-These are the stated aims of Barnardo’s, the largest children’s charity in the United Kingdom. Originally set up by Dr. Thomas James Barnardo as a chain of “Ragged Schools” and orphanages in the nineteenth century. Since then it has become an international organisation, championing the welfare of children the world over. Barnardo’s no longer runs orphanages, believing a family atmosphere to be important in a child’s development, but continues to work, organising counselling and adoption for disadvantaged, bereaved or orphaned children.



Thomas James Barnardo was born in Dublin in 1845 to an English mother and a Spanish father. At age two he fell ill and was pronounced dead by two doctors. But, before the undertaker could place his body in the casket, Thomas stirred. Over the next few months he slowly regained health and became a very hardy young man, said to be near impervious to illness. However, later in his life he hinted that his childhood was not a happy one and it is speculated that his parents were abusive. At school he was seen as an argumentative trouble maker although teachers did praise his eloquence. Failing to pass any exams he became a clerk and apprentice a wine merchant.

In 1862 at the age of seventeen he converted to evangelical Protestantism and becoming a member of the Dublin YMCA travelled around the city’s slums, where he would spend hours preaching and evangelising to the destitute children he found there. He attributed his actions at this time to (Job 29:12, 15-16). "I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him. . . . I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy." This biblical verse is said to have influenced him greatly throughout his life.

Although Barnardo could see the poverty of Dubliners was extreme, he felt his real calling was that of a medical missionary. He dreamt of travelling to China to heal the sick and preach the word of God. To this end he moved to London in 1866 and studied to become a doctor at Edinburgh Royal College of Surgeons. During this time, he trained for his mission under J. Hudson Taylor, a veteran of missionary work and the founder of the China Inland Mission.

Barnardo had been in London only a few months when a cholera epidemic struck the Broad Street area in the East End. Overcrowding had lead to many households sharing one infected pump, and, not knowing the source of the disease, the death toll was rising. Feeling the need to help, Barnardo signed up for a rescue mission in the East End, helping those who’s families had been devastated by the illness. As part of the mission, Barnardo set up his first Ragged School, aimed at providing cheap education for impoverished children. It was at this point that he met Jim Jarvis.

As he was closing up the school for the night, Barnardo discovered a young boy trying to sleep in he doorway. The boy, dressed only in rags, told Barnardo his name and begged to be allowed to sleep in the school. Concerned, Barnardo asked Jim where he had slept the night before; the boy told the young doctor that he had been living with other children in a coal bin. At this point Barnardo realised that the poor Londoners also had a need for a mission, possibly more than the Chinese. Persuading Jim to take him to the other children, Barnardo was led through the dark streets of the city and through a hole in a factory wall. Inside he found thirteen young boys asleep under rags. Barnardo and Jim woke them up and took them back to the school.

At the next missionary conference, Barnardo gave a passionate speech in which he told the gathered missionaries about the plight of the poor children of London. By a stroke of luck one of the audience members was Lord Shaftesbury, and, feeling overcome by Barnardo’s words, agreed to raise enough money to help the city’s children. Through his efforts, the banker, Robert Barklay agreed to join the cause and, in 1870, Stepney Boys’ Home opened.

National Incorporated Association for the Reclamation of Destitute Waif Children otherwise known as Dr. Barnardo Homes

The home Barnardo had set up was in a small rented house. Concerned about overcrowding, he initially turned away children when every bed had been filled, advising them to return the following night. This changed when, after only a few months, a ginger-haired boy nicknamed Carrots (his real name was John Somers) arrived at the home late at night. The home was full and Barnardo insisted the boy leave. Carrots never returned. A few days later Barnardo found the boy’s body, he had died from exposure and malnutrition. Distraught, Barnardo had a sign made for the shelter:

No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission."

As time passed, word of Barnardo’s shelter spread across the city and within a few months, there were many hundreds of children all needing shelter. Attempting to keep up with demand, over the next seven years, Barnardo raised enough money to set up another eleven homes for boys. These also ran as employment agencies, since Barnardo believed in giving each boy a chance to make his own way in the world.

In 1872, Barnardo got married to Syrie Louise Elmslie, a woman he had met when she asked him to come and give a speech in Richmond. One upshot of this was that he was given a fifteen year lease on Mossford Lodge as a wedding present. Barnardo seized the opportunity, and in 1873, twelve destitute girls moved in. Later that year, Barnardo had the coach house converted into a separate residence for them. 1872 also saw the publication of his autobiography, “How it all Happened.”

Barnardo continued to set up homes and hostels, and in 1874 had a photographic department built in the original Stepney home. From then on, all children staying at Barnardo’s homes would have their photographs taken, once when they entered the home for the first time, and again, a few months later when they had been acclimatised and educated. This produced a before and after effect that intrigued the public and as a way of making money, Barnardo would put these photographs onto cards and sell them at a rate of twenty for five shillings or on their own for a sixpence each. (The photographs, now numbering more than half a million, are still archived by the charity and more specific information can be found here.) It was at this point that he officially set up the National Incorporated Association for the Reclamation of Destitute Waif Children otherwise known as Dr. Barnardo Homes.

In 1878, with fifty schools and homes in London, Barnardo completed another project “The Village Home for Girls.” The village was constructed on Barnardo’s orders and included schools, houses a laundry and even a church for one thousand girls. The village was opened by Lord Cairns the Lord Chancellor.

Within the homes, Barnardo sought to teach children skills that would allow them to adopt a profession when they left. To this end girls learned domestic homemaking skills with a view to them getting either good husbands or jobs as maids. Boys learned crafts such as carpentry, shoemaking, hairdressing, tailoring or mechanics, with a view to them getting apprenticeships when they left.

In 1886, Barnardo pioneered a new system for caring for children, he, unlike much of Victorian England, believed that families were the best way for a child to be brought up. He introduced the first fostering scheme in the world in which a child would be sent to live with a respectable family in Canada. However, it must be noted that although it was an admirable scheme, there were many tales of children being abused by the families they were sent to live with, and of the trauma induced by the change of environments. To his credit, Barnardo did attempt to combat this. He drew up contracts for the families to sign, the contracts stated that they must promise:

  1. To bring up the said child carefully, kindly and in all respects as one of my family.
  2. To provide the said child with proper food, clothing, washing, lodging and school fees.
  3. To endeavour to train the said child in habits of truthfulness, obedience, personal cleanliness and industry.
  4. To take care that the said child shall attend duly at church or chapel, and shall be taught the habit of daily prayer.
  5. To take care that the said child, when of suitable age, shall attend regularly at a public elementary school.
  6. To communicate with the lady and gentleman who has charge of the children in the district upon all matters affecting the welfare of the said child; and in the case of... illness to report it immediately ... and if necessary at once to call in the assistance of a medical man.
  7. To forward to the Director for inspection all letters which may be received from relatives or friends of the said child, before allowing the same to be opened... and not to enter into any correspondence myself with any person who may claim relationship.
  8. At all times, to permit the said child to be visited by any person appointed by the Director and to permit not visit from relatives or friends of the child without the Director's authorization.
  9. To restore the said child to any person sent by the Director to receive it, on getting one fortnight's notice of removal or equivalent payment.

Anther initiative that Barnardo began was the “young helpers league.” This was a group of more fortunate children that pledged to help Barnardo’s cause by donating money. By the time Barnardo died in 1905 their ranks had swelled to more than thirty thousand had raised over three million pounds, at the time an unheard of sum. This was the first instance of mass charitable donation. However, in spite of this income, in 1905, Barnardo was still in debt to a total of nearly a quarter of a million pounds.

Barnardo died in 1905 at the age of sixty. During his life he had founded nearly one hundred homes, and was helping eighty five hundred children. Unfortunately the strict Victorian Morals that Barnardo had believed in seriously affected the homes. Before adoption placements could be found, hundreds of children had to live together in the same building. Depending on the home, this could result in the home feeling like a true family, but in others, where moral welfare was emphasised over the emotional; bullying, abuse and loneliness could be rife. However, that was only the beginning for the charity.

Barnardo’s Children’s Charity

For the next forty years, Dr Barnardo’s Homes, as the charity was now called, continued to carry on in much the same vein. Throughout the First World War, the charity ran a program helping children whose fathers had been killed in battle. Following the First World War, the boom of the nineteen twenties lead to less destitution, although, of course it was still a large social problem. But after the stock-market crash, many families found themselves unable to look after their own children and Barnardo’s adopted a policy of rescuing children from their family’s poor conditions and deporting them to Australia, a country that was not as badly hit by the economic crisis as the rest of the world.

With the coming of the Second World War, many children were evacuated to the countryside. For the first time, Barnardo’s was able to research the effects that separating children from their families had. This research gave rise to the 1946 Curtis Report on the Care of Deprived Children, which stipulated that, the practice of removing children from their families and institutionalising them was unnecessarily cruel. It also recognised that children were important to the future of the Britain and claimed that is should be the responsibility of the nation to look after their well-being. This act was directly responsible for the 1948 children’s act, which made it legally the case that children’s lives were the responsibility of the authorities. This lead to the ceasing of the deportation of children and refocusing on trying to keep families together and to provide children with as normal a home life as possible.

Throughout the nineteen fifties Barnardo’s restructured itself. Where previously, the moral and physical well-being had been placed above a child’s emotional well-being, children were now encouraged to tell the charity what would make them happy. Families were also involved; Barnardo’s would give grants to families in which the parents’ income was not enough to support their children and would even attempt to find the parents’ employment. However, Barnardo’s still ran children’s homes for Orphans or those who’s parents were not deemed fit to raise children.

The charity continued to change throughout the sixties and seventies. As a result of the government awarding low-income families social security, and the rising trend for single mothers to be able to work to support their offspring, the number of children that needed to be housed was decreasing rapidly. With yet more research showing that it was unhealthy and unpleasant for children to continue living in institutions, the charity made the decision to start actively closing down orphanages and children’s homes. In nineteen sixty-six, the charity changed it’s name from “Dr Barnardo’s” to “Dr Barnardo’s Homes.” During the nineteen seventies, Barnardo’s was quickly closing down its homes, converting them into specialist units that would offer advice and support to families and keep track of those children in the charity’s care. Due to the closing of the institutions, Barnardo’s needed to send the children who lived in them somewhere. Research carried out suggested that children who were adopted by couples unable to have children were often happier than those restored to their own families; because of this, Barnardo’s began focussing on its fostering and adoption schemes and used them to give ex-institutionalised children a proper family life.

In the nineteen eighties, the charity continued the work it started in the sixties and also began a program to help children effected the newly discovered HIV. In 1988, Barnardo’s dropped the “Dr” from it’s name and, with its adoption program up and running, its homes closing and money pouring in, by the time the last Victorian style home closed in 1989, Barnardo’s was helping over ninety thousand children a year. Barnardo’s continued this work through the nineties and into this millennium. Since it began, Barnardo’s has helped about half a million children, and continues to help more than one hundred thousand each year.

Barnardo’s Investigated

During the nineteen nineties, Barnardo’s was investigated after it was alleged that children growing up in their homes between the eighteen seventies and the nineteen eighties had been abused by carers who were not concerned bout the children’s emotional well being. Many of the allegations were found to be true, and Barnardo’s now states that this was not a period in their history that they are proud of.

One of the most serious allegations to come to light was an accusation made in 1924 by Harold Venell; he alleged that while he had become a Barnardo’s boy at the age of seven due to his mother no longer being able to care for him, many of the children he met when he was deported to Canada had been kidnapped by the charity. In the course of the investigation, letters and diaries from Dr. Barnardo were found and within them he told of how he himself had taken the decision to remove a child from their home despite their parent’s wishes. This, though serious in itself, became more so when it emerged that Dr. Barnardo’s decision was often based more on his own somewhat extreme religious beliefs than whether or not the child had actually been unhappy.

Further to this, Mr. Venell told of how, when in Canada, he had been forced to work an eighteen hour day and has been fed mostly on gruel, and other thin stews. He told of how the schooling given to the children in many homes was minimal and of how many children were beaten up, sexually abused and psychologically tortured sometimes being kept in dark rooms for days or weeks at a time for misbehaviour.

Barnardo’s pleads guilty to most of the charges, and has apologised. It has also agreed to pay compensation to children abused in its homes between the eighteen seventies and nineteen eighties. It was also during these investigations that it became apparent that Thomas Barnardo was not a real doctor and had conferred the title upon himself. Although in reality, this is a minor offence, some feel that this may reveal how dishonest the man really was and there are still calls for Barnardo’s past to be fully investigated.

More recently, Barnardo’s has been attacked for its use of extreme imagery in its campaigns. One campaign launched in November 2003 depicts babies with cockroaches emerging from their mouths, or clutching needles as if they are teddy bears. The effect of these images shocked many people into donating to the charity, but they also gave rise to a flurry of complaints from people who found the images to be offensive. ASA, the regulator in such issues, banned the use of these images, but Barnardo’s is still standing by the campaign and is petitioning to be allowed to continue it. In a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper a spokesperson said:

"We had to find a way of cutting through the apathy and this disbelief and demonstrate how being born into poverty stacks the cards of life against you. Yes, we have scared a few horses but we would do so again in the fight to support the most vulnerable children in our society,"


Barnardo’s, currently chaired by Cherrie Booth QC, has done a lot of good work over the past century towards helping impoverished children. Although allegations have been raised against them, the charity has apologised and asserts that the vast majority of the children it has helped over the years benefited greatly from their experience with Barnardo’s. Currently helping roughly one hundred thousand children across the Commonwealth, the charity has put it’s less favourable past behind it and is one of the world’s most vocal advocates of children’s rights.



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