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Thomas Barnardo

What did Thomas Barnardo do that is so significant?

Free Grayscale Photography of Big Ben, London Stock PhotoThomas Barnardo was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1845. When he was 17 years old, he became a Christian. 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.



A practicing Christian, he became concerned at the lack of education for the poor children in London, so in 1867 started a ‘Ragged School’ in the East End of London, working from a donkey shed! The children who went to Barnardo’s school were too poor to buy proper clothing but Barnardo 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, up to 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 earn a living, perhaps as chimney sweeps.



Late one winter’s evening and Barnardo was about to shut his school for the night when he noticed a boy warming himself by the stove in the corner of the shed. He told him it was time to go home. The boy, called Jim Jarvis, answered that he had no home or parents and slept rough each night. Barnardo 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, Barnardo 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 afterward, 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, Barnardo realised God really did have work for him to do among the homeless of London and so he gave up his plans to go to China.



When Barnardo was 25 years old, he rented a large house in the East End, 18 Stepney Causeway, and made it suitable to provide a home for 25 boys. He was eager 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 Barnardo to let him stay.

He had a sad story of life on the streets since his mother had turned him out when he was just 7 years old. Barnardo 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. Barnardo 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, so he started each day at the home with prayers. There were religious education classes and a church service on Sundays. Barnardo wanted to share with the children the Christian faith that had made such a difference in his life.



Barnardo married Sara Louise Elmslie and in 1873 they opened a home for 12 girls with criminal 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, with 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.’

Barnardo 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 exact 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 £750,000 for the work of his homes.


Barnardos - Stoke Heath Prison Visitors CentreBARNARDO'S LEGACY

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, on 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.

Possibly the greatest thing he did was helping to change attitudes toward people living in poverty. In Victorian England, poverty was seen as shameful. People were blamed for their poverty, being seen as a result of laziness or addiction. Barnardo helped people to understand that all children deserved support, regardless of the reasons for their poverty.

Today, the charity foundation that Barnardo founded still works to help vulnerable children and their carers across the UK. You can find out more about its work by clicking here.