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Cambridge graduate author tells the story of Dorothy Buxton, founder of Save the Children

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Campaigning for Life: A Biography of Dorothy Frances Buxton by Petà Dunstan is the first book to tell the story of the early 20th-century social reformer who was instrumental in founding the Save the Children charity.

Dorothy Buxton (1881-1963) led a remarkable life. In an era when women struggled to make their voices heard, she spoke out effectively for those in need – and particularly for children.

In the face of scepticism and hostility, the determined campaigner fought to provide food for starving children in post-First World War Europe and pioneered the charity Save the Children.

Later, she was one of the first to raise awareness of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and even confronted Herman Göring himself in Berlin in 1935.

From her unconventional upbringing in rural Shropshire, to studying at Cambridge to becoming a tireless campaigner, Dorothy was a complex character, something of an enigma even to her family.

Charlie and Dorthy Buxton with their children in 1912
Charlie and Dorthy Buxton with their children in 1912

Dr Petà Dunstan, a graduate of Clare College (Dorothy herself studied at Newnham, though at a time when women weren’t able to get degrees) and a fellow of St Edmund’s College, explained what first drew her to the story of this fascinating woman:

“I think she’s a sort of forgotten heroine of that period at the end of the First World War, and her role in founding Save the Children is not well known.

“Her sister, Eglantyne Jebb, tends to take the credit, when really Dorothy was the person who initiated it.

"As to how I got the commission, as it were, I knew members of the family who’d always felt that she was neglected.

“I knew her son, David, as an older man. I used to talk to him and he used to tell me a lot about his mother and wish somebody would write about her.

"So after he died, I offered to do the book. It’s taken quite a few years but I got there in the end.”

Petà continued: “I think the difficulty with Dorothy was her ideals were not the ideals of her time, in the sense that she believed that the German government, both the one at the time of the First World War and then the Nazis in the Second World, were evil governments and did wicked things.

“But she always felt that that wasn’t the responsibility of the German people, and that ordinary German people were just like ordinary British people; they didn’t have those ideas and she always defended them.

“But at the end of the First World War, if you said ‘Germans are just like us’ and someone had lost their son or their husband or their father in the conflict, they were very emotionally upset and wouldn’t hear that.

“So on one hand she achieved great things, but also in another sense, a lot of people saw her as pro-German and therefore pro the enemy, and they didn’t really celebrate her as much, I think, as she ought to have been.”

For various reasons – including having to wait two or three years to view the Save the Children archives as they were being relocated and catalogued at Birmingham University – the book took Petà about 10 years to complete.

“I think I learned things about Dorothy which even her family didn’t know,” noted the author. “Her grandchildren are amazed at all the things that have come out.

"They’re absolutely thrilled, I think, that finally there’s a book on their grandmother.”

Campaigning for Life: A Biography of Dorothy Frances Buxton is available now from The Lutterworth Press.

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