Thomas John Barnardo 1845 - 1905 Philanthropist Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Thomas John Barnardo 1845 - 1905 Philanthropist

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There were swarms of children. At one time, in a narrow alley, I had fourteen or fifteen all around me, dirty, barefoot, one tiny girl carrying an infant, a baby still at breast but whose whitish head was completely bald. Nothing could be more dismal than those livid little bodies, the pale stringy hair, the cheeks of flabby flesh encrusted with old filth... Their mothers watched from doorways with dull, uninterested eyes.
Hippolyte Taine, French visitor to London, 1860s

These were the conditions in the back alleys of London in the late 1800s. One young man was so shocked by what he saw that he abandoned his plans to become a medical missionary to China, since more urgent work was required in the streets of London. That man became known as Dr Barnardo.


Thomas John Barnardo was born in Dublin, the son of John Michaelis Barnardo, a furrier, and his English wife, Abigail. Abigail was John's second wife, and possibly Barnado was the ninth son of the family, but stories grew around him as his fame spread, and facts about his youth are few and far between; even his autobiographical works are questioned. One well-known story runs that at the age of two he was declared dead with diphtheria, but as the undertaker was placing him in the coffin a trace of life was detected.

Barnado was educated at St Patrick's Cathedral Grammar School, where he was seen as eloquent and argumentative. He did not, however, pass his public examinations, and at 16 he was apprenticed to a wine merchant, Robert Anderson. Sometime before his 17th birthday he became strongly evangelical. He joined his mother and brothers who were members of the Plymouth Brethren, and he taught bible classes in a Dublin ragged school. (So-called ragged schools provided free education for poor children, many of whom were working making matchboxes from as young as five years old.) He also became a member of the Dublin YMCA, where he gave speeches, and it was there he heard J Hudson Taylor, an evangelist missionary, speak about his Inland China Mission. Barnardo thought this was where his future lay, and with a small allowance from the Brethren, he set out to study medicine at the London Hospital.

The Start of an Institution

Barnardo took lodgings in the East End of London and became active in the Temperance Society, visiting beerhouses and erecting mission tents outside gin palaces. This was not an easy pastime, and more than once he was physically assaulted.

Advancing into the centre of the room I declared that I came to sell the word of God and announced that I would give the whole Bible for threepence, the New Testament for a penny. 'Chuck him out,' cried one. For the most part all in the room were under the influence of drink, and although many were girls and boys, they were wild and beyond control. I presently found myself on the ground with the flat part of the table pressing upon me, its legs being in the air, whilst several of the biggest lads leaped inside it, dancing a 'devil's tattoo' to my great discomfort.

The 'great discomfort' consisted of two broken ribs.

He began his medical studies in 1867, which coincided with a cholera outbreak. 5,600 people died in London in a matter of days. Most were in the East End, because it had been excluded from Sir Joseph Bazalgette's sewering programme. Despite his lack of medical qualifications, Barnardo visited the sick and dying to give comfort and prayer. He also taught at the Ernest Street ragged school. An encounter here significantly changed his life. Barnardo recounts in his book, Night and Day, meeting with Jim Jarvis:

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.'

Barnardo goes on to recount how Jim took him down to the 'lays' around Petticoat Lane where children slept. Though Barnardo and his brethren were familiar with the destitution of the families in the East End, they knew nothing of the hidden world of those children who had been orphaned or cast out by their kin. Barnardo was amazed and appalled as Jim led him around back streets and climbing over roofs to see children sleeping huddled amongst the chimneys for warmth1.

Barnardo felt he had to do something, so he placed an article in 'The Revival' saying he would hold a tea meeting service for children. He held his first meeting in November 1867, and 2,347 children attended. He made a speech at that year's missionary conference and gained the support of the banker Robert Barclay and the seventh Lord Shaftesbury. As an MP (Member of Parliament), Shaftesbury had by this time been involved in child causes for some 44 years. Amongst other things, he was largely responsible for the Factories Act (1833) and the Coal Mines Act (1840) which attempted to regulate the conditions of working children. In 1868 Barnardo was able to open his first institution.

Hope Place

Barnardo rented two cottages in Hope Place, Stepney. He opened a school for boys in one and a school for girls in the other. He started various money raising schemes within the schools, including a penny bank, a shoeblack brigade and wood-chopping team. The school grew rapidly, and Barnardo abandoned his plans to move to China. The minutes of the Ragged School Union from 10 June 1870 give a measure of his success.

The Day Schools where the scholars pay 1d or 2d per week has 250 children present. Evening schools are free, well attended, conducted by two paid masters and two paid mistresses. Sunday Schools - morning 180 scholars, evening 700 - 800 present. Conducted in separate premises is a Refuge for boys employed in wood chopping. Three houses in Hope Place and one in Commercial Road are used, a fourth in Hope Place is about to be taken. The whole is the energetic work of a young man, Mr Barnardo, a medical student.

In 1871, Barnardo opened a home for boys in Stepney. The healthy, the sick and the lame were taken in provided they satisfied the one qualifying criteria: destitution. One night, a boy called 'Carrots' was refused admission because there was no room in the house. He was later found dead from exhaustion and exposure in a barrel he'd climbed into for shelter. Barnardo was so upset by this he put a sign on the door of the home reading: No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission.

In 1872, Barnardo set up a huge tent outside the Edinburgh Castle Public House. Two hundred people a night professed conversion, and attendance at the tent was affecting sales at the pub. The pub was put up for sale and Barnardo, worried that it would re-open as a music hall, set out to raise funds to buy it. He succeeded, and opened it as the People's Mission Church and Coffee Palace. It became a significant centre for evangelism.

By 1873, Barnardo had established a ragged school, a home, an employment agency, a mission church and a coffee house. He had bought up more than a dozen properties in East London and had even published a children's magazine. He was not yet thirty years old2.

Marriage and Family

Barnardo met a young woman who shared his interests in evangelism and philanthropy named Syrie Louise Elmslie. They married in 1873 and had seven children. Three of them died young; another, Marjorie, suffered from Down's syndrome. Another daughter, Gwendoline Maud Syrie, married Sir Henry Wellcome, a man 26 years her senior. She was alleged to have had numerous affairs, but only one, with W Somerset Maugham, is definite. She bore Maugham a child in 1915, and Maugham was mentioned in the ensuing divorce. Once the divorce with Wellcome was finalised, she married Maugham3. Syrie Maugham went on to become a successful interior designer.

As a married man Barnardo felt more able to establish an accommodation for young girls, and 12 girls came to live in a converted cottage next to his home at Mossford Lodge. This was not a total success, and Barnardo decided to house the girls in a village home for girls - which eventually grew to house over 1,000 girls. The first 12 cottages were opened in 1876. Each featured a group of girls of mixed age under the care of a 'mother'. The girls were trained for service, and on their 13th birthday were placed in one of four divisions. First division girls were given a uniform, value £5, which became their own property after 12 months. Second division girls received a £3 10s uniform and third division girls were presented a £3 uniform, which they had to pay for out of their wages. The fourth division was described thus:

Fourth Division

Girls who are found to be dishonest, habitually untruthful, violent and uncontrolled in temper, vicious, unclean in their personal habits, will not be sent out to service under ordinary circumstances, nor will they have an outfit, but will be dismissed from the Village in disgrace or sent to a School of discipline.

Girls' village home, Ilford.

Finishing in the fourth division usually meant a life on the streets.

Before and After

Barnardo's ability to develop money-making ideas was a major factor in his success, and one of the most valuable such schemes began in 1874 when he opened a photographic department at his Stepney home.

Barnardo was meticulous about record keeping, and initially the photographic department was intended to facilitate record keeping. A picture was taken of each child when he or she arrived, then another taken some months later. This started Barnardo's famous 'Before and After' cards. These sold in packs of 20 for five shillings4 and had titles like 'Once a little vagrant, now a little workman.' These not only raised money, but also helped publicise the work. Today, these photographs and records are invaluable to any 19th-Century social historian. Here is an extract from his records on one child admitted 26 July 1875. The record also includes three photographs:

254 John X 11

Came here by himself on the above named date with the now common story of 'I have got no father nor mother and no home.' He last resided with his mother at 27 Albert Street Shadwell. His mother, he says, is a dressmaker. The reason he came to the Home was because his mother went away for some days, and his mother's landlady told him he had better come here. His father was a ship's carpenter and has been dead about two years. He died at Rio Janeiro. He says he has a sister somewhere in America. The street in which his mother resides bears a very bad name and is the resort of prostitutes, and there's several 'brothels' there.
John X Statement

'I was born in St George's in the East. Father died at Rio Janeiro out at sea. He has been dead two years. I have one sister away in America. My mother lives in Albert Street, Back Road. She is a dressmaker. Mother couldn't keep me no longer, so I came in by myself. When I lived with my mother I went to Shadwell Church School.'
Education - can read monosyllables.

Beadle's Report

July 30th 1875. This boy's father was a ship carpenter. He died 18 months ago of yellow fever at Rio Janeiro, leaving the mother with two children, the above boy and a girl of 14, who is in Canada. After her husband's death, she received what money was due to him, which she soon spent, then took to the streets, and is now living at 27 Albert Street, a common brothel. She walks Ratcliff Highway, and is one of the worst of her kind. She has no regular home and leaves the boy sometimes for days to get his living as well as he can. On the twentieth instant she left him with a woman named Doyle, who keeps three bad houses in Albert Street, who, not hearing anything of the mother sent him to the Home. Since then I found the mother in a brothel in Betts Street, drunk, with some more prostitutes and sailors. I told her where her boy was, when she said 'she did not care where he is; she wished he was dead.' I have made enquiries and find there is no one belonging to him alive except his mother and sister.

While this reads horribly to modern ears, at the time this was a typical daily report.

The enormity of the situation facing Barnardo can be judged by the growth of his ragged school. He rented some canal-side warehouses and converted them. The Copperfield ragged school opened its doors to children aged between five and ten in 1876. By 1896 there were 1,075 children attending the day school and 2,460 at the Sunday school. Children were not only educated, but also received a breakfast and dinner. The school remained in operation until 1908, when the London Council condemned it as unsuitable for schooling, though the Sunday school continued until 1915.


Barnardo was no stranger to controversy, and tended to ignore rules he considered inconvenient. Thus by 1896 he had appeared in court on 88 occasions, mainly charges of kidnapping. He freely admitted that '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 called this philanthropically abducting.

Barnardo also found himself accused of maltreating children, faking the photographs, neglecting simple sanitary precautions and failing to provide religious or moral training.5 In 1877, Barnardo hit back at his critics by calling for arbitration under an Order of Court. The arbitrators unanimously rejected all the serious charges against him, though they were critical of some of his methods and the lack of control over his actions.

Another charge laid at Barnardo's door was that he was not entitled to call himself doctor. Though he attended medical school, sat his final examinations in Edinburgh, registered as a medical practitioner in London and was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh in 1880, many contended that he was not entitled to use the honorific doctor.


Barnardo also devised a scheme to send some of his children to Canada. This achieved several ends; it was a way of populating the colonies with 'British stock'; it provided cheap labour; and it saved money. (It cost £12 per year to keep a child while it cost only £15 to send one away.) The export of destitute and orphaned children had a long history in Britain. Around 130,000 children were shipped around the Empire over a 350-year period, starting with a group being sent to Virginia, USA in 1618. The practice continued until 1967, when a group was sent to Australia. Barnardo presented this to the public differently.

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.

He must have been able to convince the Canadian government of this, because they built reception homes for his emigrants. The children stayed in the homes until they finished school, when they were fostered with local families. Between 1882 and 1901, 8,046 children were sent to Canada6. By 1939 the number had risen to 30,000.

Jack The Ripper

Incredibly, it was suggested in 1970 by Donald McCormick, and again in 2005 by Gary Rowlands, that Barnardo could have been Jack The Ripper. The 'evidence' for this is that he was well known in the East End and that he would visit doss houses to encourage prostitutes to place their children into his care. During one of these visits he talked to a group at 32 Flower and Dean Street. One of these women, worse for drink, cried 'we're all up to no good and no-one cares what becomes of us, perhaps some of us will be killed next.' He later viewed the body of 'Long' Liz Stride, the Ripper's fourth victim, at the mortuary and confirmed her as one of those present. The theory suggests that his religious zeal led him to slaughter prostitutes to clear the streets and to prevent them having children. He only stopped killing because a swimming accident left him deaf which meant he couldn't hear approaching footsteps. Realistically, Barnardo's only connection with the Ripper would seem to be that one of the women he preached to fell victim to the Ripper several days later.

The End

Barnardo's health declined, and by his 50th year it was clear he had some kind of heart problem7, and doctors advised him to take periods of absolute rest. On the evening of 19 September 1905, he settled down by his wife, and turning to her said, 'My head is so heavy. Let me rest it on you.' A moment later, his spirit left him. He was 60 years old.

At the time of his death Barnardo had transformed the lives of some 60,000 children. There were 8,000 in his 96 residential homes; around 1,300 of these had disabilities. More than 4,000 were fostered, and 18,000 had been sent to Canada and Australia. His work continues today: Barnardo's is the largest children's charity in the UK. Though they no longer run children's homes, they continue with the fostering system that Barnardo started with his 'boarding out' programme.

1An image to consider next time you see the rooftop chimney sweep scene from Mary Poppins.2Barnardo's own account of this work, How It All Happened was published in 1872.3Though Maugham continued to live with his male lover, Gerald Haxton.425p nowadays, but equivalent to about £19 in 2006.5Conversely, the Catholic church accused him of converting children to Methodism.6Which meant that in 1901 approximately 0.33% of the Canadian population had come from a Barnardo home.7Probably angina pectoris.

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