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Happy Birthday Dr Barnardo

Release Date: 04 Jul 2017

Read the fascinating history of Founder’s Day - an event that began in 1895 and continues long after Dr Barnardo's death. Barnardo’s archive department, Making Connections, charts the day's history.

172 years ago today, our founder, Thomas Barnardo, was born in Dublin. As his legacy grew, his birthday became an opportunity for those he cared for to celebrate his life. The day developed into a significant event in the organisation’s calendar and by the 1890s was celebrated annually as:

Founder’s Day…

Founder’s Day originated when Dr Barnardo’s former wards sent small birthday presents or gave donations on his birthday in recognition of his kindness and the care they had received in his homes. For many years, this informal ‘gift day’ was an open secret among those who intimately knew the work of the homes or had been connected to it. Eventually, the organisation widened the scope of the day so that all supporters might participate.


The first Founder’s Day event was held at the boys’ home in Stepney Causeway in 1895, which was Barnardo’s headquarters from 1870-1969. Dr Barnardo invited his friends, supporters and former Barnardo’s children to the event, where they had the opportunity to inspect the homes. They also visited the workshops to view the work of the young residents in their chosen trades as bakers, blacksmiths, boot-makers, brush-makers, carpenters, harness-makers, printers, tinsmiths, tailors and wheelwrights. The large swimming bath was open for displays of diving and water polo and the crowd were encouraged to visit patients in the hospital. The playground was cleared for a display of military and musical drills by the boys, whilst the girls exhibited May Day games around a maypole. The afternoon ended with prayers and an open-air meeting to encourage support of the homes.


Tickets for the day were priced at a shilling each – or sixpence for children. On the day itself, Dr Barnardo was not well enough to attend but the number of supporters who visited plus the financial success of the day encouraged him to turn it into an annual event.

In 1897, the event was moved to the girls’ home in Barkingside, which was situated amongst farms and cornfields. This was a world away from the dirt and overcrowding of the East End, and visitors marvelled at the wide open spaces, fresh air and beautifully manicured gardens. The programme of events included the formal opening of the new school and a service in the children’s church.

Guests were encouraged to visit the girls in their cottages, the laundry room, the infirmary and the church. The boys from the Stepney home visited for the day and the crowds were entertained by musical drills, gymnastics displays, maypole dancing and a choir of 300 girls. The newly introduced bazaar (selling ‘useful and fancy goods’) and the refreshments marquee provided additional funds.

Over the years

Each year, the event grew in size and donations. The 1898 and 1899 Founder’s Days raised £1,924 and £3,331 respectively. By 1903, the amount raised had rocketed to £15,424, with 5,000 visitors to Barkingside. This growth was made possible by the newly opened railway station at Barkingside – with special trains laid on for the day, as well as electric tramcars ferrying guests from Ilford station.

Guests were from a range of backgrounds, but Founder’s Day quickly became ‘the event to attend’ amongst Barnardo’s wealthy supporters. Therefore, the crowds often included lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, several princesses and even Queen Mary.


The 1905 Founder’s Day was the last to be attended by Dr Barnardo and turned out to be one of his last public appearances before his death on 19 September that same year. The following year there was much debate as to whether Founder’s Day should be celebrated. In the end, it was felt that the memory of Dr Barnardo would be best honoured by carrying on his life's work and building on his achievements. The event that year was a resounding success, with many of the 6,000 guests pausing beside the founder’s final resting place to pay their respects.

Founder’s Day continued to be celebrated at the Village in Barkingside until 1954. It was then renamed Barnardo’s Day, with homes across the nations opening their doors for the annual event.

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