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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


Social Pioneer

The building up of the Homes does not exhaust the creative social schemes of this truly great man. In all kinds of ways he pioneered, and others following the lead he gave developed his ideas.

At the beginning of his life we find him devoting all his energies to the work of the Ragged Schools, one of the forerunners of State education. And Barnardo speaking of their work in 1893 said: “The Ragged School Union has contained within it the germ which has led to the establishment of most of those useful and beneficial agencies now labouring on behalf of neglected children.” He continued: “My own rescue work . . . sprang out of the Ragged School.” (1)  He began a new Ragged School in Copperfield Road, Limehouse, and also formed there a Free Day School. In these days of school-feeding it is interesting to know that it was Barnardo who was the first to introduce free meals for children, both breakfast and dinner.

He was anxious to do something for adolescent boys who were too old to enter his homes. Accordingly, in 1881 he opened a Youth’s Labour House where those who proved themselves worthy of assistance were helped to find employment. One of the major social problems was the number of young people who lived in common lodging houses in an atmosphere which bred disease and promoted vice. Barnardo opened two shelters for such children, where mothers with children were also allowed to stay.

One of his greatest social experiments was the Medical Mission, which he set up in the East End, where free medical assistance was provided for the sick who were unable to afford treatment. Linked with this was the “First-Aid to Starving Infants” which set out to give instant aid to starving and destitute women and children. In his Report Something Attempted, Something Done—he writes about the work of the East End Mission: “It comprises, too, agencies for visiting the sick, the aged and the fallen; for relieving and nursing the sick, both at a Medical Mission, and in their own households; . . . for distributing clothing of various kinds, boots, etc. ; for supplying necessitous mothers with bedding and other articles during childbirth; for sending the convalescent poor to seaside or country homes; for paying rents for the aged and infirm; for redeeming from pawn tools or implements needed to obtain work; for enabling persons out of work, particularly girls, to obtain situations; for helping poor women in their struggle with starvation by loans of sewing machines, mangles, etc. ; and in general, for many like methods of systematic and carefully applied relief, designed to raise the fallen, to cheer the faint, and infuse fresh courage into the discouraged warriors in the grim battle of life.” And all this in the nineteenth century. He was a man much ahead of his generation. Some of the reforms which in his time appeared quite startling and revolutionary have since become part of our national social service.

Among other activities, he opened in 1871 in North Street, Limehouse, a Tract and Pure Literature Depot, and in a positive way attempted to provide suitable literature for those who were able to read. Perhaps one of his most enlightened schemes was his boarding-out system inaugurated in 1866. He realized that probably the best way of caring for the children would be to board them out in carefully selected Christian families where they would take a real part in the family life. He had all these children very carefully supervized by trained nurses under the direction of a qualified woman doctor, and the system worked exceedingly well. “The results were so completely satisfactory that he was able confidently to affirm that of all methods of training his children none was so advantageous, economical and successful as boarding-out.” (2)

Barnardo often had to criticize the Poor Law Institutions of his day for the way in which they dealt with boys and girls in their charge. Ultimately the Government, partly as a result of his criticisms, set up a Committee under the Chairmanship of the Rt. Hon. Anthony John Mundella to enquire into the whole system “and to advise as to any changes that may be desirable.” They inspected both Poor Law Institutions and those run by voluntary organizations. It is interesting to record a speech of the Chairman: “I came to the opinion, which was shared, I think, by all my colleagues, that we could wish that in the Local Government Board there was a department for the ‘Children of the State,’ and that we had a Dr. Barnardo to place at the head of them.” And the greatest compliment that could be paid to his social and pioneer work was paid to him by Mr. Mundella when he said: “Most of the reforms that the Committee has recommended, Dr. Barnardo has anticipated and put into practice in the administration of his Institution. We owe him much for what he has done. I think we owe him more for the example he has set us of how to do it.” (3)

Quite early in his work Dr. Barnardo realized the great advantage of emigration, and since 1882 some thirty-one thousand children have been migrated to Canada and Australia. The pioneers of child-emigration were Miss Annie McPherson and Miss Rye, and Barnardo sent out some of his children under their care and supervision. His own first organized party left Liverpool on August 10th, 1882, and consisted of fifty-one boys. The following year another hundred boys and seventy-two girls landed in Canada, and four centres were opened including a Training Farm for the older boys at Russell, Ontario. He was extremely careful in selecting those who were to emigrate. Only those who were healthy, physically and mentally, and who had been trained efficiently were permitted to go abroad. Moreover, great care was taken to supervise the young people and to see that they went to Christian homes, and came under the right kind of influence.

1) Bready, Lord Shaftsbury and Social-Industrial Progress, p. 166.

2) Williams, op. cit., p.123.

3) J. W. Bready, op. cit., p. 179.



>>Chapter 6: Eventide (to be added)




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