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Who is Syrie Barnardo?

Published on
08 March 2019

Most people have heard of Thomas Barnardo, but who is Syrie Barnardo and what did she do?

Thomas and Syrie Barnardo outside with young girl
Dr Thomas Barnardo, Syrie Barnardo and their daughter Marjorie in 1905

The story of Dr Barnardo setting up a ragged school and residential homes for disadvantaged boys at the end of the 19th century has been told many times. It's even taught in schools.

If you don’t know the story, you can brush up on your ​​​​Barnardo’s history here.

While his wife, Syrie Barnardo, played a crucial role in the growth of our charity, in Victorian society it wasn’t considered ‘proper’ for women to seek the limelight. 

But guess what? That’s no longer the case – so we’re shining a spotlight bright and proud.

Who was Syrie Barnardo?

Park with church in background - Barnardo's Girl's Village
Barnardo's Girls Village Home in Essex

Sara Louise Elmslie, known as Syrie, married Dr Thomas Barnardo in 1873.

A fellow philanthropist, she was just as interested and dedicated to social care for children as he was. 

At the time, it would not have been appropriate for an unmarried man to provide care to girls, but following their marriage the couple were able to establish the first Barnardo’s home for girls. 

A philanthropist in her own right, Syrie had already set up her own ragged school, and her marriage in 1873 paved the way for the charity’s work helping girls – a legacy that continues to this day.

Barnardo’s archivist

A village for girls

Girls outside with books
Girls reading at the village in 1927

Described by her contemporaries as ‘determined’, it was Syrie’s involvement that led to the opening of the first girls home in 1876.

She helped to create a group of cottage homes, as well as a school, church and hospital, at what became known as the Barnardo's Girls Village Home in Barkingside, Essex.

Without her, an estimated 8,000 girls who lived, learned and played there would have remained in the slums of London's East End, begging and at risk of ill health and exploitation.

The girls who came to the village not only had somewhere safe to grow up, but were given opportunities to develop and thrive.

They were often helped to find employment and many trained as nursery nurses, paving the way for us to pioneer the first nursery-nurse training scheme.

Recognition of her legacy

Girls at the gates
Girls at the gates of the village

After the death of Dr Barnardo in 1905, Syrie continued to played a crucial role in the growth of the charity until her death at the age of 96, in 1944.

To celebrate Syrie and her contributions to the charity, and as part of our 150th anniversary in 2016, a rose was specially bred and dedicated to her.

The Sweet Syrie rose is a tribute to the legacy of Syrie Barnardo. 

It’s only a shame that her achievements and the impact she had on the lives of thousands of young girls didn’t get the limelight in deserved at the time.

Find out more about who we are and our history.