Today in Dublin in 1826, a teenager with a big heart an a desire to do something important called Thomas Bernardo experienced an evangelical conversion that lead to him opening orphanages for London’s homeless boys and girls. From the foundation of the first Barnardo's home in London to the date of Barnardo's death, nearly 60,000 children had been taken out of abject poverty.
Barnardo was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1845 & was the fourth of five children of John Michaelis Barnardo, and his second wife, Abigail, a member of the Plymouth Brethren. He almost died at birth and again came close to death when he contracted diphtheria at the age of two. He was pronounced dead by two doctors, but revived when lifted up by the undertakers! These traumas may have affected him, Barnardo, later wrote that, as a child, he was selfish and thought that everything that was not his should belong to him. When he was 17 he was converted as the second evangelical revival, had spread from the States to Ulster and then around Ireland and influenced by the witness of his brothers, George and Frederick he was baptised at the Baptist chapel, without the approval of his father. Filled with zeal, he taught in basic schools, preached to troops and to the police, and carried out door-to-door visiting in the Dublin slums. After hearing an evangelist Hudson Taylor speak he resigned his job with his father and volunteered to be a missionary in China. He then left Dublin for London to train as a medical missionary.
Barnardo moved to London in 1866 as he was interested in becoming a missionary and undertaking medical studies. London was one of the biggest cities in the world at the time, with a population of nearly 4 million people, compared with 200,000 in Dublin. As well as being 20 times bigger than Dublin it had a greater density of population. When Barnardo arrived, he was shocked to find children living in terrible conditions, with no access to education. Although he never completed his studies at the London Hospital, he used the title of 'doctor' and later secured a licentiate. When a cholera epidemic swept through the East End, leaving 3000 people dead and many orphaned children, Barnardo felt an urgent need to help. His first step, in 1867, was to set up a ‘ragged school’ in an old donkey stable, where children could get a free basic education. One evening a boy at the mission, Jim Jarvis, took him 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. This he felt was his mission, and when he received an unexpected gift of £1,000 from a Member of Parliament, Samuel Smith, towards his work he felt it confirmed.
He married Syrie Louise Elmslie, who was to play an important role in the development of his mission. 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. They focused on supporting girls who had been driven to prostitution and 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. The Barnardos', believed that ideally a child should grow up in a family setting and they introduced the practice of ‘boarding out’ children to host families, an early form of fostering.
As Thomas’ work made a bigger impacted, it attracted many admirer and supporters, but also cynics and enemies. At the time the East End was in the grip of serial killer who killed possibly eleven women. The murderer or murderers were never identified and the cases remain unsolved. The police arrested a notorious local called John Pizer, dubbed "Leather Apron", who had a reputation for terrorising local prostitutes. His alibis for the two most recent murders were corroborated, and he was released without charge. Later a German hairdresser Charles Ludwig was arrested but then released after more killings happened whilst he was on remand. Sensational reportage and the mystery surrounding the identity of the killer or killers fed the development of the character "Jack the Ripper", who was blamed for all or most of the murders. The later killings seemed to involved precise work of a knife or a scalpel, and due to the supposed medical expertise of the Ripper, various doctors in the area were suspected, including Barnardo who claimed he had met one of the victims (Elizabeth Stride) shortly before her murder. Long after his death, he was still named as a possible suspect. "Ripperologist" Gary Rowlands has theorised that due to Barnardo's lonely childhood he had anger which may have led him to murder prostitutes. However, there is no evidence that he committed the murders and critics of this theory have also pointed out that his age and appearance did not match any of the descriptions of the Ripper. It may just have been an attempt to defame a holy man.
After Barnardo's death, a national memorial was instituted to form a fund of £250,000 to cover the various institutions of all financial liability and to place it on a permanent basis. William Baker, formerly the chairman of the council, was selected to succeed the founder of the homes as honorary director. Barnardo authored many books dealing with the charitable work to which he devoted his life. His work was carried on by supporters under the name Dr Barnardo's Homes. In the mid-20th century, the charity changed its focus from the direct care of children to fostering and adoption, renaming itself Dr Barnardo's. Following the closure of its last traditional orphanage in 1989, it took the still simpler name of Barnardo's.