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Thomas John Barnardo (‘the doctor’) and his work with children and young people

Thomas John Barnardo (‘the doctor’). Dr. Thomas John Barnardo was what we might now call an extraordinary ‘social entrepreneur’. But who was he and what did he achieve? He was well known for his homes and training schemes, but what was his contribution to the development of youth work and social work practice?

Thomas John Barnardo (1845-1905) is a classic Victorian figure – evangelical, entrepreneurial and philanthropic. His crusade to ‘rescue children from the streets’ was one of the best known social interventions in the last half of the nineteenth century. As Williams (1953: vii) has put it:

In the short space of forty years, starting without patronage or influence of any kind, this man had raised the sum of three and a quarter million pounds sterling, established a network of Homes of various kinds such as never existed before for the reception, care and training of homeless, needy and afflicted children, and had rescued no fewer than sixty thousand destitute boys and girls.

But who was Dr Barnardo, what did he achieve in his work with children and young people,, and what is his continuing significance?

Thomas Barnardo – life

Born in Dublin in 1845, the son of a furrier, Thomas John Barnardo’s childhood is somewhat blurred. As Rose (1987: 17) reports, as his fame grew, ‘so did the anecdotes and legends about him until they became folklore’. She continues, ‘much of the early history of his life and of the homes he wrote himself, but where his father’s family came from and how he spent his first years in London remains uncertain’. There are hints that his childhood was stormy and far from happy (ibid.: 20). His schooling included Sunday school, parish day school and St Patricks Cathedral Grammar School, Dublin. Thomas (Tom) appears to have had an independent spirit, reading radical writers like Rousseau and Tom Paine. He was seen as a troublemaker (becoming bored quickly with lessons) and was eloquent and argumentative. Tom Barnardo did not pass his public examinations and at the age of 16 was apprenticed to a wine merchant.

Approaching his seventeenth birthday Thomas Barnardo experienced ‘conversion’ (on May 26, 1862). He became a strongly evangelical Christian ‘impatient to convert others, urgent for action’ (Rose 1987: 24). Barnardo began teaching Bible classes in a Dublin ragged school and became involved in home visiting. His mother and brothers were already members of the Plymouth Brethren – which Barnardo also joined. He also became a member of the Dublin YMCA – and often gave talks there. His commitment to social work strengthened – and on hearing Hudson Taylor speaking in Dublin about the work of the Inland China Mission, Barnardo believed his future lay in such work. The Brethren provided him with a small allowance, and the plan was to first study medicine at the London Hospital (friends from Dublin YMCA gave him an introduction).

Thomas Barnardo settled close to the hospital in east London (his first lodgings were at 30 Coburn Street, Stepney) in 1866 – although he does not appear to have begun his studies until 1867 (Wagner 1979). He appears to have thrown himself into missionary work in the East End visiting beerhouses, penny gaffs (little theatres), and homes – offering cheap Bibles and the word of Jesus. More than once he was attacked (suffering two broken ribs on one occasion). He also became involved in the Ernest Street ragged school (off Mile End Road) – and appears to have been a charismatic and engaging teacher. One of the stories associated with this period was of Barnardo’s first encounters with the ‘lays’ around Petticoat Lane where children slept. Thomas Barnardo frequently talked about this night, when he was taken by Jim Jarvis, a local lad, after a ragged school to visit the area (see Williams 1953: 54-7 for an account). What Jarvis told Barnardo about his life and the experiences of the other children had a profound effect. One of his first steps was to set up a ragged school (see below).

Thomas Barnardo became increasingly torn between his work in east London and his preparation for medical missionary work in China – and wrote about it. As a result, he was offered a significant sum of money to continue his evangelical and children’s work in east London. The East End Juvenile Mission was established and in 1870 he started his first ‘home’ in a rented house in Stepney Causeway (see below). Work converting the building had to be halted temporarily when he ran out of money, but Thomas Barnardo again made use of his Evangelical networks to get practical help and financial support. (His network, by now, included Lord Shaftesbury who was particularly impressed with his work, and Robert Barclay, the banker). He also began to see the urgent need for a home for girls – they were, for example, presenting themselves at the new boys home as in need of accommodation and support (see, for example, Williams 1953: 93-4).

His medical studies had begun to suffer and there was some disquiet among his fellow students about his religious zeal (Williams 1953: 69; 108) (It wasn’t until 1876 that he resumed his studies and then sat his final examinations in Edinburgh. He registered as a medical practitioner in London, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh in 1880). Thomas Barnardo had begun to earn a small income from his writing and from preaching. His evangelical efforts also started to be on a large scale. In the summer of 1872 he set up a huge tent (able to seat 3000) outside the Edinburgh Castle public house – and reportedly some 200 people a night would profess conversion. Attendances at the tent affected the numbers using the public house and it was put for sale. Worried that it would re-open as a music hall, and concerned with the impact of drinking upon family life and children’s well-being, Thomas Barnardo set about raising money for the house – and was able to open it as a coffee palace and People’s Mission Church. It was to become a significant centre for evangelicalism – with revivalists such as D. L. Moody preaching there.

In the space of seven years or so, and still not thirty, Thomas Barnardo had exploded onto the philanthropic and evangelical scene. He had established a ragged school, a home (and employment agency), and a mission church. He had acquired more than a dozen properties in east London – and even bought up a children’s magazine. The first account of these developments How it All Happened, written by Thomas Barnardo, was published in 1872. A year later he married (Syrie Louise Elmslie – they had met when she had invited him to speak at a meeting in Richmond) and was given the lease on Mossford Lodge, Barkingside for fifteen years as a wedding present. Like Barnardo, Syrie shared a commitment to evangelicalism and philanthropic work – and he saw he now had the opportunity to open a home for girls. They went to live at Mossford Lodge and in October 1873 12 girls came to live in a converted coach house next to the Lodge.

For the rest of this article please can I refer you to the link below

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2002, 2020). ‘Thomas John Barnardo (‘the Doctor’)’ and work with children and young people, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 2002, 2020

Last Updated on May 14, 2020 by

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