Thomas Barnardo never intended to settle in England. He set out with grand ambitions to become a missionary in China. As it turned out, however, he found his mission among the destitute and drifting children in the slums of England’s cities.
Thomas was born in Dublin, Ireland on July 4th of 1845. He was the second youngest of the five children born to Abigail and John Michaelis Barnardo. John, a furrier by trade, had emigrated from Hamburg to Dublin in the early 1840s – not long before young Thomas was born. Over the course of two marriages, John fathered seventeen children.
John’s children were well cared for, and young Thomas began his working life as a store clerk. Before long, however, Thomas converted to Evangelical Christianity. He left his employer and spent much of his time preaching in the slums of Dublin.
After a time, Thomas set his mind to becoming a doctor, with the plan of working as a medical missionary with the China Inland Mission. In pursuit of this plan, Thomas moved to England to begin his studies at the London Hospital. He went on to further his studies at colleges in Paris and Edinburg, where he was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Despite his extensive studies, Thomas never earned a doctorate. As he studied in London, he began an evangelical work which made him aware of the plight of homeless, drifting children adrift throughout England’s biggest cities.
Barnardo was a powerful speaker, and brought his concerns to the Missionary Conference in 1867. His speech fell on the receptive ears of Lord Shaftsbury and prominent banker, Robert Barclay. They were moved by the plight of England’s homeless children, and offered to support the establishment of homes for these children. Thanks to their support and encouragement, Thomas gave up his plans to move abroad.
The first of “Dr. Barnardo’s Homes” opened its doors in 1870 at London’s 18 Stepney Causeway. This first home was the beginning of Barnardo’s life’s work. From this small beginning, his humanitarian reach continued to increase, ever with the goal of feeding, clothing and educating the waifs and strays of England.
The youngest children Barnardo received were “boarded out” to families in rural homes. Older girls were trained in useful occupations and housed in industrial training homes. Boys in their upper teenage years were also trained in labor homes before they were given employment in businesses at home, at sea, or abroad.
Barnardo’s was one of a number of charities that were actively involved in child migration. The policy was widely accepted at the time, and Barnardo was a prominent figure in enabling child migration in the late 19th century. He primarily worked at placing children in homes throughout Canada, and succeeded in sending over 30,000 children to new homes there.
Barnardo went on to establish further institutions, including a convalescent home, a hospital for the very ill, and a rescue home for girls in danger. Barnardo and his wife also converted their Barkingside home into “The Girls’ Village Home,” complete with 66 cottages and a modern steam laundry.
Thomas Barnardo succumbed to angina pectoris on September 19th, 1905, and was buried in front of his house in Barkingside. At the time of his death, over 8500 of England’s destitute children were being cared for in his 96 homes.
Proving the great value of his work, a national memorial fund was instituted, providing financial support for Barnardo’s work on a permanent basis.