This edited article about Dr Barnardo originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 669 published on 9 November 1974.
It was the largest and most infamous gin palace in the East End of London. Its name was the Edinburgh Castle, but Thomas Barnardo called it the Citadel of the Enemy, and he decided, in the summer of 1872, that he would storm this citadel of evil with one full-scale attack on its notorious trade.
But Barnardo had no army, no weapons, and no bombs. Instead, he would use words to win his battle. He bought a large tent and planted it on a piece of bare land in front of the gin palace. Then, with his two friends, Joshua and Mary Poole, Barnardo began to try to lure the gin drinkers from their favourite nightly haunt. Joshua was a fine violin player and the sound of his music encouraged one or two people to enter the tent on the first night. Within a few weeks, though, the number had grown beyond even Barnardo’s highest expectations.
“The scenes we are permitted to witness nightly,” he later wrote, “are such as I never remember beholding during any previous period of my spiritual life. Last Lord’s Day evening 25 hundred persons crowded to hear the word of life, and for hours afterwards we were occupied in dealing with anxious souls . . . .”
By the autumn of the same year 4,000 habitual drinkers had sworn never to drink again, and the Edinburgh Castle, and other public houses in the area, had lost their most valuable customers. In October the Citadel itself fell. It had been forced to close down and was now up for sale.
Barnardo decided at once that he would convert the house of evil into a house of God. With money given in response to his appeals, he was able to buy the building and had soon established it as a Mission Church. But this, he thought, was not enough. With his deep understanding of human nature, Barnardo realised that if he was going to stop people from enjoying their evening drinks, he should provide them with an alternative way of spending a few hours away from their sordid, miserable dwellings. So he decided to make the Gin Palace a Coffee Palace. He turned it into a bright, cheerful, welcoming place where people could buy a cup of coffee, a good, wholesome meal for a few pennies, read newspapers, play draughts in the games room, or simply have a chat with their friends. It was a brilliant idea and from the day of its opening, the Castle, as it was now called, attracted thousands of hardened drinkers through its doors. Barnardo had proved that it was not the gin which drew men and women into the public houses. They simply wanted somewhere to go where they could escape from the harsh reality of their homes.
The Castle became a vast social centre with Mothers’ Meetings, Penny Savings Banks, Singing Classes, a Flower Mission, a Maternity Society, Sick Benefit Clubs for working men as well as Bible Classes, prayer meetings, and educational lectures. By stopping parents from ruining their own lives, Barnardo was indirectly preventing destitution for their children.
It was in 1872 that another important event took place. At about the hour of twelve on a bitterly cold winter’s night, a little girl knocked timidly on the door of the Boy’s Home in Stepney, and asked: “Please, do you take in little gals?” And so, starved to the bone, covered in bruises and cuts, and shivering with cold, little Martha became Barnardo’s first girl waif.
“No further incidents,” the Doctor wrote, “were necessary to show me how urgent was the need for opening a Home for Girls. It pressed upon me day by day, until I had neither rest nor comfort until I had put my hand to work.” He soon found a good home for Martha but it was not until the following year, with the help and encouragement of his new bride, Syrie Elmslie, that Barnardo found the courage to carry out his plan. They converted a coach house into the first Home for Girls, and within twelve months it was full. But Barnardo soon realised that the regimental system he had used in his Boy’s Home was far from satisfactory when used with girls. He decided to build a village of cottages in which girls of all ages could live as a family in care of a wisely-chosen “mother.”
A vast sum of money was needed for the venture so Barnardo, once again, put his faith in “prayer and appeal” and in the summer of 1875 the new Village for Girls in Ilford had been built. It was another of Barnardo’s wonderful ideas which worked with such happy results. By 1879 the Village had spread to over thirty acres with accommodation for 440 girls.
The Village Home was opened exactly ten years after the outbreak of cholera in London’s East End. During those ten years Barnardo had accomplished what most men would have taken a lifetime to achieve. He had fought his campaign among the slums of London with spectacular success. He had rescued thousands of children from intense suffering, set up permanent homes for them, and was giving them an education which would set them up in life with good jobs. And by saving thousands of adults from the evils of alcoholism, he had prevented thousands more children from a life of roaming the streets.
But even these staggering achievements were not enough for Thomas Barnardo. During the next thirty years he was to achieve even greater success in his fight for children in need.
This article and image(s) are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.