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 Issues | Church History | Thomas J. Barnardo


Great Churchmen (No. 20)

Dr Thomas John Barnardo (1845-1905)

by. E. J. G. Rogers (Vicar of St Catharine's, Wigan)

The Children's Friend

Published by Church Book Room Press


The Evangelist

His experience of the living Christ was the most real thing in Barnardo’s life. Like all true Christians, he wished to share his Master and Saviour with others. His heart was ever aflame to proclaim the glad tidings of the Gospel and to take the message to all who were in need of it.

In Dublin after his conversion he devoted his energies partly to the Ragged Schools and partly to preaching. With his brothers he rented rooms in Aungier Street, where they conducted evangelistic services. Later they worked in the “Liberties” district, a poor area of Dublin, and held meetings in a hall which they had taken. We find him doing the same thing in the East End of London, and indeed he remained an evangelist all his life.

Before the opening of 18 Stepney Causeway, his rescue work had its centre in the East End Juvenile Mission, with its headquarters in Hope Place, and here Barnardo was pastor of the church which he founded. In 1872 he commenced a Tent Mission on ground facing the Edinburgh Castle, “a flaming gin-palace . . . and a music-hall of the most unenviable reputation.” He describes it as a “demoralizing agency of the worst description,” so much so that its influence undermined much of the work he was doing. So amazing, however, were the results of the mission that two public-houses were closed, and the licensee of the Edinburgh Castle, finding that his business was gravely affected, offered the house for sale. Barnardo entered into an agreement to buy the property before it was offered at a public auction, and through the columns of The Revival (the forerunner of The Christian) he appealed for funds to complete the purchase. His faith was justified. Donations and gifts poured in, the last arriving an hour before the time of settlement. The property was invested in trustees, and the Castle became the centre of an active and vigorous evangelism. Barnardo realized that the people of the East End needed social alternatives to the public-house, places where they could meet for social intercourse and companionship. A part of his greatness is seen by the manner in which he grappled with this problem and made a positive contribution towards providing wholesome recreation for people’s leisure. The gin-palace was converted into a Coffee Palace; meals were served, games and newspapers provided, and people were encouraged to meet their friends. The People’s Church, which was the principal feature of the new Edinburgh Castle, was packed every Sunday evening, and Thomas Barnardo, for fifteen years, retained his post as
chief pastor. The “Castle” also became a centre for Bible Classes, Young Persons’ Guilds, and Mothers’ Classes. Barnardo was urged to devote all his energies to preaching and to delegate the work among the children to others, but he could not agree: “I feel my Master has called me and given me as my life-work my children, and for nothing can I desert them.”

Barnardo was a passionate herald of the Kingdom. In his early days as a student when he was then preparing himself for work in China, he wrote: “‘The field is the world.’ True, I was not yet in China, . . .but I was in the field. I could not get out of it. ‘Son, go work this day in My vineyard’ was a Divine Command.” To the end of his life his one desire was to bring “his” boys and girls to Jesus Christ. This was his passion, this was his aim, and he never deflected from this high purpose. In some correspondence which he had with Cardinal Manning, Barnardo wrote: “We prayerfully seek to instil into the minds of our rescued boys and girls, first, a knowledge of God’s holy Word, second, a profound reverence for the teachings of that Word, and third, a personal trust in the Saviour of sinners.” This was truly missionary work, as much missionary work as if he had gone to China. “If the spiritual side of our work were ever to fall into abeyance,” he wrote, “if mere philanthropy were to swallow up Gospel teaching; if Christ’s Name and the power of His Word were to fall into the background, I should feel that my strength had indeed gone, and that this could be my life-work no longer.”

The Children's Friend

On June 17th, 1873, when he was nearly twenty-eight, he married Syrie Louise Elmslie, the only daughter of William Elmslie, a City business man, who resided in Richmond. His marriage was yet another formative influence, for he was fortunate in that his wife shared his devotion to suffering and destitute children. His marriage enabled him to start another branch of the work, a Home for Girls. He had always felt the imperative need for this development, but until his marriage he felt
that he could not make provision for this work. His wife shared his enthusiasm and soon a Home was opened at the back of Mossford Lodge, their own house. On July 9th, 1876, the Girls’ Village Home at Barkingside was opened, and one of Barnardo’s dreams had materialized. The girls were housed in cottages under the care of cottage-mothers and it was here that most of them first experienced the joys of home life.

In everything he did his wife gave him her support and sympathy. She was quite selfless in her devotion, and often saw little of her husband. For seventeen years they lived in East London and during that time Mrs. Barnardo was responsible “for the buying and planning of all the household
requirements of the institutions which her husband established.” (1)

This year 1873 was a great landmark in his career, for apart from its being the year of his marriage, the sum of £20,000 was subscribed to his work. But like any person waging war against ignorance and vice, he was not permitted to advance his cause without encountering difficulties and opposition. A campaign of misrepresentation, slander and abuse threatened to destroy much of his work, and in 1877 Barnardo wrote in his magazine, Night and Day : “In a few brief months the circulation of a dozen idle tales sufficed to dissipate all promise of a full harvest; and even those who had the best reasons for personal appreciation of our work began to fear that they must have been deceived, seeing that so many persons were found to be arrayed against us.” The attack came to a climax by the publication of a booklet, Dr. Barnardo’s Homes: Startling Revelations, which repeated the charges made against him. It was alleged that he was maltreating the children in the Homes, that there was little moral or religious training, while even his moral character was attacked. Barnardo would not institute an action for libel, but the matter was submitted to arbitration. The arbitrators vindicated Barnardo and were agreed that there was no evidence to support the charges made against him. They recommended, however, that a working Committee
should be formed to assist and advise him in his work. Despite the strain and anxiety of this time, he emerged triumphant over those who had done their best to damage his work and reputation. Public confidence was restored, and Earl Cairns, then the Lord Chancellor, offered to become President of the Homes, and a strong committee was formed.

In all this trouble he stands out as a man of God with a strong sense of duty, for he said that if the verdict should be against him he would hand over the Homes to his Trustees: “It would almost break my heart to sever ties so dear; but I am quite prepared, in reliance upon God, to do whatever I feel to be my duty, regardless of the consequences.” (2)

The years following the Arbitration saw a tremendous development in the expansion of the Homes. Before 1877 there were eight separate Institutes and in the Girls’ Village Home fourteen cottages. By 1888 there were thirty-eight “distinct institutions” and fifty cottages in the Village Home.

The work suffered from one severe limitation, for Barnardo’s efforts were concentrated among the destitute children of London. He realized that similar conditions existed in all the big towns of Great Britain and he wished to be able to do something to relieve the suffering of children in these areas. Anxious as he was to help them, in 1892 he established “Ever-open Doors” (much like the one in Stepney Causeway) in Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Cardiff, Newcastle, Plymouth and Bath. They were in charge of resident Superintendents who were to give immediate shelter to any destitute child. So his rescue work spread all over the country, and eventually Ever-open Doors were opened in Bristol, Birmingham, Belfast, Hull, Southampton, Sheffield, Portsmouth and Brighton. The work once more expanded and Barnardo wrote: “Our Ever-open Doors have brought us into touch with the slum life of the kingdom as never before, and they have changed the character of the Homes from a Metropolitan to a National Institution.” So these havens of hope were scattered throughout the land, places where the destitute, the unwanted, the homeless children of the nation could enter and leave behind the unfriendly and uncared-for past and come into a world of new beginnings.

Behind his work and due to his religious convictions was his profound respect for human personality. He did not make the mistake of attempting to mould his children after a common pattern; rather he tried to enable them to express their own selves and to seek outlets and occupations in which they would naturally be happy. In his Homes he therefore encouraged the children to learn trades which appealed to them and for which he felt they possessed an aptitude. He was not content merely to rescue them from the squalor of the slums, but he desired to equip them spiritually, mentally and physically so that they could make their contribution to the well-being of the nation’s life. The basic foundation of his work was the creation of Christian character, and he sought and prayed for the conversion of the boys and girls entrusted to his care.

The growth of his work for children reads like a romantic tale and includes the Babies’ Castle at Hawkhurst, Kent, providing accommodation for babies from a few days old to five years. A notable development was the establishment of the Watts Naval Training School, where boys from the Home, who wish to volunteer for naval service, are trained. A similar institution is the Russell-Goates Nautical School, where boys are trained for the Merchant Service. This was opened after the Doctor’s death, and remains a monument to his ideals. At Stepney Causeway he established an Industrial Training Centre which has now been transferred to “Goldings,” Hertford, which was acquired as a memorial to William Baker, Barnardo’s successor. Here a dozen trades are taught including carpentry, printing, gardening, electrical work, bootmaking and repairing; for it was Barnardo’s wish that when they left the Homes his children should be equipped so that they could be independent. At Bromyard, in Herefordshire, he established a Farm Training Home, and Shipping Agencies at Cardiff and Yarmouth. The girls were trained in dressmaking, laundry and domestic work, and he “established an embroidery school where crippled and delicate girls, and even those who were feeble minded could be trained to produce hand-woven articles, and art needlework of a high order.” (3) He was one of the pioneers of vocational and technical training.

Behind all the work lay a passionate love for children, and children naturally trusted and loved him. They knew instinctively that he was their friend. His love for them is shown in something he wrote: “Although I have had many who have been crippled and sadly deformed, and some who have been afflicted with dreadful disorders, I think I may say of a truth I have never seen a really ugly child! There is always to my mind something beautiful in the little ones, however disfigured they may be with sin and suffering; something that looks out of their young eyes and half-formed features, and that pathetically appeals to one’s pity and sympathy and love—something, too, that fills one with reverence for childhood. It may be as the poet Whittier sings, that the young child is ‘latest from God’s hand and nearest unto Him’.” No child was rejected because of physical defects, and children who had been refused admission by other institutions never turned to him in vain. “We receive children,” he writes, “whom no other charitable institution will touch, children in the last stage of lingering disease; children who are lame, halt and blind; children who, as a result of a long course of neglect and suffering, can be admitted only to die. The one condition of eligibility is destitution.”

1) Williams, op. cit., p. 101.
2) Williams, op. cit., p. 113.
3) Williams, op. cit., p. 223.



>>Chapter 5: Social Pioneer




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