People

THOMAS BARNARDO

The Donkey Shed Ragged School

How would you like to go to school in a donkey shed? This was where a young medical student called Thomas Barnardo started a ‘Ragged School’ in the East End of London in 1867. The children who went to Barnardo’s school were too poor to buy proper clothing but Thomas wanted to teach them to read and write and also taught them about the Bible and the love of God. For two weekday evenings and on Sundays, as many as 200 children and young people aged from 6 years to 20 years would meet in one room, with rows of wooden benches as the only furniture. During the daytime these same children would be earning a living, perhaps in the factories or coalmines.

Thomas Barnardo was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1845. When he was 17 he became a keen Christian and after hearing a famous missionary called Hudson Taylor speak, he decided God wanted him to become a missionary to China. As a first step he went to London to train as a doctor. In his spare time he taught at the Ragged School and also preached about Jesus in the East End during the evenings.

It was late one winter’s evening and Thomas was about to shut up his school for the night. He noticed a boy warming himself by the stove in the corner of the shed and told him it was time to go home. Jim Jarvis answered that he had no home or parents and slept rough each night. Thomas was amazed when Jim led him to a passageway nearby and up a high wall at the end to discover eleven poorly dressed boys asleep on a roof.

Barnardo realized that there were many thousands of homeless boys like these living on the streets of London’s East End and he prayed that God would provide care for these children. The answer to his prayer was to change Barnardo’s plans for the future!  Shortly after this, Thomas had an important meeting with a Member of Parliament, Lord Shaftesbury. He was a member of the Evangelical Christian movement, which was campaigning to reform the dreadful working conditions for Victorian women and children. Barnardo showed him seventy-three boys sleeping rough near the River Thames and Shaftesbury with tears in his eyes said,

‘All London must know about this. I think you have found your China. You can be a missionary in London.’

Soon afterwards Barnardo received a letter from another Member of Parliament, Samuel Smith, who promised him £1000 if he would stay in London and continue his work among children. At this point Thomas realised God had work for him to do among the homeless of London and he gave up his plans to go to China.

When Thomas was 25, he rented a large house in the East End, 18 Stepney Causeway, and made it suitable to provide a home for 25 boys at first. He was anxious not to take in more children than he could afford to look after but one tragic incident changed his mind. An 11-year-old boy John Somers (nicknamed Carrots) turned up at this Home and pleaded with Thomas to let him stay. He had a sad story of life on the streets since his mother had turned him out when he was 7. Thomas was sympathetic and gave ‘Carrots’ money for food but felt unable to take him in. Later the boy was found dead, killed by cold and hunger. Thomas was heartbroken and blamed himself for the tragedy. He put up a large notice outside the Home:

 ‘No destitute boy or girl ever refused admission.’

It was important for Barnardo that his boys should not only be cared for but also should learn of the love of God and each day at the home began with prayers. There were religious education classes and a Church service on Sundays. Thomas wanted to share with the children the Christian faith that had made such a difference to his life.

Thomas married Sara Louise Elmslie and in 1873 they opened a home for 12 difficult girls with crime records. Within a year there were 60 in this home and some of the girls were able to find steady jobs as cooks or servants. The next step was to build a village of cottages where the girls could live in small groups looked after by a ‘mother’. There were offers of money to pay for the cottages and the Village Home for Girls in Essex eventually had 90 cottages and over 1000 children.

It cost £15 a year (a large sum at that time) to keep a child in one of Barnardo’s Homes. The money was provided by gifts and by prayer. One rich lady placed three £1000 banknotes on the table for Barnardo saying,

‘I bring you this because your door is never closed to any poor child. God will surely help you.’

Thomas saw some amazing answers to his prayers. On one occasion he placed an order for blankets for £100, sure that God would provide the money – two days later he received a letter and cheque for that amount! The writer of the letter said he felt the boys would need ‘more warm clothing during the cold weather.’ During his lifetime Barnardo received over three and a quarter million pounds for the work of his Homes.

By the time of Barnardo’s death in 1905 there were 8,000 children in his 96 homes. Some boys had been sent to Canada to find work and Barnardo had even founded a training ship in which many of his boys were taught to be sailors. Alongside this, special homes had been opened for the disabled and children with incurable diseases.  All this resulted from one man’s love for God and for the needy children God sent his way.

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