Like others in the 19th century, Thomas Barnardo planned to train as a doctor and use his new skills to help the poor on the other side of the world. As a medical missionary, he set his sights on ministering to the needy in China. The fact that Barnardo never made it to Asia was to London’s gain; he changed the lives of thousands of homeless orphans. And not only did he give young people a roof over their heads but he provided schools and training centres that taught valuable work skills.
When Barnardo arrived in the East End for medical training at the London Hospital in Whitechapel in 1866 he saw first-hand the terrible living conditions that many children faced. The population had soared over the course of the 19th century as droves headed into the city in search of work. As a result, people at the lowest rung of the ladder were forced to live in bad, overcrowded housing where Cholera epidemics wiped out thousands. Permanent work was hard to come by and so many families became destitute. And when children lost parents to disease they could be forced to sleep and beg on the streets.
Go to what is now the Ocean Estate in Stepney and you will see a plaque on a grocery store in Estate Road denoting the site of where, in the year Barnardo arrived in London, he began his work in a shelter helping destitute children.
Then in 1870 the first “Dr Barnardo’s Homes” for boys was opened at 18 Stepney Causeway. As well as providing clothes, food and somewhere for them to sleep, it trained boys in shoe making, carpentry and metal work. The institution enabled boys to secure apprenticeships and work and, in time formed a network, of rural properties, hospitals for the sick and seaside convalescent homes.
As part of Barnardo’s work, he would go out to the local area to find destitute boys that needed re-homing. One of these was an 11-year old boy, John Somers (nicknamed ‘Carrots’) who was turned away because the shelter was full. Just two days later he was found dead as a result of malnutrition and exposure. From then onwards the home bore the sign “No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission.”
Barnardo was greatly encouraged by the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. The politician and philanthropist was a tireless campaigner for labour reform who helped see the passing of the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 (which outlawed the employment of women and children in underground coal mines) and the Factory Act of 1847 (which restricted the working hours of women in children in British factories to 10 hours per day). These key pieces of legislation went a long way to helping to improve the lives of young people.
And Barnardo became very interested in the Ragged School Union, an organisation that Shaftesbury had been president of since 1844. The network of schools in industrial areas across the UK provided basic education for street children, giving them the practical skills that would help them go on to find work as well as tuition in reading the Bible. It was a cause that Shaftesbury believed so passionately about, writing: “If the Ragged School system were to fail I should not die in the course of nature, I should die of a broken heart.”
Barnardo opened a number Ragged Schools including one in a converted warehouse next to the Regent’s canal in Copperfield Road in Stepney. It became the largest such establishment in London. Over the course of its 31 years of existence (it closed in 1908 when the Stepney area was well served by government schools), the Copperfield Road Ragged School educated tens of thousands of children.
It’s the only building used by Barnardo to remain standing, hence why campaigners fought so hard in 1980s to prevent it being demolished and in 1990 it became the Ragged School Museum. As well as a range of exhibits documenting the movement, visitors can experience a lesson in an authentic Victorian classroom. Unsurprisingly it’s popular with school groups today.
It was an encounter at a Ragged School with a youngster called Jim Jarvis in the early days that completely changed Barnado’s life and demonstrated he need help the destitutes in London, rather than heading abroad. He recounted the meeting in his book, Night and Day:
“One evening, the attendants at the Ragged School had met as usual, and at about half past nine o’clock, were separating to their homes. A little lad, whom we had noticed listening very attentively during the evening, was amongst the last to leave, and his steps were slow and unwilling.
‘Come, my lad, had you better get home? It’s very late. Mother will be coming for you.’
‘Please sir, let me stop! Please let me stay. I won’t do no harm.’
‘Your mother will wonder what kept you so late.’
‘I ain’t got no mother.’
‘Haven’t got a mother, boy? Where do you live?’
‘Don’t live nowhere.’
‘Well, but where did you sleep last night?’
‘Down in Whitechapel, sir, along the Haymarket in one of them carts as is filled with hay; and I met a chap and he telled me to come here to school, as perhaps you’d let me lie near the fire all night.”
Just opposite the Ragged School Museum, where the distinctive yellow building of Mile End Park stadium now stands used to be the Edinburgh Castle. Barnardo bought the lease for the building in 1872 when it was a gin palace and music hall and re-opened it as a coffee house for young people. On the site he also opened a mission church. The project brought him the support of wealthy and influential evangelicals who backed his work with children.
Contemporary accounts describe how hard he worked. “Page”, one of Barnardo’s earliest private secretaries, wrote in 1876: “Dr Barnardo was a man of marvellous energy. He never admitted himself tired, though I have often seen him utterly exhausted with his long hours of toil. Frequently have I worked with him all night, and found him ready to start again the next morning by 10 o’clock or even earlier, apparently as fresh as a daisy.” Part of this hard work was drawn from the fact that he was an autocrat, with Barnardo saying: “There can be only one Captain to a ship. If there are two, and their orders are diverse, the ship. However well-appointed and equipped, must go to the bottom. Only disaster can follow divided counsels and opposing wills.” He even wanted to sign the letters of all the boys and girls that wrote to him: “Will you write tender, kind, wise little notes, such as a father would write, and then send them to me for signature”.
But despite all the good work undertaken by Barnardo he was no stranger to controversy – by 1896 he had appeared in court on 88 occasions, mainly charges of kidnapping. He did not however see that he’d done anything wrong with this: “I have rescued – or abducted if you will – little boys and girls from the custody of parents and guardians who were, to my knowledge, leading infamous and immoral lives; or who were, by their conduct, about to inflict upon unfortunate children in their care grievous wrong.” He also disputed charges that he maltreated children, neglected simple sanitary precautions and failed to provide religious or moral training.
Barnardo also devised a controversial scheme to send some of his children to Canada, which as well as provided cheap labour for the British colony also saved money – it cost £12 per year to keep a child while it cost only £15 to send one away. While some criticised Barnardo for this, he sought Christian values to justify his move:
“Overcrowding is a primary, if often unrecognised, cause of the moral cesspools I and others are continually engaged in deodorising. It therefore behooves any scheme of large-hearted Christian philanthropy to make at least an attempt to relieve the ‘population pressure’ in our congested cities. What avails it to take the weakest out of the struggle, to train them into robustness, and then to throw them back with their new accession of vital force into the crowd who are already engaged in snatching the morsels from each other’s mouths? The miseries of those yet unhelped would only be aggravated and intensified by such a process.”
With his tireless campaigning for young people, it’s not surprising that when Barnardo died in 1905 it was as a result of exhaustion. He left a wonderful legacy; the charity he founded had opened 96 homes caring for more than 8,500 children over his lifetime. And the organisation continued growing after Barnardo’s death, with hundreds of orphanages built across the UK. It stopped running residential homes in the 1960s (although it still has three residential schools). Barnardo’s remains however one of the UK’s leading children’s charities, providing advice and training for over 200,000 young people and their families. How different the story would have been if Thomas Barnardo had gone to China.