Eglantyne Jebb the political activist for the Cambridge Liberals


Newspaper archives show that Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of Save the Children and the author of the Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child, was a very prominent campaigner for the Cambridge liberals – becoming the inaugural President of Cambridge Young Liberal Women in 1913.

Archivists say that the best finds are in folders and files titled ‘miscellaneous’. Nearly 15 years ago on a visit to The National Archives in Kew during my postgraduate years at Anglia Ruskin University here in Cambridge, the expert archivists there told us that they were waiting for historians to go through their hundreds of thousands of otherwise untouched paper files. This was back in 2003 – long before they had sunk their teeth the digital archiving programs that we now take for granted.

Thus going through the British Newspaper Archive online – still work in progress, I changed the search engine terms to Eglantyne’s formal title of ‘Miss Jebb’ to see what would come up.

Miss Jebb misses nearly three quarters of the meetings of the Cambridge Education Committee

On paper, the record is shocking (13 of 31 meetings according to the Cambridge Independent Press of 08 Nov 1907) – and didn’t do her reputation much good either. When her name was suggested for another committee on social issues, her attendance record counted against her – despite her well-received book. Instead, the borough council decided to approach another big name in Cambridge – Mary Allan, the first principal of Homerton College.

However, it is very easy to forget Eglantyne’s illness from a thyroid problem. Fatigue plagued her for much of her adult life. With my own mental health problems which restrict my working hours and patterns, I can empathise & sympathise with Eglantyne. Yet while she didn’t attend meetings, she was working her socks off outside of the guildhall. So much so that she resigned her position on the executive committee for the Cambridge branch of the League of Physical Education & Improvement.

Yet despite all of the above, astronomer Sir Robert Ball, in a speech to The Perse Girls in December 1907 praised Eglantyne Jebb for her work and her book, Cambridge, a brief study in social issues, published some 12 months earlier.

“It was a book full of the most interesting information…everyone…would take a far greater interest in Cambridge when they had read the book than ever they did before”

“What is there to say about Cambridge except what we all know and can reead in ordinary history books. That was where the genius of Miss Jebb showed itself in finding out that there was a great deal to say and a great deal to find out and write about which was not generally known, and was not available in ordinary sources of information”

“Why not follow the example of Miss Jebb?”

Progress report 1908

Eglantyne published an update to her book a couple of years later – a sort of progress check. I’ve not been able to find a copy of the 1908 edition unfortunately. But the Cambridge Independent Press of 18 December 1908 summarises:

“The opening words aptly describe the situation. “A University town, by the side of which another town has grown up, the latter presenting in some degree the squalor, the hopeless struggle, the waste of life which are characteristic of our English slums; a town, the chief industry of which is stagnant, while most of its industries are deliriously affected by the rotation of term and vacation””

Eglantyne was one of the drivers of action in response to the problems described above.

“The Boys’ Employment Registry was opened in May, 1907, to which a Girls’ Registry was added in May 1908 – both at 82 Regent Street”

Under the watchful eye of Florence Ada Keynes, Eglantyne and Florence’s daughter Margaret (who would later have a passionate relationship with Eglantyne) ran both of those agencies from the Regent Street shop. Hence the Blue Plaque above it.

…where hardly anyone can see it.

But as a result of Eglantyne’s work the Education Committee directed the employment of three health visitors to inspect primary schools in the borough. Given the gift of Mr Sedley Taylor of Trinity College to pay the dental fees of all of the primary school children in the borough, it enabled the borough council to collect data on the state of children’s teeth.

“It is not very satisfactory to read that only 3% of the borough’s children examined had perfectly sound teeth.”

Most interestingly from a town planning perspective, is that Eglantyne’s book had driven improvements in town planning – with experiments on more sanitary blocks and small houses with piped clean water being constructed. Furthermore, the council were to pass bye-laws on the employment of children – though not to the standard demanded by Eglantyne.

Play-based learning

For someone who didn’t like being with children, Eglantyne was incredibly observant, and made the case for play-based learning for infants and younger children. In the Cambridge Independent Press of 26 November 1909 they stated Eglantyne told the committee that children learnt more through playing as 6 year olds than being taught a skill. She claimed that work-based skills could be learnt much more quickly by teenagers than by six year olds. This argument chimes with protests against the tests and exams for primary school children – something I found to be an abomination when I was a governor at a local primary school in Cambridge, and something I still find to be an abomination now.

Religion and politics in public life

In early May 1910, Eglantyne gave a speech to the Cambridge Men’s Brotherhood on Religion and Politics. In today’s context it’s easy to think that she was talking about sexual morality. But given the time she was living in and the state of Cambridge at the time, her call was for her audience to take an interest in politics in order to deal with the problems of poverty and multiple deprivation.

“She does not see how anyone who has the welfare of mankind at heart can fail to take an interest in politics”

“She drew an excellent picture of the “Superior Person,” who at the end of his life declares with fatuous satisfaction that he had kept himself pure from party politics, that the vulgar rivalry of Liberals and Tories had never touched him…and showed how such isolation and ‘superiority’ meant criminal neglect of opportunities [to make a difference]”

This is my view too – hence why I get angry with TV charity appeals that are like: “If you want to make a difference to the poor people suffering in this video, charidee!”. The arguments that Eglantyne was in the middle of in Cambridge were not just about giving food to the poor, but asking those in power why the poor had no food in the first place, and what they were going to do about it. While collecting the evidence to influence the policy at the same time. Her point was that if you wanted to make a difference, at some stage you would have to engage with the political processes.

The actual speech is much more extensive – and covered in much more detail. Later on I hope to transcribe the article in full, because it is a very powerful speech – especially when you consider attitudes towards women at the time, and the audience she was speaking to.

Eglantyne Jebb and the Cambridge Liberals

One of the things missed out by mainstream histories of Eglantyne Jebb was her activities with the local Cambridge Liberal Party. The Cambridge Independent Press’ Pertilote column on 01 July 1910 states that she was elected president of the Cambridge Women’s Branch  of the National League of Young Liberals.

What’s all the more interesting is the newspaper states that a ‘Miss Perrett’ introduced Eglantyne as the speaker. The only person by that name remotely on my radar in those times is a certain Leah Perrett – later known as Dame Leah Manning MP, one of the earliest Labour women MPs. Leah – another of Cambridge’s heroes, trained as a teacher at Homerton College under the watchful eye of Mary Allan (mentioned above). Having turned down the chance to teach in London as one of Homerton’s top-scoring qualified teachers, Mary Allan (knowing of Leah’s socialist leanings) sent Leah to teach in one of the most deprived schools in the most run down slums of Cambridge – New Street School off East Road. Almost on arrival, Leah got involved in politics and asked Florence Ada Keynes amongst others to help relief the poverty she faced – in particular when one of the young children Leah was teaching, died in her classroom due to malnutrition. Leah’s biography, 30 years in education describes this tale. (If it was another Miss Perrett, please let me know!)

Eglantyne’s headline policies

Fast forward to December 1913 and we find Eglantyne Jebb calling on the Liberal Party to bring in land reform and a minimum wage. The case for both, according to the article in the Cambridge Independent Press of 05 December 2013 was on the health of the population. In the case of land reform, the policy sounds more complex than the article states, but she said that too much land was going to waste that could be used for production. Remember this was also a time that people were starving in town – we had an infant mortality rate of 1:8. Today it’s closer to 3:1,000.

She also called for a minimum wage – taking a leaf straight out of Mary Paley Marshall’s book stating that low wages had a negative impact on the health of workers, and thus a negative impact on their productivity. Hence making the case for a rise in their wages underpinned by the law. Again, I agree with both Mary Paley and Eglantyne: If a firm does not pay a rate that enables an employee to live (to the extent that the benefits system has to kick in), then that firm should not be in business. People should not sacrifice their health to enable a firm to function. That goes for public services too – looking at the stupidly long hours junior doctors have to work.

“What if…?”

I get the sense that Eglantyne was clearly on a political roll – something was in motion in terms of her political career. We know this from the pen and picture portrait in the Cambridge Independent Press when Eglantyne ran the ultimately unsuccessful campaign of former Cambridge MP Mr Buckmaster to get re-elected in December 1910.

Less than nine months after her December 1913 speech, Europe was at war. Eglantyne’s health also took a turn for the worse. Clare Mulley’s wonderful biography of Eglantyne covers in more detail the time she spent in Scotland on the advice of her doctor during the war years, and also how she coped as a pacifist during the war.

What the newspaper archives show is that for about five years, Eglantyne was incredibly active in local politics in Cambridge. Not only that, but that as a result of her actions she had a very positive impact on the people of Cambridge – even more so than I first thought. I’ll leave it to specialist biographers such as Clare Mulley to discuss how Eglantyne’s political activities in pre-war Cambridge give us insights into the work she would later do founding Save the Children – something that they are far more knowledgeable about than I am.

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