Almost everyone has heard of the name ‘Doctor Barnardo’, yet very few people actually know a great deal about the man and his work. Most people are aware of his involvement with the ‘Ragged Schools’ starting with his first in Hope Place, Limehouse in the East End of London.
Thomas Barnardo was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1845, the son of John Barnardo, and his wife, Abigail. He was one of 5 children (sadly one sibling died during childbirth). A devoutly religious man, and a member of the Plymouth Brethren, it was the young Thomas Barnardo’s initial wish to devote himself to evangelical Christian work in China.
With the help of his friends in Dublin he registered as a medical student in the prestigious London Hospital, and moved to the East End of London in 1866, settling into lodgings at 30 Coburn Street, Stepney – although he does not appear to have begun his studies until 1867.
Whilst he may have studied at the London Hospital, he never actually completed the course to earn his doctorate there. (Although he was widely and universally known as ‘Doctor’ Barnardo throughout his life, he never actually qualified as a doctor until he completed his studies and became a Licentiate and Fellow of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh on 31st March 1876).
A few short months after he arrived in Stepney, an outbreak of cholera swept through the East End, which killed over three thousand people, and which left most families destitute and fragmented. At that time, London was a capital city that was struggling to cope with the effects of the Industrial Revolution. The population had increased by a huge amount and much of this increase was concentrated in the East End, where overcrowding, bad housing, unemployment, poverty and disease were already well established. Thousands of children ended up having to sleep on the streets and many others were forced to beg after being maimed in factories. (see The Match Girls)
Appalled by the situation Barnardo set up a Mission in Hope Place, Stepney, where poor children could get a basic education. On one particular occasion a young boy at the Mission, named Jim Jarvis, recounted a tale that Barnardo subsequently recorded in his book ‘Night and Day’…
One evening, the attendants at the Ragged School had met as usual, and at about half past nine o’clock, were separating to their homes. A little lad, whom we had noticed listening very attentively during the evening, was amongst the last to leave, and his steps were slow and unwilling.
‘Come, my lad, had you better get home? It’s very late. Mother will be coming for you.’
‘Please sir, let me stop! Please let me stay. I won’t do no harm’.
‘Your mother will wonder what kept you so late.’
‘I ain’t got no mother.’
‘Haven’t got a mother, boy? Where do you live?’
‘Don’t live nowhere.’
‘Well, but where did you sleep last night?’
‘Down in Whitechapel, sir, along the Haymarket in one of them carts as is filled with hay; and I met a chap and he telled me to come here to school, as perhaps you’d let me lie near the fire all night.’
Jim Jarvis took Thomas Barnardo around the Petticoat Lane area of the East End showing him children sleeping on roofs and in gutters. The experience affected Barnardo so deeply, that he decided to devote himself to helping destitute children.
He regularly went on forays into the slum district to find destitute boys, and was attacked and beaten on a number of occasions, suffering two broken ribs on one visit. Finally, in 1870, Barnardo opened his first ‘Ragged School for Boys’ at 18 Stepney Causeway, in the East End. Spaces in the school were limited, and on one evening, an 11-year old boy, named John Somers (who was nicknamed ‘Carrots’) was turned away because the shelter was full. He was found dead two days later from malnutrition and exposure. Barnardo was appalled and from then on the boys’ home bore a sign reading – ‘No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission’.
Eventually, Doctor Barnardo bought up a dozen properties in and around the East End, together with his Girls’ Village Home in Barkingside, which comprised a collection of cottages around a green housing 1,500 girls.
By the time a child left Barnardo’s they were able to make their own way in the world – the girls had been equipped with domestic skills and the boys had been taught a craft or trade.
As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Thomas Barnardo’s health was ailing as his workload began to take its toll. It became apparent that he had some sort of heart complaint – and he was instructed to take a period of absolute rest. However, he felt that he still had so much to do, and began working again at the same pace as before. By 1903, Barnardo was in significant difficulties and despite a number of periods of convalescence he died on 19th September, 1905
From the foundation of the first Barnardo’s home in 1870 to the date of Barnardo’s death, nearly 100,000 children had been rescued, trained and given a better life.
Much of Barnardo’s work and an example of just what a Ragged (or Free) school was like can be experienced by visiting the Ragged School Museum – housed in three canalside properties in Copperfield Road, E3.