Beginnings – the Ragged School

Dr. Barnardo at desk
Thomas Barnardo at his desk

Thomas John Barnardo was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1845. As a young man he moved to London to train as a doctor. When he arrived, he was shocked to find children living in terrible conditions, with no access to education. Poverty and disease were so widespread that one in five children died before their fifth birthday. When a cholera epidemic swept through the East End, leaving 3000 people dead and many orphaned children, the young Barnardo felt an urgent need to help.

His first step, in 1867, was to set up a ‘ragged school’ where children could get a free basic education. One evening a boy at the mission, Jim Jarvis, took Barnardo around the East End, showing him children sleeping on roofs and in gutters. What he saw affected him so deeply he decided to abandon his medical training and devote himself to helping children living in poverty.

Archive group photo of Barnardo's children
Barnardo's children in 1906

No child should be turned away

In 1870, Barnardo opened his first home for boys. As well as putting a roof over their heads, the home trained the boys in carpentry, metalwork and shoemaking, and found apprenticeships for them.

To begin with, there was a limit to the number of boys who could stay there. But when an 11-year-old boy was found dead — of malnutrition and exposure — two days after being told the shelter was full, Barnardo vowed never to turn another child away.

Barnardo’s work was radical. The Victorians saw poverty as shameful, and the result of laziness or vice. But Barnardo refused to discriminate between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. He accepted all children, including black and disabled children, and those born outside marriage.

Barnardo believed that every child deserved the best possible start in life, whatever their background. This philosophy still guides the charity today.

Barnardo’s girls’ village

In 1873 Barnardo married Syrie Louise Elmslie, who was to play an important role in the development of the charity. As a wedding present, they were given a lease on a 60-acre site in Barkingside, east London, where the couple opened a home for girls.

Barkingside village in the 1900s

Syrie was especially keen to support girls who had been driven to prostitution. Protecting children from sexual exploitation continues to be an important part of our work today.

The Barnardos were early adopters of the ‘cottage homes’ model. They believed that children could be best supported if they were living in small, family-style groups looked after by a house ‘mother’.

By 1900 the Barkingside ‘garden village’ had 65 cottages, a school, a hospital and a church, and provided a home – and training – to 1500 girls.

Caring for more and more children

Barnardo went on to found many more children’s homes. By the time he died in 1905, the charity had 96 homes caring for more than 8,500 vulnerable children. This included children with physical and learning difficulties. Barnardo’s experience of caring for his daughter Marjorie, who had Down’s syndrome, strongly influenced his approach to the care of children with disabilities.

Growing up in families

Although he was famous for his children’s homes, Barnardo believed that ideally a child should grow up in a family setting.

As early as 1887 he introduced the practice of ‘boarding out’ children to host families – an early form of fostering.

1954 Barnardo's children with foster mother
Two children being read to by their foster mother

This wasn’t a popular idea in Victorian England, but Barnardo was determined to give children the best possible futures. By 1905 more than 4000 children were boarded out. This paved the way for our pioneering work in foster care and adoption in the twentieth century.

Child migrants

Barnardo’s was one of many children’s charities that sent some children to start a new life in Australia or Canada from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. This was a popular policy, supported by the British government, who believed that the children would benefit from opportunities they wouldn’t have in the UK. We now know that however well-intentioned, it was a deeply misguided policy. The last Barnardo’s child to be migrated was in 1967, to Australia. In 2010 the British government formally apologised for the UK’s role in sending more than 130,000 child migrants to former colonies.

Barnardo’s after World War II

World War II was a turning point in Barnardo’s development, and in the history of childcare in the UK.

The disruption brought by war highlighted the harmful effect that separation from their families had on children.

As a result, Barnardo’s began working more closely with families. For example, we offered financial aid to families when the breadwinner couldn’t work because of illness or accident. By the end of the 1950s almost a quarter of our work involved helping children stay with their own families.

Changing times

The 1960s were a time of radical social change: single parenthood was more acceptable, contraception more widely available (leading to fewer unwanted pregnancies) and a growing welfare system meant that fewer families needed to put their children into care. As well as our decision to work more with families, the need for children’s homes was decreasing, so we began to focus less on residential services. Instead, we developed our work with disabled children and children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

New challenges and new supporters

In the 1970s we continued to expand our fostering and adoption services. We also created family centres to support families in deprived areas. Our last children’s home closed in 1989.

In the 1980s and 1990s we developed new ways of working with children and young people, including pioneering work supporting survivors of child sexual abuse and children affected by HIV and Aids.

Diana, Princess of Wales, former President of Barnardo’s

One of our biggest supporters at this time was the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who was President of Barnardo’s from 1984 to 1996. Her caring approach to supporting vulnerable children and young people reflected our own ways of working.

Keeping our promise

Today, we support and protect children and young people facing a wide range of issues, from drug misuse to disability, from sexual abuse to domestic violence.

But one thing has never changed: like our founder, Thomas Barnardo, we believe that with the right help, children can change their lives and achieve their potential.

Over 150 years ago, Barnardo promised to support those children in need of help – regardless of their circumstances, gender, race, disability or behaviour.

Today, we continue to honour that promise.