To mark Black History Month, we're highlighting the journeys of children and young people, as well as volunteers and staff members from the black community.
John Lewis was the first black child on Barnardo’s records.
Born in the heart of East London, John was born to an English mother and a father from the West Indies. He was one of thirteen children, only six of whom survived.
John was deserted by his birth father and rejected by his mother. His mother was married to another man, who was not John's father and he refused to accept John as his own.
John’s older sister Meredith, who was also of dual heritage, let him stay at her flat when her husband was away. Otherwise, John was left homeless on the streets of London for most of the time from a very young age. He tried to get by working as a ‘shoeblack’, cleaning and shining shoes.
John was spotted by the Hon. J. Pulham, who referred him to Barnardo’s. John was admitted to the boy’s home on 30 April 1874, when he was fifteen years old.
One year later, John was offered a job by a Mr Butler.
Sadly, John’s siblings also struggled to get the care they needed. In 1878 John contacted Barnardo's boys home asking the charity to take in his half-brother. Our records indicate all of his siblings went on to live separate lives away from each other.
Elizabeth and her two younger siblings Sarah and John grew up in Liverpool.
Their father John Snr who was only described as a “coloured man”, left the family when he was offered a job as a cook on a ship called the Glengarry. He never returned, leaving their mother to raise three children on her own.
After struggling to make ends meet by selling all the family’s belongings and washing and cleaning to earn a little money, their mother was forced to move herself and the children into St George’s Workhouse in London. Despite their mother’s struggles to support her children, all three siblings regularly attended school. After a few months in the Workhouse however, the family was left homeless and their mother reached out to Barnardo’s for help.
On 12 January 1882 all three siblings were admitted to Barnardo’s. Elizabeth was nine, Sarah eight and Jon was only six years old.
In the siblings’ admissions papers, Elizabeth was described as a “remarkably intelligent child” who could read fluently and was “eager to learn”.
In 1887 Elizabeth left Barnardo’s care when she was given a job in domestic service.
Younger sister Sarah had spent some time in a children’s hospital before she came to Barnardo’s. In her admission report she was described as a “delicate looking child”. To help Sarah recover, she was sent to Halifax Cottage by the seaside. Barnardo’s believed children with health issues had a better chance of recovery at the seaside with fresh air, than in polluted Victorian London.
Sadly, Sarah died shortly after she came back to the Girls Village in 1884, at the age of ten. She was buried at the Holy Trinity Church next to the Girls Village and her name is part of the memorial at the Barkingside cemetery.
John, the youngest of the three siblings, was admitted to the Boys Village in Stepney before he was sent to Canada in 1892 aged 16 as part of the child migration scheme.
Joseph Barnes was born in Antigua on 24th July 1867.
Joseph’s father died in a ship explosion and he assumed his mother was dead as he’d tried to write to her several times but never received a reply. Josephs’ only living relative was his brother who was working on a plantation in San Domingo.
Eager to earn a living and explore the world, Joseph made his way to England as a sailor on a ship called the ‘Ettrickdale’.
His records don’t state how long it took Joseph to get to England, but once he arrived he took on various jobs to support himself. All of his employers praised his “good character”, but despite his good references he eventually struggled to find work.In July 1886, aged 19 Joseph went to Barnardo’s for help and was admitted to the charity’s care. He was admitted to the Youth Labour House, where he worked in exchange for a home and food.
In 1887 Joseph left Barnardo’s care, travelling to Canada and South Africa, where he worked as an attendant for a time. It’s not known exactly when he came back to London, but Joseph eventually came back to England and worked as a coal cart driver in the East End.
James Alexander Lindsey grew up in Marant Bay, Jamaica, where he lived alone with his father Alec. His mother died when James was young.
Eager to explore the world, James took on a job as a sailor on a ship called ‘Samuel’, which took him to the harbour city Hamburg in Germany.
By the time James arrived in Germany, he had enough of his adventures and decided to go to England to make his way back home to Jamaica.
James used one of his two gold coins to pay for his travel to England. He managed to get a few odd jobs to pay for his travels to London, but eventually found himself out of work, wondering the street for months tired, hungry and desperate.
In November 1887 James went to Barnardo’s for help. Despite his age, James was already sixteen years old and considered a man in Victorian times, Barnardo’s gave him £1, the equivalent of £118.60 today, to tie him over until he found a job.
But luck was not on his side and a few days later James returned to Barnardo’s. He was admitted into Barnardo’s care and agreed to stay at the Youth Labour Workhouse, where he worked and part of his wages were used towards his board and lodging.
In March 1888 James was finally able to get on a ship and went back to Jamaica to reunite with his father.
Fanny Jefferson was born in London on 9th November 1882 to an English mother and a black father.
When Fanny was only four years old, her father, who worked for the Telephone Company in Cannon Street, died after a pole fell on his head.
Receiving only £1 a week for a month from the Telephone Company after her husband’s death, Fanny’s mother struggled to take care of her children.
Help was hard to come by for Fanny’s mother in Victorian London. People were not very sympathetic towards a woman who had been in an inter-racial relationship. After the death of Mr. Jefferson, Fanny’s mother had also given birth to children who were considered “illegitimate” by Victorian standards; isolating her even further from her community.
Desperate and without any money to support her children, Fanny’s mother reached out to Barnardo’s. She tried to place all of her children into Barnardo’s care, but only Fanny, who was deaf and described as fragile, was admitted to Barnardo’s in 1889.The charity felt that she was the most vulnerable child out of all the siblings.
Fanny’s mother eventually found work as a dressmaker, which allowed her to look after Fanny’s brother and sister, while two of Fanny’s half siblings were adopted by her aunt and uncle.
Fanny found employment in domestic service and left Barnardo’s care in 1900 at the age of 18. She never married and died in Thanet, Kent in 1974 aged 92.
Benjamin Washington was born in 1874 in Charleston, America, ten years after the Civil War.
As a teenager, Benjamin travelled to the UK on his own, on a cattle boat called the “Basil”. He arrived in Cardiff, Wales, where he received 5 shillings for his work on the ship before he was left to fend for himself.
Benjamin decided to go to London, travelling over 150 miles by foot, surviving only by begging for food along the way. Exhausted and hungry he arrived at the Dr. Barnardo’s home in East London in 1891, a time in which black people were still treated as second class citizens in the US. Benjamin was immediately taken into Dr Barnardo’s care and staff at the home tried tirelesly to reunite him with his father in Charleston. However, letters to his family went unanswered.
In 1892, Benjamin decided to leave Dr Barnardo’s care to travel to Canada and train as a farmer at the Manitoba Farm Home.
Born: 16 November 1885
The first known black child to be fostered in England was through Barnardo’s.
Elizabeth was born on Commercial Street, in the East End of London. In 1891, six year old Elizabeth was found by a neighbour in squalid conditions, next to her dying mother. Within a year, her father was also dead. Her parents were said to have had a difficult relationship. Her docker father was “given to drink” and “constantly misused his wife”. He was said to question Elizabeth’s true paternity as, Barnardo’s records put it somewhat prosaically; she bore “strong evidence of having foreign blood in her veins” but both him and his wife had fair complexions.
After their deaths the neighbour looked after orphaned Elizabeth in Spitalfields for a few months, while appealing to relatives to take her in. Tragically, none felt able to give her a home.
Two missionaries from different churches in London’s East End appealed to Barnardo’s. She was boarded out to a couple living in leafy Headcorn, a small village near Maidstone in Kent.
After six years in the countryside, Elizabeth returned to Barnardo’s Girls Village where she undertook training to become a domestic cook. She left to enter service, and was recorded in the 1911 Census as working as a cook in Croydon.
Barnardo’s last contact with Elizabeth was in 1946, when she asked for help in obtaining a birth certificate so she could obtain a pension. At the time she was unmarried and still living in Croydon.
Sisters Dolly and Frances Broadhurst were born in Freetown Sierra Leone in 1887 and 1890. They were of mixed background and called ‘octoroons’ on their personal records - an outdated term used to describe a person who is one-eighth black by descent.
The girls lived with their mother, who had no choice but to leave them with a group of elderly women described as ‘grandmas’, when she traded goods to earn a living. The ‘grandmas’ kept the girls in dirty living conditions and left them vulnerable to abuse. Their Barnardo’s admission report stated that one of the ‘grandmas’ made no secret of her plans to use the girls for prostitution.
To protect Dolly and Frances, their mother handed them over to a friend who promised to bring them to England and find them a good home.
The sisters were admitted to Barnardo’s on 13th November 1899. Both couldn’t read or write and only spoke ‘pidgin English’.
The girls left Barnardo’s care in 1904 and 1907 after they found work in domestic service.
Dolly met a man from Portugal and they married in Cardiff in 1918. Two years later they welcomed a baby boy.
Sisters Sarah Matilda and Maud Thomasine were both born in Bundellsans, near Liverpool. Sarah was born in August 1889 and Maud followed two years later in July 1891.
On year after Maud was born, their mother died of scarlet fever. Following their mother’s death the girls lived with their father Thomas, a black man from Sierra Leone, who had served in the Royal Navy and the Coastguard services.
In October 1897, just five years after the death of Maud’s mother, the girl’s father passed away from a haemorrhage and the two sisters became orphans.
Maud and Sarah continued to live with their stepmother for three years, but were admitted into Barnardo’s care on 10 July 1901.
The two sisters spend several years at the Girl’s Village in Barkingside before Sarah left Barnardo’s in 1906 and Maud followed a year later to take up work in domestic service.
In 1911 Sarah was recorded in the census working for a family in Palmerston Road, Southend-on-Sea.
Maud worked at The White House in Tenbury, before she gave birth to a baby boy in 1918. After she had her son, Maud took up work at the Nurses Home in Eastbourne Street, Liverpool in 1921.
It’s not known where the Richard sisters went and what happened to them in the end.
Margaret Rosina Robinson was born in Liverpool in June 1893. She was admitted into Barnardo’s care in 1901, aged seven, after an application was made by the NSPCC.
The NSPCC took on Margaret’s case, after a court order was issued by South Wales Police which had investigated Margaret’s mother for over a year.
Margaret’s mother had turned to prostitution after her husband abandoned the family when Margaret was younger. Shortly after he left, the family moved to Wales where Margaret’s mother was convicted, imprisoned and fined several times for drunkenness, disorderly conduct and soliciting. In her admission report to Barnardo’s, little Margaret was described as thin and greatly neglected by her mother, who often used her as a “decoy” to get alcohol from local the pubs. Her mother had also told Margaret’s school that she wanted to “get rid of” her by placing her into a home until she was fourteen years old.
Margaret was taken in by Barnardo’s and lived in the Girls Village in Barkingside, Essex for seven years. In 1908, fifteen year old Margaret left Barnardo’s to work as a maid at the Babies Castle in Hawkhurst, Kent. Census records from 1911 confirm that Margaret still worked at the Babies Castle, but there are no further records to determine what happened to her later on.
Clara came to Barnardo’s in the spring of 1900, when she was 11 years old. Her parents were both of African origin, but it’s not known which country they were from.
Clara’s parents left her in Doncaster and her father passed away afterwards. No one knew what happened to Clare’s mother and she was considered an orphan after the death of her father.
Clara’s application to be taken into Barnardo’s care was made by a Mr. Nicholson in Doncaster. It’s not clear from her records who he was and if he was related to Clara.
Like many Barnardo’s children, Clara managed to secure a job in domestic service and left Barnardo’s in 1908 at the age of 19 years old.
“I was born in St Albans in 1944. My mum who was only 15 years old when she had me tried to look after me but in 1947 I was placed into the care of Barnardo’s.
I lived at the Barnardo’s boy’s village for a few years before I was fostered by a very strict Scottish white family in Bristol.
For 48 years I lived my own life; I married, had four lovely children and worked as a senior social worker.
I never knew my mum, but with the help of Barnardo’s and the Salvation Army, I managed to trace her in 1994.
When I was first told that they found my mother and that she wanted to meet me, I cried like a baby.
My mum was anything but embarrassed by me and even after all these years she was still madly in love with my dad. He was an American GI and they met after the Second World War. My father had died many years ago, but I learnt that I had nine half brothers and sisters in America.
In 1996, my wife and I went to America for the first time to meet my family.
I met so much extended family and my father’s wife told me many stories about him.
I now see my mum every fortnight and we have a great relationship. She even came to the US with me and she loved meeting my dad’s family.
Growing up as the only Black child wasn’t always easy and it’s because of my experience that I think Black History Month is so important. There are still many ignorant people and it’s important that they are educated and enlightened.”
“I started to piece together my family history for the first time when I was 50 years old. I found out that I was born in Manchester and that my mother kept me for the first 18 months of my life before giving me away to Barnardo’s.
I spent my early childhood years in a Barnardo’s home in Worcester, before I was fostered by a good working class couple in rural North Yorkshire.
I grew up in a predominantly white area, where I was the odd one out. Books became my refuge and I became known as a bookworm who read Shakespeare at age ten.
I did my A-Levels and afterwards travelled to Italy to work as an Au Pair. I absolutely fell in love with the country and came back to England to study Italian before moving to Washington to work at the Italian Embassy.
Living in America was a great experience. All of a sudden I wasn’t the odd one out. I stayed in America for ten years- I got married, had my daughter and divorced. By the end of it, I felt homesick and went back to England.
My birth mother died many years ago but I am now getting to know my siblings. Growing up, I believed that I was missing out. It was only after meeting two of my half-sisters that I realised how lucky I had been.
Being a Black child in a white community wasn’t always easy, but my love for reading enabled me to write literature and use my experiences creatively. I now explore some of my own early identity issues through writing. I might dig deeper into my family history at some point, but for now I don’t think it’s a story that’s mine to tell.”
(‘Barefoot in the Piazz’ & ‘Princess Katrina and the hair charmer’ by Christina Shingler, are available on Amazon)
"I came into Barnardo’s when I was six months old in 1962. According to my records I was placed for a short period in the Village homes, Barkingside before being fostered by Mr and Mrs Stringer in a small village in Kent.
I don’t remember coming into Barnardo’s or other family members and have always regarded my foster parents as 'mum' and 'dad' as they are the only parents I have known. My memories of childhood were happy ones and I always felt very much part of the family.
Mum and Dad also fostered another child from Barnardo’s, John, who arrived a year before me and like me, stayed with the Stringer family long after the age of 16. The village we lived in was very small, a typical sleepy hamlet. John and I were the only black children living there and attending the local school at that time, I never questioned my heritage or culture because I didn’t know any different, I always saw my family as my real family because I had never met any of my birth relatives.
My first recollections of any differences began when I started senior school, name calling was the major problem and not long afterwards, my mum had John and I removed from the school and placed in a school where there were other children from minority backgrounds.
When I left school I went into Butchery, following in my foster father’s footsteps. I rarely saw him as he worked hard all week, any time he had off was spent at his shop cutting joints of meat for the following day. Sadly, he passed away quite suddenly when I was still only a teenager and his death has affected me greatly throughout my life.
I finally met my birth mother about 15-20 years ago, which was quite a shock, I had always assumed she was black and my father was white, in fact it was the other way around. She had traced me through the Salvation Army and I was keen to see who she was. I found out that my birth mother was married when she got pregnant with me and I was what was known as 'an extra-marital child'. My mother’s husband was white and according to the Barnardo records it was obvious from early on that I was not his child. I was subsequently put into the care of Barnardo’s and my mother went on to have another four more children with her husband.
After our initial meeting, my first impression was that I felt very lucky that I had been put into Barnardo’s with the opportunity to have had a more fortunate upbringing, as her life had been quite hard. I have met all of my half brothers and sisters, but have to admit that keeping in touch is not one of my strong points.
For several years now I have made limited attempts to trace my birth father, I know his name and that he was born in Nigeria. My birth mother has given me snippets of information over the years and every now and again I pick up where I left off in my search and try again.
I am now in the process of writing a book based on my life, an experience which has always been a strong ambition. I hope to complete it in the near future."
“I started working for Barnardo’s in 1989 and today I’m the organisation’s Director for the Midlands and the South West.
I identify myself as Black man of African Caribbean heritage- I was born in Britain but my parents are both from Jamaica.
I joined Barnardo’s because I wanted to make a difference. My diverse background also gives me an understanding of injustice, a shared understanding of the issues that affect Barnardo’s service users, a celebration of difference, and a steely determination to root out oppressive practices.
It’s important to have diversity in the workplace as it brings a kaleidoscope of skills and ideas. That ultimately means better services for children and families.
Celebrating Black History Month is important. From past events we can learn that nothing changes without actions- only by standing up for what’s right can we continue to promote equality.
My most memorable moment in Black history was when Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in the 70’s. He was the first Black man to do so, at a time when he was being banned from many tennis clubs just because of the colour of his skin.
There are many great Black people who’ve contributed to British society. One of my role models is Mary Seacole, who during the Crimean war offered to go and help nurse soldiers. She was rejected because of her skin colour by the British Medical Association, but she saved up her own money and went over anyway. She’s a great example of determination and the greater good.
It’s important that young people realise that they are unique with a range of skills they can’t even imagine. Every single one of them has the ability to make a difference. A prophet is never recognised in their home town.”
ISAAC HARVEY 1990
I’m 21 years old now and I’ve been part of Barnardo’s since primary school. I have a physical disability and Barnardo’s has helped me gain more independence, by getting me away from home and involving me in all sorts of adventures and activities.
My deputy head teacher nominated me to carry the Olympic torch in 2012. Being on the bus preparing to be the torchbearer, I was very nervous, but the moment I got off that bus and saw all my friends and family, I felt so good. When I picked up the torch, it felt as though I was going up to the podium to collect my medal at the Games.
People don’t realise is that even though I may not be able to walk, jog, sprint, do a belly flop or anything like that, I am able to get around in my chair, and it gives me a chance to have that equality.
At home I love playing computer games because it gives me such a variety of different experiences. I play them all and I’m really good at racing games. I play these games to feel equal. If everyone else plays them, why can’t I? People may see me and think that I wouldn’t be able to do certain things, but I’ve been able to prove them wrong.
We all have a barrier. If we remove it, anything is possible.”
Through Barnardo’s I’ve had so many opportunities. I was chosen to help bake the cake for Barnardo’s 150th anniversary, which was presented to the Duchess of Cornwall at a Barnardo’s Garden Party at Buckingham Palace this year. I felt like I was dreaming! I couldn’t stop smiling.
My grandmother in Nigeria is my biggest role model. She was tough but she taught me so many things. She got me interested in cooking and baking and now that is my career. She was bad ass! I look up to strong women like Michelle Obama and Beyonce too because of what they do for Black communities across the world. I love the fact that they have supporters all over the world who don’t always understand or speak English, but can connect with them because of what they represent.
I think Black History Month is important, as it’s important to be aware of the contributions by black people to society. I hope this will make people more accepting and they will realise we’re all the same.
To me, music is the biggest contribution Black British people have made to the UK. Music breaks down barriers, especially for young people. I want to keep on breaking barriers and connect with people too but through my own talent which is cooking.
Barnardo's has supported Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) children for over 150 years and are committed to promoting equality for BME children, staff and volunteers. To do so, BME groups need to be represented in all areas of the organisation, volunteering being a vital one. Our volunteers are an integral part of Barnardo’s work and their contribution is essential in reaching some of the most vulnerable children in the UK. Help us make the a difference.
If you have been fostered or adopted through Barnardo’s, or would like to trace your family history you can contact the charity’s Making Connections service.
If you would like to volunteer with Barnardo's, please complete our form.