Wednesday 28 May 2014

The Keeper of the Locks

I love my family. Last year, for my birthday, among other things my mum gave me a well-wrapped cigar box celebrating the Brussels Grand Prix of 1910. It made a light parcel and did not rattle when I shook it, but inside was something rather wonderful.

First was a card that said ‘Mary Smith, nee McCombie, 1895-1984’. I was slightly nervous that I might be facing my grandmother’s ashes but instead, below the card, were two chestnut-coloured ponytails, each tied with string. As a schoolgirl, Mary had worn her hair in plaits. In 1911 when she went out to work, aged 16, she had bunched her plaits at the neck, or curved them round her head. But by the 1920s she had a fashionable flapper’s bob and she kept her hair short for the rest of her life. So at some point she must have decided that her long hair was too much trouble and rather regretfully cut it off, or perhaps it was with a sense of liberation that she had her hair chopped, shocking her rather staid aunts as she marked her transition to adulthood and independence.

Mary as a schoolgirl
Mary with her hair up for work.
I have noticed that when a lock of hair is treasured in a film it is usually lush and shiny, and does not look very real somehow. Not so these girlish bunches, which have split ends and several knots, very like my daughters’ hair which I brush and plait most mornings before school. But her long hair must have held great value to Mary for her to have hung on to it all her long life, and clearly the keepsake resonated with my mother too, who could not bear to part with her mother’s treasured bunches either. 

Mary’s bunches.
With nearly 100 years in a box, the hair has now taken on even greater significance. My own daughters squealed rather delightedly at this family relic from a woman, a great grandmother, who they had never known. But my husband was rather less convinced. ‘Thank goodness it is not a finger’, he said, ‘or even a set of teeth. Perhaps, if it must be kept,’ he added, ‘it could be put to good use, in the mix for some renovating plaster for our walls, or the stuffing for the piano-stool’. My family, he seemed to be suggesting, might be quite capable of keeping anything, and in this he is probably right. Now, however, this box is not just full of hair, it is full of historic-hair, family hair that has been loved and valued by two generations already. Its significance is in its preservation as much as in its DNA. So now I am the keeper-of-the-locks, which sit in their box on the shelf with my prettier old books, some of which themselves were given as school prizes to various great uncles and aunties. 

This year my mum, who has clearly if unofficially given me the job of family historian, wrapped me up another of Mary’s treasures; a medal engraved on the back to ‘M McCombie, 2nd Place, Open Competition Girl Clerks, April 1912’. My granny had come second in the country for her civil service entry exams that year, or at least of those girls taking the exams at the ‘Civil Service and Commercial College’ at 1, 2 & 3 Chancery Lane.

Mary's Medal, front

Mary's Medal, back
A medal seems a much more reasonable thing to keep than some old, slightly tangled hair. Medals are earned rather than grown after all, and they were not once actually part of a human being. But perhaps clever Mary had just as much pride in their hair as her exam results. And, I have realized, it is only the two things together, the hair and the medal, that start to hint at the whole woman behind them, Mary Smith nee McCombie, a smart woman who made her own way in the world, but who also rather romantically refused to ever throw out the long hair of her childhood. Perhaps that is a combination that has a certain power of its own, something to emulate, as well as something to preserve.

Friday 23 May 2014

Eglantyne Jebb, The Woman Who Saved the Children

Ninety-five years ago this month, in May 1919, a remarkable woman called Eglantyne Jebb, and her sister, Dorothy Buxton, changed the world.

Many years ago, I worked as a rather struggling corporate fundraiser at Save the Children. One day I came across a line written by Eglantyne, the charity’s founder, when she was also finding it hard work to raise funds. ‘The world is not ungenerous’ Eglantyne wrote, ‘but unimaginative and very busy’. That struck a chord with me, and I became rather intrigued about this woman, who spoke with such immediacy but who is so little known today.

Eglantyne Jebb at her Save the Children desk, c.1921
In 2001 I went on maternity leave to have my first child - thereby showing far less dedication to the cause than Eglantyne, who never had children of her own and worked tirelessly for the charity until she died. As I had two weeks before my due date, I decided to spend a some time finding out a bit more about Eglantyne.

Looking through the papers in Save the Children's archive, then in the charity’s basement, I came across the leaflet below. Although entitled ‘A Staving Baby’, the photograph actually shows a little girl from Austria who is two-and-a-half year old. Her disproportionately large head, compared to her body, is the result of malnutrition.

Eglantyne's leaflet, 1919
In the top right hand corner you can just see Eglantyne’s scribbled word ‘suppressed!’ The exclamation mark shows her personal indignation at the policy of the British Liberal government to continue the economic blockade to Europe after the First World War as a means of pushing through the harsh peace terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Eglantyne believed that the British public was unaware of the terrible human cost of this policy and set out to change things.

In the spring of 1919 she was handing out these leaflets in London's Trafalgar Square, a traditional site for public protest. One account even has her chalking up the pavements with her messages ‘Fight the Famine’ and ‘End the Blockade’, in suffragette style. Eventually, the government had her arrested.

When her case same to court that May, Eglantyne knew that legally she did not have a leg to stand on as her leaflets had not been cleared by the government censors under the Defence of the Realm Act, which was still in place. Nevertheless she insisted on conducting her own defence and, focusing on the moral case, she gave the court reporters plenty to pad out their stories with.

The Crown Prosecutor is the only person in this story with a name to rival Eglantyne’s. He was called Sir Archibald Bodkin, and he did not spare Eglantyne in his condemnation. She was found guilty and fined £5. ‘This’, she wrote to her mother, ‘is the equivalent of victory’, because she could have been fined £5 for every leaflet she had distributed, over 800, or even been given a custodial sentence.

Furthermore, after the session had officially closed, but before the court had been cleared, Sir Archibald came over and pressed a £5 note, the sum of her fine, into Eglantyne’s hands. Technically she had been found guilty, but clearly in the Crown Prosecutor’s eyes Eglantyne had won the moral case. This would be the first donation towards a new fund that Eglantyne and her sister Dorothy now vowed to set up – the ‘Save the Children Fund’.

Daily Herald, 16 May 1919
As you can see from the photo above, of the front page of The Daily Herald, the British newspapers gave the story prominent coverage. Eglantyne was also featured in The Times, The Mail, The Mirror and The Guardian.

But Eglantyne knew that, pleasing though this coverage was, publicity alone would not feed the starving children of Europe. Determined to capitalise on the publicity, she and Dorothy decided to hold a public meeting and see if they could win further support for the cause. Being ambitious women, they booked the biggest venue they could find: the Royal Albert Hall. Reports tell us that in the event, there were not enough seats in the hall for the numbers of people who arrived.

Crowds queuing to hear Eglantyne Jebb and Dorothy Buxton
talking at the Royal Albert Hall, 19 May 1919
However, to their horror, Eglantyne and Dorothy soon realized that many of the audience had arrived with rotten fruit and vegetables to throw at the ‘traitor’ sisters who wanted to give succour to 'the enemy'. At first Eglantyne nervously mumbled her words, but her voice rose with her passion, until she called out; ‘Surely it is impossible for us, as normal human beings, to watch children starve to death without making an effort to save them’. The crowd in the hall were shocked. Then, in the silence, a collection was spontaneously taken up.

Within ten days Eglantyne, Dorothy and the fledgling Save the Children Fund had invested in a herd of dairy cows to provide a sustainable source of nutrition to the children of Vienna. Thousands of lives were saved, and that was just the start…