Dr Barnardo of Stepney

IMG_2956Dr Barnardo has been both lionized and accused of a great deal over the decades, subject to innuendo, accusation and lawsuits while he was still alive, and a continuing source of interest to academics and historians. Because, quite frankly, he is fascinating, possibly terrible, and had a lasting impact on philanthropy in general, but more importantly a life-changing impact upon tens of thousands of poor children.

I never knew quite how many: 28,000 children alone he sent off to Canada (how many more did he send to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the territories of white Commonwealth?), at one point in time he was legal guardian to 87 middle and upperclass children, and in charge of 8,000 more. Many thousands more passed through his homes and shelters and villages. It is mind boggling.

Mostly that such a small island country should have had so many children in desperate need —  and this book seems to follow Dr Barnardo in never once asking why that should be.

Mostly that one man should have been allowed this kind of power over tens of thousands of children.

dr-barnardoSo much has been written about Barnardo around subjects of Victorian philanthropy and slumming, sex, his use of photography, the role of missionaries in the East End.  I used to teach a really interesting chapter from Seth Koven’s Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, which I really need to reread in its entirety.

This is a very different kind of book, written by his secretary for the last seven years of his life — he knew him well, looked up to him, and shared his world view for the most part. It developed from several papers written by him in reply to requests as to what sort of man Barnardo was. I could imagine he did field a lot of those requests.

Above all reading it, it is hard to believe it was finished in 1942. It belongs entirely to an earlier age almost as far removed from WWI as it is from WWII — but in that gives more of a window to Dr Barnardo through the lens of the period he lived in.

The introduction from Christopher Fry is the same, he writes:

Almost as soon as he set foot in London he began to draw out from their dark holes-and-corners a race of wild, unloved, and outcast children, a race which had skulked and suffered there for generations while the life of the city went on around them. (7)

I almost threw the book against the wall. Another race? What, are they dead that they do not form part of London’s life? They must have been a ubiquitous presence, these children, shaping the city and people’s experience of it as hard as they might have tried not to see them.

Dr Barnardo – a secretary’s impressions

But back to Dr Barnardo —  born in Dublin 1845, he came to London in 1866 to study medicine with a goal of becoming a medical missionary to China. For some reason (I don’t even think Williams is indulging in irony here) he didn’t get on so well with his fellow students. They all thought him a bit odd, a “queer fellow” and always preaching.

His first year in London saw a great cholera outbreak, which he celebrated for turning people’s eyes toward the Lord. Williams writes:

He had personally undertaken the circulation of Bibles in East London, and in three months he had sold in the open streets, in public-houses and in market-places thirty thousand copies of the Scriptures. (65)

Whatever else he was, he was a man to be reckoned with. One who put selling bibles over more useful interventions. On one occasion he had two ribs broken when he was beaten after trying to sell bibles in the wrong place to the wrong people. It didn’t stop him. Williams writes:

As soon as I entered the Doctor’s room, I realized that I was in the presence of a man of commanding personality. He was short of stature, only five feet five inches in height, sturdily built, with a very fine head and shoulders. One could not fail to notice the firm chin, and the keen grey eyes that seemed to have the power of reading one’s thoughts. His massive forehead also arrested attention, and gave some indication of the marvelous brain behind it. He was quick and alert in his movements, and bore an unmistakable air of authority. (15)

The working conditions under him will be familiar to anyone who knows similarly driven people in the charity field, but with much less regulation.

That was my first impression of Dr Barnardo–a man who wanted half-an-hour’s work done in twenty minutes. (16)

It is a portrait of a man who pushes himself harder than he pushes his staff, beginning early in the morning in Surbiton trying to deal with a level of correspondence that I cannot honestly imagine —  ‘where an amanuensis attended him daily, so that he could get a certain amount of work done before leaving for Stepney.’ Once at work he sat at two large tables in L-configuration covered with baskets of letters, and worked late into the night, often midnight or beyond, dictating letters. But this is after his work back in Stepney, where:

A special staff of clerks used to come on duty each evening, and to enable the Doctor to continue his dictation without interruption, and to avoid delay in transcription, pages of shorthand notes would be rushed up to the typing room by a waiting messenger as fast as they were taken down from the Doctor’s lips… (26)

Williams writes of His ‘magnetic personality’ (32), that ‘he seemed to cast a spell over those who worked with him’ (33) and this (again, this sounds so familiar):

There were times when I got very tired of these long hours, but I was always conscious of the fact that however much the Doctor required of his staff, he was giving far more himself, and I was loath to complain. (33)

Beyond all question, Dr Barnardo was an autocrat. He knew it, and acknowledged it, but hoped he was “a benevolent autocrat.” (35)

He was also often quite deaf. Not that those things are necessarily connected, but he doesn’t strike me as a great listener.

There’s a nice awkward section about the women who worked for him as well, a little kindly misogyny thrown in:

Dr Barnardo employed a large number of women; some in administrative work; a number as clerks; others as superintendents, nurses, cottage mothers, etc. No one could have won the wholehearted devotion of these women helpers more than he did, or have made fuller use of their abilities. Some had a record of many years service, and he valued their help; yet he frequently declared in his humorous way that being “a poor ignorant male, a stupid common-sense kind of creature,” women completely mystified him, and he found them utterly inexplicable. (37-38)

Ah, women and the ways that they operate without common sense. He was inexplicably married — for convenience and to further the work really, his wife rarely appears in these pages. There are, of course, rumours of pedophilia, but at least at the last stage of his life, it honestly seems hard to see how he could have managed it surrounded by such a beehive of workers waiting upon his direction at all hours.

A missionary to East London instead of China

Reading this you get a sense of East London as foreign and in need of Christian redemption as the furthest reaches of what Europeans held (wrongly) as the civilised world. He became involved in the Ragged Schools in 1866, and Williams describes what he states is the well-known story of how Dr Barnardo came into his work through his encounter with his first ‘street arab’. (There is so much to be unpacked in that term alone). The little boy asked him if he could stay over night as he had nowhere else to go. Barnardo, so the story goes, didn’t believe there were homeless children — so he bribed Jim Jarvis with coffee and place to sleep to show him where other children hid away to sleep. Bob’s your uncle, the Dr Barnardo we know today began to emerge.

He just happened to be at a dinner with Lord Shaftesbury soon afterwards — he convinced him to come along and see for himself the state of these children, and they agreed something must be done.

Dr Barnardo’s rescue operation started in a donkey stable, moved to Bale Street and expanded to Hope Place in Stepney. In 1870 he expanded to Stepney Causeway — and although the building was demolished, Williams states that the door now sits in entrance hall of Barnardo Headquarters. I wonder if it’s still there?

No.10 Stepney Causeway
No.10 Stepney Causeway

Describing the early days, Barnardo wrote:

“Many a happy hour was spent in whitewashing walls and ceilings, scrubbing floors, and otherwise putting the place into a suitable condition for the reception of my first family. Then I spent two whole nights upon the streets of London, cast my net upon the ‘right side of the ship,’ and brought to shore twenty-five homeless lads all willing and eager to accept such help as I could give them.” (74)

His language is, of course highly biblical. Williams describes his forays, and again you think to yourself, he might as well have been on a mission in China given how they describe these neighbourhoods in their own city — resulting from desperate poverty and inequality and exploitation.

It was customary for him to sally forth at midnight, clad in great coat and top hat, and carrying a dark lantern, to take his way through filthy, loathsome slums; down alleys where a policeman stood at the entrance and warned wayfarers not to proceed; into the communal kitchens of the common lodging-houses with which London abounded at that time, and where thieves, rogues and vagabonds of every kind gathered. (76)

It seems a waste of a policeman honestly. Still, the one nice thing about this book is that it allows some sense of resistance, and the irrepressible humour and bravery of the children themselves to occasionally peek through:

As a rule the help the Doctor offered was thankfully accepted, but it was not always so. Sometimes he found it difficult to persuade a homeless youngster, in spite of the sufferings and hardships of a street life, to yield up the freedom to which he had become accustomed, and which he had come to prize. (78)

East London – Dr Barnardo’s hunting grounds

His descriptions of East London and its people are quite infuriating:

We learn that people were ignorant and untaught. The streets were only dimly lit at night-time by feeble, flickering gas lamps, and were indescribably filthy. The gutters were filled with fetid water, and decaying cabbage leaves, potato parings and other refuse damned the gratings. The gin shops kept open until all hours of the night. (80)

And here is how he saw its inhabitants — wild animals seeking their own. As if people had multiple options, as though poverty were their choice.

A more unsavoury, ignorant and generally repellent rookery it would be hard to find. Street traders had made the street, with its many courts and alleys, their chosen home. The successful thief, resting in ill-gotten plenty, was neighbour to the luckless adventurer whom disease and famine had driven into his last earthly retreat, to die unheeded and unpitied by the great world without. Birds of a feather flocked together in this degraded colony. When a choked water pipe leading from the roof of a building was examined, it was found to be blocked up with empty purses which had been tossed on to the roof…People herded there whose chance of getting their daily bread each morning was more precarious than that of wild animals who picked up their sustenance in the open country. The lowest depths of all we seen in the precocious depravity of the juvenile population. (80)

It’s almost amusing then, when Dr Barnardo — recognising that lodging houses held many children — did not last one night when he himself attempted to stay in one as ‘research’. He dressed as a tramp, and one of ‘his boys’ took him to one, where he was apparently bitten so badly by insects it was three weeks before he was fit to be seen. It is reminiscent of Mary Higgs’ research, but she was hardier and much more thorough.

A little more on the subject though — Williams tells of the time (this is highly anecdotal as you might imagine) Barnardo was trying to rescue messenger boys (their souls really I believe) from a lodging house in Drury lane (and no, that’s not the East End, he really got around). He found out that they were relapsing because girls from the neighbouring lodging house were paying a bribe to the deputy to allow them in three nights a week for carousing. Dr Barnardo put a stop to that by convincing the boys it was immoral, and even to move into other lodgings. He of course blamed the dissoluteness of women — I can come up with a few rather more likely explanations, most of which involve pimps.

Anyway, on his return to original house to check after the souls of the boys, the girls found him there alone in the kitchen and beat him up. You almost rejoice that he was house-bound for a month. He writes:

“To anyone who may smile at this recital of my timidity I would say, ‘Have you ever been thrashed by a woman?’ For, if not, let me remark that few things can be more humbling and fear-begetting than a vigorous chastisement administered by female hands before an approving female audience. (85)

I agree with that statement, but he definitely needed some chastising.

From Stepney he expanded on an ever growing scale. Again the funny Victorian notions of sex and propriety emerge

When the Doctor began his work of rescue on behalf of destitute children, being a young unmarried man he confined his operations to boys (93)

But he soon opened a Village Home for Girls at Barkingside, a number of youth’s labour homes beginning in 1881 (training ‘camps’, probably most problematic). He started a boarding out system, first instituted 1886, where children were sent into the country to live with families until they were 12 or 13, then brought back to London to begin apprenticeships/training. Again, looking at the scale of these operations, the heart quails. For every child given to a good home, I feel fear even at this late date for those children put into the complete power of strangers.

The Uses and Abuses of Empire

Even before this he had begun to send children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — it was 1882 when the first party of 51 boys sailed to Canada.

Everything is here: the power of the wealthy to control the bodies and the futures of the poor, the role of the colonies to soak up those the ruling classes did not want to help or even look at, the land stolen from indigenous peoples in order to provide these children a new start and a new hope based on their citizenship and the colour of their skin. Those children sent into uncertain futures, entirely at the mercy of their new families.

Just to recap: 28,000 boys in total sent by Dr Barnardo to Canada. The book mentions in passing the many other societies then started up to do the same thing, but not as rigorously or as well.

A different kind of migrant crisis. It hurts my heart.

They had to do some work to set the ground to justify all of this, and it is hardly surprising that they did not look too closely at the causes of poverty. The book mentions that children were bought and sold and traded, beaten, made to work, to beg after being made as pitiful and hopeless looking as possible, to thieve… They needed saving. Having read multiple other accounts of poverty, I don’t doubt many did, but it is curious to me why it was able to take this form.

Also curious, though I suppose Victorian morality makes it less curious, is that nowhere is there any mention of sex work even when talking about the buying and borrowing of children, where others like Flora Tristan note that sexual exploitation was often the primary motive.

Speaking of Flora Tristan, who described gin palaces in great fury, it is also curious that Dr Barnardo managed to buy what he describes as one of the most notorious Gin Palaces and Music Halls in Limehouse — the Edinburgh Castle. Dr Barnardo wrote of it:

Here was a powerful force for evil, with seductive charms that some of us can scarcely estimate the force of. I remember well coming to the old place when around the wall, in the intervals between each window, were niches, and in every niche was an indecent statue. On the platform or stage in front a number of girls engaged in dances. In the middle of the room was a bar for the sale of drink. There was a door that led out to the tea-gardens, where all kinds of evil practices went on. Almost every one of the houses overlooking this place were houses of evil character. There were one or two exceptions, bit nearly all were full of persons of infamous life. (90)

They turned it into a hall, churchly entertainment centre, and held ‘waif suppers’ there, you can read a lot more on The Children’s Homes website.

Edinburgh Castle site, Limehouse, c.1896.
Edinburgh Castle site, Limehouse, c.1896.

Stepney Causeway, and his provision for children

I liked the descriptions of what his complex on Stepney Causeway was once like, it is all long gone now of course and I think probably better so.

A large building had been erected in Bower Street, which runs parallel to Stepney Causeway, and this building was linked up by a bridge with the Causeway premises. The Doctor’s Board Room was situated on the first floor of the Bower Street building, and had a fine bay-window overlooking a large paved yard. This yard, with a small extension under a couple of railway arches, was the only playground for four hundred boys…They played cricket and football within its narrow confines, with special rules to fit the circumstances.

It was in the yard at Stepney that they went through their daily physical exercises and drill under the supervision of a retired army instructor. It was there that the Medical Officer would sometimes conduct an open-air inspection of eyes, ears and teeth; and if a boy in the Hospital passed away, the little funeral cortege would cross the yard on its way to the chapel where the funeral service would be held. (28)

At the top of the building was a photographic studio where every child was photographed on admission and again on leaving. Some striking contrasts were obtained in this way. (30)

Those photographs — definitely one of the things that most got him into trouble. That and his habit of taking children from their parents and families with impunity. There was one lawsuit as he sent many of these children to Canada. It is tan ugly side to this work, and his world view that seemed to hold axiomatic that poverty was the fault of the parents, and he had to save children from both. This book recounts only stories of criminal, abusive and gin-sodden relations who would pawn the good clothes given to their children (though boots or bread, a hard choice) for whom there might have been a case the child needed to be removed for their own wellbeing. Yet clearly many more must have simply been poor and desperate. There is little to no thought to conditions or opportunities for these families as a whole. Much of me revolts in an enormous ‘how dare he’.

The enormous and ugly class prejudice is most obvious when Williams discusses Barnardo’s guardianship over boys who were not poor. He writes:

There was one special feature of the Doctor’s work which impressed me very much. He was frequently approached by parents or guardians of young people of the middle and upper classes for advice and assistance in difficult cases; boys and girls addicted to dishonest habits or tainted by the bad example of servants, or who, through lack of proper management, had become uncontrollable and defiant.

Never the bad example of upper class parents, or abuse or alienation, oh no. He blames servants. It’s quite extraordinary.

There is, finally, a quaint sentimentality that pervades all, this will give you a sense of it:

Children turned to him instinctively as though they understood his love…”Boys and girls have always been fond of me,” he wrote on one occasion, “and I need not say I have always been very fond of them. I don’t quite know what it is that makes children so attractive to me; but although I have had many who have been crippled and sadly deformed, and some who have been afflicted with dreadful disorders, I think I may say of a truth I have never seen a really ugly child!” (47)

There are several stories of helping crippled children that have a polished and well practiced air to them, which is quite distasteful. There are many stories of his relationships, but then you read this:

In his later years Dr Barnardo had nearly eight thousand children in his charge, and one could not help being deeply impressed by the personal interest he took in each member of his great family. (50)

and you have to question them. I confess after reading this I am less interested in the character of Dr Barnardo himself, or the charges often raised against him. Instead I question the position he was allowed to fill, the sentimentality and prejudice that made it possible, the sources of the conditions that justified a means that would never be acceptable today. This is vastly different than the work of say Father Potter, who also took in boys and helped raise them. As always for us now suspicions are raised, but in his case it is also clear why it was that he could not see a boy asleep in the street and not give him a home. That makes sense to me without being in a position to much judge any ulterior motives (and I like to hope there were not) — unlike the wholesale removal of tens of thousands of children from either the streets or their own homes and families. Their repatriation across the world to further build empire.

There is so much to think about here, and the impact this one man alone and the organisations he set into motion were able to inflict on so many kids. Never even imagined here are the gaps left in the community, the holes in the hearts and the homes left by those children as they were shipped off abroad. The trauma of those events. The ways they facilitated the maintenance of an illusion of a prosperous society and eradicated the elements that might call this illusion to account, while also consolidating the empire.

How dare they, I think again.

[Williams, A. E. (1953) Barnardo of Stepney: The Father of Nobody’s Children. Liverpool: Guild Books.]

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