Dr Barnardo’s Homeless Mission

Not long after Thomas Barnardo’s meeting with Jim Jarvis he [Barnardo] attended a meeting in Islington which was to be addressed by a number of men already working as missionaries in China. However, several of the speakers had not shown up and so the Chairman of the meeting asked Thomas Barnardo if he would care to say a few words. Nervously the young medical student walked to the front, turned to face the extremely large audience, and proceeded to tell the gathering of the misery of the children he had witnessed night after night sleeping rough on the streets of the East End of London.

He finished talking to tumultuous applause and, as he did so, a young woman, who was obviously quite poor herself. came forward and pressed a small package into his hand. The woman explained that it was, in fact, some money that she had saved to give to the collection for missionary work. “But when I heard you,” she explained, “I felt I would give it to you instead for your poor children.” He couldn’t have known it at the time but this tiny little parcel, of twenty-seven farthings, was the first donation that he, who in time would prove himself a master fund raiser, would collect.

Hi speech received a considerable amount of press coverage and, about a week later, he was invited to dinner by one of the 19th Century’s greatest philanthropists and fund raisers, The Earl of Shaftesbury.

When he arrived, he found himself to be one of fourteen or fifteen guests, all of whom had been invited to discuss his claims about homeless children on the streets of the East End of London. Some of the guest were somewhat  incredulous about his claims and argued that, even if their were such children, their numbers were very few. Barnardo, however, stuck to his guns and, finally, Lord Shaftesbury announce that the only way to settle the question would be for Barnardo to escort those at the table who were wiling to go on a tour of the East End to see first-hand these homeless children.

Just before midnight the party headed off in several cabs and Barnardo had them set down at Billingsgate Fish Market, on the eastern fringe of the City of London. At first there was no sign of any street children, and several in the party opined that they knew that the whole excursion would be a waste of time.

But Barnardo knew that the homeless children were adept at hiding themselves from view and that it was impossible to tell at first glance whether there were children sleeping rough in a place like this.

Walking around a pile of crate he spotted a gap between two or three of the canvass covers, and, very quietly, put his hand through the gap. Suddenly his hand touched a naked foot and ankle and, pulling the canvass aside he found a young boy whose eyes were still full of sleep. At first the boy struggled to escape, but Barnardo re-assured him and calmed him down.

Barnardo then asked the boy if their were others like him sleeping beneath the canvass covers, and the boy replied that there were.

“Do you think, if I gave you sixpence, you could get them out for me?” asked Barnardo. The boy was happy to oblige and duly climbed onto the top of the pile of crates and began jumping up and down.

To the amazement of the onlookers the canvas coverings began to move and, one by one, a number of  boys began crawling out from underneath.

Eventually Lord Shaftesbury and his companions counted a total of seventy-three children, some big, some small, some quite old, and some very young. The party were astonished and confessed that they would never have dreamed that there were so many children who had no home but the streets and no place to sleep other than an empty crate.

Those seventy- three boys were taken to a nearby all-night coffee shop where Lord Shaftesbury asked the owner to brew fresh coffee and feed the boys with everything he had. By dawn they had eaten everything in the shop!

The last thing Lord Shaftesbury said to Barnardo as they said goodnight was, “All London should know of this!”

Barnardo didn’t know it at the time, but his plans to go as a missionary to China would soon be shelved in favour of a mission in that would begin in the East End of London and which would grow to become the famed Dr Barnardo’s homes.