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 Issues | Church History | Thomas J. Barnardo


Great Churchmen (No. 20)

Dr Thomas John Barnardo (1845-1905)

by. E. J. G. Rogers (Vicar of St Catharine's, Wigan)

The Children's Friend

Published by Church Book Room Press


The Medical Student

EVEN at the beginning of his studies he sought every opportunity of serving Christ. He preached in the open air at Mile End Waste, and taught in the Ernest St. Ragged School, Stepney; but here he found that his activities were far too restricted by the committee. As a consequence he and a few friends decided to open a new school, and they took over a dilapidated donkey-shed in Hope Place, Stepney, which they repaired and renovated. He wrote: “A crowd of unkempt youngsters filled the place as soon as the doors were open, and there it was that I had my first indication of, and inspiration towards, what proved to be my life’s work.”(1)

It was here that he met Jim Jarvis. The encounter was to prove the second turning-point in his career and to determine his whole future. Jim was a little street urchin who attended his Ragged School and who one night begged to be allowed to sleep in the school by the glowing fire. Barnardo ordered him to go home to his mother, who would be wondering what had happened to him.

                   “Ain’t got no mother, sir,” said Jim.
                   “Well, then, off to your father.”
                   “Ain’t got no father neither, sir.”
                   “Well, then, off to your home, wherever it is.”
                   “I ain’t got no home, sir.”
                   “Then go to your friends, wherever you live.”
                   “Ain’t got no friends, sir. I don’t live nowhere!”

Barnardo, incredulous at first, scrutinized the lad: his spare frame, his bare feet and legs, his scanty clothing all worn to rags, although the weather was freezing. Could it be that he was telling the truth? And was it possible that there were other children in a similar plight in the great city of London? Barnardo determined to find out the truth.

After questioning Jim further, he asked him, “Tell me, my lad, are there other poor boys like you in London without home or friends?”

A grim smile lighted up the urchin’s pinched face.

“Oh, yes, sir, lots of ’em—more’n I could count!”

Barnardo was still frankly sceptical, but there was only one thing to be done and that was to let Jim prove the truth of his assertion. So after he had enjoyed a good meal at Barnardo’s rooms he led the young medical student late at night—and that a bitterly cold night in mid-winter—down various streets and alleys of the East End of London till they found their “lay”—a dozen or so lads lying asleep on an open roof, with no covering of any kind save the miserable rags which served as their clothing.

As Barnardo gazed upon the tragic scene the horror of it all came home to him. “I realized,” he wrote, “the terrible fact that they were absolutely homeless and destitute, and were almost certainly but samples of many others. It seemed as though the hand of God Himself had suddenly pulled aside the curtain which concealed from my view the untold miseries of forlorn child-life upon the streets of London. . . . What I had seen was to me a revelation and a message, a sight to be burnt into my memory, and to haunt me till I could find no rest except in action on their behalf.”

Thirty years later he added: “That dread night of discovery determined my subsequent career. . . . I asked God, if it was His Holy will, to permit me to provide a shelter for such poor children, to give me the wisdom needed to seek them out, and to bring them in to learn of God, of Christ, of Heaven. How that prayer was heard, and how all over the Kingdom, nay, all over the world, thousands of kind hearts have been moved to uphold my hands in the work, is now a well-known story.”

It is not the purpose of this study to provide a full bio-graphical account of Dr. Barnardo’s life, nor does space permit us to give details of all the subsequent developments. But an incident must be mentioned which served to give publicity to the tragic needs of London’s destitute children. Shortly after the Jim Jarvis episode Barnardo was present (in his capacity as a missionary candidate) at a big Missionary Rally at the Agricultural Hall, Islington; and as the expected speaker—a well-known public man—had not arrived, the chairman, Dr. Thain Davidson, called upon Thomas Barnardo to tell the crowded audience something of his work in the East End. He related the story of the homeless, hungry children he had seen; he told of his meeting with Jim Jarvis and its consequences; and as he thus spoke of what he knew by personal experience he created a pro-found impression. Many in the audience were deeply stirred. Among them was a young servant girl who at he end of the meeting shyly approached Barnardo and handed him a little packet which contained twenty-seven farthings, asking him to accept the gift for his work. This was the first contribution he had ever received from the public, and he wrote: “I have never doubted since then that this was God’s way of showing me that He could, through humble and unexpected instruments, supply all that would be needed for any work He gave me to do for Him.” As a result of this meeting he met Lord Shaftesbury, and Barnardo was able to show him and his friends some of the homeless waifs of the back streets. Until his death Shaftesbury remained a true friend, counsellor and helper in all that Barnardo did.

The name of Shaftesbury links the great work of Barnardo with the zeal of the Evangelical Revival and the Clapham Sect. Thomas Barnardo stands in succession to William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton, Zachary Macaulay, James Stephen, Thomas Clarkson, Charles Grant, whose Christian witness and influence were felt gradually throughout the land—not only in a renewed evangelism but also in a consecrated philanthropy and in a new awakening of the social conscience. A new moral leaven permeated society, not at home only, but in the Colonies as well. These Evangelicals stood definitely for Christ and His standards; they worked for the unprivileged, the outcast, the uneducated, the backward and the slave. By their single-mindedness and devotion to duty they helped to transform the conditions of their own day and began that long process of social progress which still continues in our own time. Christ was the inspiration of all they did, and we cannot appreciate the work of these men until we recognize what was the source of all their creative, reforming zeal. Among the reformers of the nineteenth century Thomas Barnardo occupies a high place, and like Shaftesbury he was “an Evangelical of Evangelicals.”

A letter from Samuel Smith, a well-known member of Parliament, promised a gift of a thousand pounds for the promotion of the Doctor’s work of child-rescue if he could, for the time being, give up the thought of going to China and devote his talents to the establishment in the East End of a Home for destitute children. He felt that God was showing him his life’s work. “I did not choose,” he wrote, “my Father called me. He still leads, and I can but follow. I may say, without any presumption, that the work among destitute children which I have been permitted to carry on has from the first afforded a remarkable example of the reality of God’s guiding in the affairs of life.” In the assurance of that knowledge he gave himself entirely to the work which was to become one of the great saving and reforming societies of our country.

In September, 1870, Dr. Barnardo opened his first Home for Destitute Boys at 18 Stepney Causeway. This was an extension of the work of his East End Juvenile Mission, and was intended to house about twenty-five boys. Twenty years later he said about this Home: “It had no capital; it was opened in defiance of all the rules of worldly prudence. It had not a penny in the bank, nor the prospect of a shilling.”

Soon an incident occurred which was to transform the whole of his work. One young waif, John Somers, known as “Carrots,” pleaded to be admitted into the Home which was then full, and Barnardo promised that he would take him in in a week’s time. A day before he was due to be admitted Carrots was found dead in Billingsgate Market, and the verdict of the Coroner’s inquest was: “Death from exhaustion, the result of frequent exposure and want of food.” The tragedy made Barnardo take a decision which was to be revolutionary. He felt a sense of responsibility for the boy’s death and was determined that such a thing should not occur again; so over the door of Stepney Causeway he fixed a bold sign: “NO DESTITUTE CHILD EVER REFUSED ADMISSION.” Such an action tells us much about the man. It is more eloquent than any panegyric. It reveals his character and enables us to see something of his dynamic energy and vision, his profound faith in the sufficiency of God to provide. This is courage of the noblest kind which cannot be thwarted by circumstances or lack of material resources.

1) A. E. Williams, Barnardo of Stepney, p. 53.



>>Chapter 4: The Evangelist & Children's Friend




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