the Pope had fallen behind schedule, and, as Miss Jebb’s appointed slot approached, “The man who was showing us the way turned to us with violent gesticulations,” Miss Jebb later recounted to her sister.

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Because she had been brought up in the Church of England, Miss Jebb was nervous about jeopardising the meeting by some slip in etiquette. In the event, her anxiety was forgotten in the drama of the moment: the Pope had fallen behind schedule, and, as Miss Jebb’s appointed slot approached, “The man who was showing us the way turned to us with violent gesticulations,” Miss Jebb later recounted to her sister.

“Then he turned round again, and, to my utter amazement, took to his heels and ran. He was wearing a purple flowing garment like a dressing gown, which blew out all around him as he ran, so that he had the odd appearance of a purple ball bounding along the corridor.

“There was nothing for it but to run, too. Grasping my mantilla to prevent it falling off, I ran after him, through one gorgeous antechamber after another, where groups of soldiers and gentlemen-in-waiting turned to look.

“At last, through an open door, he turned, apparently too breathless to speak, with a wild wave of his arms. Precipitating myself in his wake, I perceived a small lonely figure, like a ghost, standing stock-still in the vast room, and, recollecting that popes always dressed in white, dropped on one knee. To my relief, I found that Dr Munro had run, too, and — for he was close behind me — making the poorest attempt at a genuflexion that I ever saw.”

Dr Munro was equally unim­pressed by what he described as Miss Jebb’s “attempt to curtsey”, but the Pope simply helped her to a chair and immediately started “pouring out” questions.

Dr Munro was equally unim­pressed by what he described as Miss Jebb’s “attempt to curtsey”, but the Pope simply helped her to a chair and immediately started “pouring out” questions.

THE INTERVIEW was a great suc­cess: the Pope contributed £25,000 of his own funds to launch the appeal, and promised to repeat the encyclical the following year.

Miss Jebb was impressed by the Pope, thinking him “A very sincere man; though not what you would call a great man.” Privately, she told a friend, “as I looked at that poor lonely old man in that great apartment, I felt I wanted to do some­thing to make him comfor­table.” But the Pope also inspired her by his undiscriminating humanity, insisting that any funds raised by the appeal should be allocated for the relief of all children, irrespective of their faith, and by the most effective agency on the same basis.

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The combined church appeal raised an unparalleled sum inter­nationally, and, in 1920, the Vatican wrote to congratulate Miss Jebb on the “splendid success” of her work.

In the same year, building on this momentum, Miss Jebb launched the International Save the Children Union in Geneva. Soon the fund was a global operation, generating un­pre­cedented levels of charitable income and responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of young lives. Yet Miss Jebb was tormented by a sense of failure.

She had inherited her keen sense of social justice from her parents, low-church Anglicans with a strong belief in personal social responsi­bility. At the age of eight, she already had an uncomfortable sense of social inequality, which caused the some­what mysterious experiences she called her “happy pains”: “I don’t know all my complaints, only one . . . a complaint which does for every­thing,” she told her sister. “The world is wrong.”

AS A STUDENT at Oxford, she began to explore the issues sur­rounding poverty and examine her faith more critically. She attended Christian Social Science conferences, at which she sometimes passed the time by discreetly drawing cari­catures of the speakers. On one occasion, she had not been too upset to find that “I must have dropped — just like me — two of the most unflattering likenesses in the Con­gress Hall — two archdeacons, and they had got their names written beneath.”

She also went to various Christian Socialist meetings, and undertook fact-finding visits to a Church Con­gress and a Salvation Army rally, which she described bluntly as “one of the most curious sights I have ever seen”. The more organised a church group or faith, the less it appealed to Miss Jebb.

Then, in 1896, her brilliant younger brother died of pneumonia, prompting a minor crisis in faith. Her mother had joined the Catholic Apostolic Church, which gave her the comfort that she could not find in the formalities of the Established Church.

“We cannot expect to walk by the same paths to the goals which we have in common,” she wrote to sup­port her mother.

“We cannot expect to walk by the same paths to the goals which we have in common,” she wrote to sup­port her mother.

MISS JEBB was becoming in­creas­ing­ly attracted to mysticism, with its idea that people have a direct aware­ness of spiritual truth and a personal relationship with divine reality, or God. Her first experience of this spiritual relationship took place a few years later, when she was teaching in a working-class school — a position for which she found she had no natural talent.

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“In my trouble, there came to me the face of Christ,” she scribbled excitedly in her diary, after her eye had been caught by a “cheap print” on the classroom wall. For Miss Jebb, finding Christ was a spiritual epi­phany of the most profound signifi­cance; it was a direct message from God. She was now confident that she had been chosen to do God’s work: “He has chosen us, and not we Him.”

But finding fulfilment was not easy. Miss Jebb suffered from a debilitating thyroid condition that dramatically affected both her motivation and her ability to dedi­cate herself to social work.

Periods spent developing brilliant, pioneering projects in Cambridge were followed by dark months of exhaustion and depression. “From time to time in life, I am much beset and tormented by the distress occasioned by certain spiritual diffi­culties . . . not many in number, but very formidable, in as much as they often threaten the wreck of my happiness,” she wrote. “They have stood like giants in my path, emerging at unexpected times and falling upon me mercilessly.”

MORE than once, life seemed almost too much to be endured, until, in 1916, a thyroid operation restored her health. Now, motivated by the injustice and suffering caused by what was known, for a time, as the Great War, Miss Jebb found that she finally had the energy to make a serious contribution.

Not even the successes, such as the International Save the Children move­ment, could satisfy her. Legend has it that she was halfway up Mont Salève, outside Geneva, when she settled down on the crisp turf, her hair flying in the breeze, and drafted a pioneering declaration of chil­dren’s rights, which she pro­moted through the fledgling League of Nations in 1924.

Miss Jebb’s document has now evolved into the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, ratified by all but two countries around the world, is the most universally accepted human- rights instrument in history.

Four years later, in the summer of 1928, Eglantyne underwent another series of operations. It was only then, knowing how serious her condition was, that she felt able to reconcile herself to the great work of the fund and find peace in her “deepening conviction . . . that all is well, I can trust God with the future of the SCF. How very odd, how ridiculous it would be, if I could not.” A few months later, she died of heart failure. She was only 52.

Miss Jebb had launched an international aid operation, saved the lives of thousands of children, redefined how child welfare oper­ates, and had written social policy of permanent world significance, all in an era when women did not even have the vote. Through it all, she had found support and inspiration in her very personal faith.

“As time goes on, the essentially spiritual character of the work for the children impresses me more and more,” she wrote in 1920. She later expounded on this: “It is a fact that a country loses nothing by financial contribution to international social work. The ledger account between any two countries balances perfectly. Receipts and expenditure tally. There are no debits and no credits. On the one hand there is a technical, on the other a spiritual, gain.”

Clare Mulley’s new biography of Eglan­tyne Jebb, The Woman Who Saved the Children, is reviewed on page 29.

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