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Doctor Barnardo was the first great champion of British children living in poverty

Posted in Historical articles, History, Institutions, London, Medicine, Philanthropy on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about Victorian philanthropy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 470 published on 16 January 1971.

Dr Barnardo, picture, image, illustration

Thomas Barnardo, the Irishman who acted on his conscience

During the 18th and early 19th centuries great changes took place in the way people lived in Britain. These changes were the result of what has become known as the Industrial Revolution. At the beginning of the period most of the goods which people required, their clothes, pottery, furniture, and so on were produced not in factories as they are today, but in the homes of the people themselves. With the coming of iron and steel, and power-driven machines, however, human muscle was not needed. The harnessing of steam brought the spread of railways, and many places which had previously been small villages became large towns. During this period, too, the population increased from about six million to more than twenty million.

The tremendous upsurge in industrial output did not bring with it the kind of prosperity and happiness which the people who had created the wealth might have expected, and some of the new industrial cities were ugly places indeed. While some people grew immensely wealthy, thousands of others lived in conditions of poverty so terrible that it is hard to imagine how they managed to survive at all – in fact many of them did not survive. Lack of food, bad housing and inadequate medical services all took their toll, and many people died at a comparatively early age.

In London, these extremes of wealth and poverty were more marked than in smaller cities. Well-to-do families lived a life of leisured ease in the West End of the capital, with servants to attend to their everyday needs and nurses to care for their children. In London’s East End, life was very different indeed. The 60 years since 1800 had transformed the lower reaches of the River Thames from a peaceful waterway flowing through green countryside, to a bustling shipping highway. Near the huge docks, dingy warehouses sprawled, and ill-lit squalid streets led to slum dwellings which were the homes of thousands of poorly paid workers.

Labourers earned a few shillings a week if they were able to find work, while even skilled craftsmen were little better off. There were periods when unemployment was high and these were days long before any “dole money” was paid. Average families were much larger than they are today and, under such conditions of poverty, children suffered terribly.

Thousands of homeless waifs roamed the streets scavenging for food from rubbish dumps. Few of them had more than a few wretched rags with which to clothe themselves and many were driven to petty crime, stealing food or money to keep themselves alive.

It was into this London of grimy squalor that a young man named Thomas John Barnardo came in the spring of the year 1866. The son of a Dublin businessman, he already had some experience of what poverty could do to human beings, for conditions in Ireland at that time were almost as bad as they were in Victorian England.

Thomas Barnardo was a devout Christian and he had come to London to be trained as a missionary for the Church of England China Inland Mission. He went to live in Stepney in the heart of London’s East End where he lodged with other would-be missionaries and it did not take him long to realise that the living conditions of London’s poor were even worse than those in his native Ireland.

The head of the missionaries for China organisation, Hudson Taylor, persuaded the 21-year-old Barnardo to train as a doctor before going to the Far East. The training would take three years and although Barnardo was disappointed at not going out to China with his fellow missionaries, he agreed to enter the London Hospital in Whitechapel as a medical student. They proved to be three eventful years which were to change the life not only of this determined young evangelist, but which were to bring hope and succour to thousands of deprived children.

In July of 1866 a terrible cholera epidemic struck London. Nearly 4,000 people died from the disease which had been brought to the port by an Asiatic seaman. Together with the other medical students, Barnardo had to go out into the homes of East End workers to try to relieve the suffering of those who had caught the disease.

There was little he could do to help his under-nourished patients, and, in his memoirs, he writes vividly of how he prayed at the bedsides of men, women and children as they lay dying in agony. The experience made a lasting impression on Barnardo, and by travelling round the area and entering the houses of the poor he came to know and understand even better the dreadful conditions in which they existed.

Determined to help where he could, Barnardo began trying to teach Christianity by telling and explaining stories from the Bible to children in a tiny school off the Mile End Road. He had many setbacks, but gradually more and more children came to listen and soon he began to look for larger premises of his own. With the help of two fellow medical students he rented and refurnished an old donkey shed in Hope Place, Stepney, where, to quote his own words, he gathered “a crowd of idle, ill-washed children, on two nights a week and on Sundays . . . 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.”

One evening, just as Barnardo was about to close his Sunday School he noticed a small boy dressed in the usual torn and tattered clothes of his kind. The boy, Jim Jarvis, asked if he could stay by the fire but Barnardo told him he ought to go home to his parents who might wonder where he was.

“I ain’t got no mother, nor father,” said the boy. Further questioning by the kindly Barnardo revealed that Jim Jarvis, although only 10 years old, had not a soul in the world who cared whether he lived or died. He could not remember his father and, when his mother died, he had been placed in a “workhouse.” The menial tasks he had been forced to do in the workhouse made him run away and now he was forced to sleep out-of-doors. He had slept in an old barrel, in the gutter of a roof and under an old tarpaulin in the market. If he were caught by the police, it would mean six months in prison.

Barnardo was appalled by the little lad’s story but there was more that Jim Jarvis had to tell. There were, he said, hundreds of boys like himself with nobody to care for them and who slept in the open in secret hiding places. Wondering if Jim were telling the truth, Barnardo asked him to take him where some of these other children were sleeping. The boy agreed and, pattering along the dark streets in his bare feet, he led Barnardo to a high wall near a shop in Petticoat Lane. The wall led to the roof of the shop and when Barnardo followed the boy up to the coping, there, huddled together for warmth were 11 near-naked children sleeping under the stars.

After that night, Barnardo made a number of other exploratory journeys into the slums with the help of Jim Jarvis. What he found made him resolve that somehow, no matter how long it took him, he would find homes for these helpless waifs.

Later, with the help of such great humanitarians as Lord Shaftesbury and with great perseverance Barnardo, now qualified as a doctor, opened his first boys’ home in Stepney in September, 1870. By the time of his death in 1905. Dr. Barnardo’s Homes had helped 60,000 children and today his successors have built up a charitable organisation that holds out a helping hand to children in need in countries all over the world.

The grinding poverty of the Victorian era has long since disappeared but the memory of Dr. Thomas John Barnardo will live forever in the hearts of countless people who, but for his kindness, might have lived a life of untold suffering.

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