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175th anniversary of the birth of Thomas John Barnardo

Thomas John Barnardo, one of the greatest Victorian philanthropists and social reformers, was a Dublin Orangeman. When he died an Orange lodge was founded in his memory in London: the Dr Barnardo Memorial Total Abstinence LOL 819.

Staunch Protestant though he was, Barnardo respected the right of every child to be brought up ‘under the influence and teaching’ of the denomination of their birth parents when this could be ascertained.


He was born in Dublin on 4 July 1845 and educated at a parish day school and St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar School, Dublin.

On his own admission, he was a selfish child and thought that everything that was not his should belong to him but his outlook was transformed by a conversion experience prior to his 17th birthday.


As an evangelical, he became ‘impatient to convert others, urgent for action’. He began teaching Bible classes in a Dublin ragged school and became involved in home visiting.


His mother and brothers were already members of the Plymouth Brethren – which Barnardo also joined. He also became a member of the Dublin YMCA – and often gave talks there. His commitment to social work strengthened – and on hearing the celebrated Hudson Taylor speaking in Dublin about the work of the Inland China Mission, he decided that should go to China as a medical missionary. The Brethren provided him with a small allowance, and the plan was to first study medicine at the London Hospital. He set off for London in April 1866.


Probably during the winter of 1868-9 (establishing accurate chronology is always a problem when writing about Barnardo), Jim Jarvis, a destitute child whom he referred to as ‘my first Arab’, introduced him to the plight of the capital’s homeless children who slept rough around Petticoat Lane. This transformative experience played havoc with his medical studies – it was not until 1876 that he was entitled to call himself Dr Barnardo – and prompted him to abandon his plans to go to China. For the rest of his life he would devote all his energy and zeal towards serving the needs of the destitute child.


He opened a school in the East End of London to care for such children, many of whom had been orphaned by a recent outbreak of cholera.


In 1870 he started his first ‘home’ in a rented house at 18 Stepney Causeway and in 1873 he and his wife opened a girls' home in a converted coach house beside his home at Mossford Lodge, Barkingside.

In 1871 an 11-year-old boy called John Somers (nicknamed ‘Carrots’) was not taken in at Stepney Causeway because the shelter was full. He was found dead two days later from malnutrition and exposure. Thomas decided not to limit the number of children he helped. From that time on the home bore the sign ‘No Destitute Boy Ever Refused Admission’.


Barnardo placed great emphasis on education and training for the young people in his care, founding schools and trade shops. The school day was evenly divided between school and trade shop which turned out tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, bakers and engineers capable of making their own way in life.

Barnardo was a great believer in boarding out or fostering. He regarded orphanages as second best to placing children in a good home. His wish was to give them the kind of home life they had never known. The homes in which children were placed were closely and regularly inspected and monitored.


He also arranged for the migration of children to homes in Canada and Australia.

It was Barnardo’s unalterable belief that all children have an inalienable birthright to kind treatment, decent surroundings and a good education but this did not mean he was immune from criticism. On the contrary, success all too often attracts criticism.


In the late 1870s Barnardo attracted so much criticism that he referred matters to a court of arbitration. He was opposed to instituting an action for libel and instead opted for arbitration under an Order of Court. In October 1877, the Arbitrators issued a substantial document which stated that they were unanimous in their decision that there was no evidence to support the serious charges laid against him.


Two decades later Barnardo became again the target of hostile criticism. A departmental committee was established by the Local Government Board under the chairmanship of A J Mundella. It embarked on its work in 1894.

Many members of the committee, including Mundella, a Liberal MP, and Sir John Gorst, a Conservative MP, subsequently admitted that they had initially ‘grave doubts’ about Barnardo.

However shortly after the publication of committee’s report Mundella said: ‘Nothing astonished me more than the magnitude of Dr Barnardo’s undertaking, and the faith, I may say daily Christian faith, on which that undertaking seemed to be resting. It is a marvellous work that he has done in the homes during the last thirty years, and its growth is entirely due to his wonderful energy, determination and character’.


He conceded that ‘Most of the reforms that the committee has recommended, Dr Barnardo has anticipated, and put into practice in the administration of his institutions’.


Finally, he expressed the wish that ‘the same methods were introduced into the system of the administration of the whole of the poor law children of the country.’


Gorst remarked that the committee ‘came to inspect, they returned to learn and they humbly tried to follow’.


Throughout his life Barnardo pushed himself very hard and it took its toll on his health. By the age of 50, it was evident that he was suffering from a serious heart condition.

Temperamentally incapable of resting, he quickly resumed work at full tilt. Despite periods of convalescence, he died on 19 September 1905.


At the time of Barnardo’s death, there were nearly 8,000 children in the 96 residential homes he had established. Around 1,300 of these children had disabilities. More than 4,000 children were boarded out, and 18,000 had been sent to Canada and Australia.


Barnardo, as Gillian Wagner, the author of an excellent biography of the great man has noted, recognised when he embarked upon his mission in the 1860s that 30,000 destitute children roaming the streets constituted a great social evil. Largely through his efforts and example, by the beginning of the 20th century there were very few of these ‘street arabs’ or ‘gutter’ children (as they were called at the time) to be seen.

Barnardo’s most enduring legacy is the organisation he founded and which remains the largest voluntary childcare organisation in the UK


Article by Gordon Lucy.

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