Spotlight on unsung champion of children

02:07, May 21 2014
Anne Chamberlain
FASCINATED: Actress and playwright Anne Chamberlain with Eglantyne director KC Kelly.

An early 20th-century socialite who left a lasting impression right around the world has barely rated a mention in history.

Eglantyne Jebb moved in the same circles as economist John Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw, she founded the Save the Children Fund and drafted what was to become the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

She is now the subject of a play being staged at the Hannah Playhouse (formerly Downstage).

Playwright and comic actress Anne Chamberlain was working for the Save the Children Fund, researching its history when she became fascinated by the contrast between Jebb's influence and the level of recognition she had received.

''I got totally drawn in,'' Chamberlain said. ''I had a 2am epiphany. I thought when this contract finishes I'm going to write this play.''

The settings traverse Jebb's Shropshire home, Scotland, Geneva and the Balkans, where she was working in 1914 when World War I was ignited there.


Jebb had studied at Cambridge and worked briefly as a teacher before the war, a time when the English class system was very strong.

The educated circles she moved in were well-aware of their privileged position.

 ''There was a consciousness in that group that changes were needed,'' Chamberlain said.

She was at a particularly low stage in life after suffering heart-break and at a loose end when her brother-in-law set up the Macedonian Relief Fund.

When the Bosnian conflict ended she volunteered to hand-deliver the funds to the victims on both sides.

Not long after she left, the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and the First World War began to spread rapidly across Europe.

After the war the allies' blockade of Germany remained in place and there was wide-spread famine in Europe.

Jebb's response was to set up the Save the Children Fund, but she soon realised the children of Europe needed more than immediate famine relief.

The fund grew and by 1947 it reached New Zealand, with the first branch set up in Canterbury.

In recognition, Chamberlain staged the play's world premier in Geraldine.

In the course of researching the play Chamberlain spent a week trawling through boxes of Jebb's papers in the archives of the London School of Economics.

''I wanted to bring out her character, the struggles,'' Chamberlain said. ''We've all got our frailties. I wanted to look at the person.''

Chamberlain is best known as a comic actress for her work with The Flannelettes. She said, with such a serious subject, she was aware of the danger play could become too serious.

'' Yes, we've got tons of political points but there is her falling in love, there are various friendships and her take on the world.''

There will be three performances of Eglantyn at the Hannah Playhouse, for the benefit of the Save the Children Fund. They will be from Thursday, May 22 until Saturday, May 24.

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The Dominion Post