Thomas Barnardo

Well-to-do Victorians considered it their Christian duty to improve the lives of the less fortunate, and were receptive to supporting the work of social reformers like Thomas Barnardo, who ministered to orphaned and abandoned children like Hetty and Pip. The Dublin-born Barnardo went to London in 1866 with the intention of becoming a medical missionary, but soon decided his destiny did not lie with the poor of foreign lands. It lay with the poor of England, specifically, the children. One of his first attempts to lift them out of poverty was through teaching at one of the ragged schools providing free education. He then established a Woodchopping Brigade and City Messenger Brigade to provide employment for impoverished youths, and, in 1870, opened a Home for Working and Destitute Lads in Stepney Causeway. He also set up a Factory Girls’ Club and offered courses in domestic service for girls who wanted to give up factory work.

A forceful and compelling speaker, Dr. Barnardo stirred the hearts and purses of many. As his influence grew, he was able to fund more and more projects, such as the Girls’ Village in Ilford, the Copperfield Ragged School, the Babies Castle at Hawkhurst, and the fostering out of babies and young children.

His organization was by no means the only one devoted to charitable works aimed at poor children, but it was the most encompassing. A sign outside his Stepney Home said, NO DESTITUTE CHILD EVER REFUSED ADMISSION, and he meant it. His Homes took in children other Homes wouldn’t touch, including non-Caucasians, the children of thieves and drunkards, the children of prostitutes and unmarried mothers, and youngsters who were ill or handicapped.

Barnardo died in 1905. By then he had established ninety-six homes that, between them, cared for over 8,000 children. Another 4,000 were boarded out, and 18, 000 had been placed in Canada and Australia through the child migration programme.


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