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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


Introduction, Birth & Childhood

In the Dictionary of National Biography Dr. Thomas John Barnardo is described as a philanthropist. Perhaps it echoes some of the words in a message of condolence sent by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to Mrs. Barnardo, after the death of her husband, referring to him as “that great philanthropist.” But we shall never appreciate the significance of his achievements, nor shall we understand fully his motives, if we are content to appraise him merely as a philanthropist. He was this and far more; indeed, he was one of the outstanding social Reformers and Pioneers of our country. But pre-eminently he was a man of God. This, and this alone, explains his life, his purpose, his mission, his achievements. Barnardo, the “Father of Nobody’s Children,” fulfilled in his life the parable of the Good Samaritan; and if he had been asked, Who is thy neighbour? he would have replied that, for him, it was the destitute, unwanted, unloved, exploited children of the mean streets of our land. Through his activity a stream of healing was released in our country. His life-work cannot be assessed by statistics, impressive even though they be, for he started a movement which can end only when the children of the world are free from the attendant evils of neglect, selfishness, poverty and misfortune. His work goes on and his influence continues in the happy home life of his children who have made good, and who have handed on his ideals to their own families and to the community in which they live.

Thomas Barnardo was born in Dublin on July 4th, 1845. He was the son of John Michaelis Barnardo who, born in Hamburg, settled down in Dublin as a wholesale furrier and became a naturalized British subject. His father’s family was Spanish in origin, but they left Spain for Germany in the eighteenth century on account of religious persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. It is not fanciful to trace the roots of Barnardo’s strong Evangelical and Protestant beliefs to this inherited background, for such a tradition must have left its influence upon the thinking and emotional life of his forbears. His mother was the daughter of Andrew Drinkwater, who belonged to an old English Quaker family which had settled in Ireland. She was a woman of strong religious convictions and she had a deep influence upon her children. We see something of her influence in a letter she wrote to her son Thomas during his student days: “Do you rise betimes so as to secure the first hour, or if possible two hours, for holy silent communion with God before the admission of the world?

“Without this the soul must wither. The soul in health will always find that the happiest time, when perfectly alone with God. Do you cultivate like-mindedness to Jesus? and study the Word, not so much to see what you shall say to others as to follow and to obey what God says to you? ... You are one of those who should work for Jesus; do it faithfully for His sake—not for your sake—for the sake of those precious souls who gather round you Sunday after Sunday.”1 By her own example, faithfulness and teaching she helped to prepare the way for her son’s conversion.

His childhood days were spent in Dublin. He was a weak child but developed into a sturdy youth. His brother, the late Dr. Frederick Barnardo, has left us a vivid picture of this period: “He never was one of those very ‘goody-goody boys’... He was full of fun and mischief, thoughtless and careless. Do not suppose that he was born a saint and always a saint. He gave a good deal of trouble at home, and he had a very strong and determined self-will.... He was full of the exuberance of life, and got as much enjoyment out of it as he could for one of his years.... At his first school, which was kept by the Rev. Mr. Andrews, he gave no end of trouble to his teachers, and subsequently, when at the Rev. J. Dundas’s school, he was no better.”

As a baby he was baptized in St. Andrew’s Church, Dublin, where his father held office. Here he attended Sunday School and was confirmed at the age of fifteen by the Archbishop of Dublin. But it does not appear to have meant much to him, for his religious observances at this time were formal and conventional. Indeed, he claimed to be an agnostic and was much influenced by the writings of Rousseau, Voltaire and Thomas Paine. On leaving school at the age of sixteen he became a clerk in a wine merchant’s office, and the business experience he acquired there was to stand him in good stead during his later years.


1) The complete letter is contained in Barnardo and Marchant, Memoirs of the Late Dr. Barnardo, pp. 45-6.


>>Chapter 2: Conversion




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