Famed as the founder of homes for disadvantaged children, Dr Thomas Barnardo’s impact is still making a difference to the lives of children today.
Barnardo was born in Dublin, Ireland, on 4th July, 1845, the son of a furrier, John Michealis Barnardo, who had emigrated from Hamburg, and his second wife Abigail, an Englishwoman who was a member of the Plymouth Brethren.
Largely brought up by a half-sister due to his mother’s ill-health, he was educated in Dublin before, at the age of 14, becoming apprenticed to a wine merchant.
Barnardo had a life-changing experience of faith in 1862, was baptised and eventually, working with a local mission, started preaching and visiting people.
Inspired by Hudson Taylor’s reports of the work of the China Inland Mission, Barnardo – against his father’s wishes – left for London in 1866 with the intention of joining the mission’s work.
In London, while he waited for the mission’s leaders to consider his candidacy, Barnardo enrolled to study at the London Hospital (studies he would never complete, despite taking the title of ‘Dr’).
But faced with the poverty he encountered on arriving in London – poverty which had been exacerbated by a recent cholera outbreak in the East End in which 3,000 had died, he put aside his intentions and instead, in 1867, founded a “ragged school” in two cottages in Hope Place Stepney – the East End Juvenile Mission.
After one of the school’s pupils – Jim Jarvis – showed him some of the ‘lays’ where some of the children were passing their nights, he set about fundraising (donors include Lord Shaftesbury) and in 1870, opened a home for boys.
Two years later, in 1672, Barnardo, who was an adovcate for the temperance movement, bought a notorious pub – the Edinburgh Castle in Limehouse – and transformed it into the British Working Men’s Coffee Palace. He would later open another coffee house in Mile End Road.
Barnardo married Sara Louise Elmslie, known as ‘Syrie’, in June, 1873, who shared her husband’s interests in evangelism and social work.
As a wedding present they were given a 60 acre site in Barkingside and it was on this land that they made a home at Mossford Lodge. It was also on that property where they, after an initial less-than-successful experiment with dormitory-style accommodation, opened a home for girls based on a village model.
This grew over the following years so that by 1900 the “garden village” had 65 cottages, a school, a hospital and a church, and provided a home – and training – to some 1,500 girls.
The family, meanwhile, later left the property for a home in Bow Street, Hackney. In 1879, they moved to The Cedars in Banbury Road, Hackney and later lived in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, and Surbiton.
More homes and schools followed the first – Barnardo had adopted an “ever open door” policy after the death of a boy who had been turned away for lack of room – and by his death in 1905, it was said that his institutions cared for more than 8,500 children in 96 locations across the country.
The “ragged school” in Mile End, now a museum. PICTURE: Google Maps.
Barnardo’s efforts were not without controversy – he introduced a scheme whereby poor children were sent overseas to live, primarily to Canada as well as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – a practice which went on until the 1970s and for which then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology in 2010.
Barnardo and his wife had seven children, of whom only four survived. One of the children – Marjorie – had Down syndrome and it’s said that she strongly influenced his care for disabled children.
Barnardo died of a heart attack at his home – St Leonard’s Lodge in Surbiton – on 19th September, 1905. He was buried on the property at Barkingside which is now where the head office of Barnardo’s, the charity he founded, is located. His tomb features a memorial by Sir George Frampton.
At the time of his death, Barnardos was caring for more than 8,500 children in 96 homes. It’s said that from 1867 until his death, the charity had taken in almost 60,000 children, most them trained and placed out in life.
Interestingly, one of Barnardo’s daughters – Gwendolyn Maud Syrie – first married wealthy businessman Henry Wellcome and, then to the writer Somerset Maugham.
There are two English Heritage Blue Plaques commemorating Barnardo in London – one at a property in Bow Road, Hackney, where the Barnardos lived between 1875 and 1879 and another in Stepney commemorating where he began his work in 1866.