On of the true heroes of the 19th Century East End was Dr. Thomas Barnardo, a man who, by the time of his death in 1905, had cared for and saved more than 60,000 homeless children who would otherwise have been destined for lives of certain hardship and, in many cases, lives of crime.
In 1866 he had left his native Dublin to travel to London in order to train as a missionary with the intention of going to China. He was told that the greatest need in China at the time was for doctors of medicine, and so he duly enrolled as a student at the London Hospital in the East End of London.
Here, according to his biographer Donald Ford, “…he dreamed of the far-off countries where his life’s work was to be set; he did not know that, in fact, his life’s work was all around him in the close-packed, teeming streets of Stepney, Poplar and the East End of London.”
Shortly after his arrival he volunteered to become a teacher at a little Ragged School in Ernest Street, Stepney and, somewhat disillusioned by the way in which the school was run, he began to consider the possibility of opening a school of his own.
To that end, together with several of his fellow medical students, he took over a broken down shed in the aptly named Hope Place in Stepney, which had formerly been used as a donkey stable, for a rent of two shillings and sixpence a week, and set about converting it into his school.
The school opened for two nights a week, the occasional Saturday and every Sunday. One night, following classes, Barnardo noticed that a boy, whom he didn’t remember seeing at the school before, had stayed behind and was crouching by the fire. Barnardo approached him, telling him that it was time to go home and that his mother would be wondering where he was. The boy replied that he had no mother. “But your father, where’s he?” Barnardo asked. “I ain’t got no father”, was the boys reply.
“How old are you?” Barnardo asked. “Ten Sir.” was the boys reply. Barnardo was shocked by this. What struck him as he looked at the shivering rag-clad child was that his body seemed so much younger than ten,” but his face was the face of an old man, pinched with cold, hunger and misery.”
“Where do you sleep at night”? He asked the boy. The boy replied that he slept “in Whitechapel, along of the Haymarket, in one of them carts filled with hay.”
The boy begged to be allowed to stay, but Barnardo told him that the school didn’t stay open all night. As the boy shuffled towards the door Barnardo called after him “Are there any other poor boys in London like you, boys with no homes and no friends?” “Oh! yes, sir, lots,” Came the reply, “more than I could count”.
Barnardo gave the boy a cup of hot coffee and then asked him to show him the “hiding place” of these children. The boy agreed and, that night, Thomas Barnardo and the boy, whose name, Barnardo had learned, was Jim Jarvis, headed out into the streets of Whitechapel on a journey that would change Barnardo’s life, and the lives of thousands of dispossessed children.
Jarvis took him to a long low shed close to Petticoat Lane which “stank of old clothes.” Having walked through it they were faced by a high wall and could go no further. But then Jim pointed out that little toe holes had been hacked into the brickwork, and together they climbed up the wall and into the roof space.
Having caught his breath after the arduous climb, Barnardo looked around and saw “…a group of boys lying asleep on the tiles. Many of them lay flat on their backs; their heads were near the top of the roof and their feet were in the guttering. Others lay curled up, clutching one another for warmth. They had no covering of any sort; they were in rags and their feet were bare…At that moment, standing on that roof in the bitter cold of the night, Thomas Barnardo shivered as if with the cold – but the cold he felt was the chill of horror that there should be such children forced to live such wretched lives…”
From that night on Jim Jarvis became Barnardo’s guide as, night after night, they went out to uncover the other places where the homeless, forgotten children of the Victorian Metropolis slept.
Tomorrow we will look at how Thomas Barnardo brought the plight of the East End’s homeless children to the attention of Londoners at large and how, at first, his claims were disbelieved,