A report on the society’s visit to the Ragged School Museum
Who was born in Dublin in 1845, the sickly fifth child of the second wife and not thought to survive?
Who was encouraged by his mother to go to an evangelist meeting in 1862 at the age of 16 where he ‘found’ Christ and later joined the Plymouth Brethren?
Who was committed to temperance yet it is believed he started his working life as an apprentice to a wine merchant?
Who moved to London in 1866 at the age of 20 to train as a missionary to China?
Who was rejected by the Mission because, it is said, his energy and zeal made him unsuitable?
Who had an incredible ability to organise and whose desk contained an array of pigeonholes for that purpose?
Who, had a timing clock on his desk operated by ivory discs of various sizes each with a time value and, arguably, invented time management?
Who adopted the title of Dr before he was qualified to do so?
Who died in 1905 and was, unusually for the time, cremated with his ashes buried in the grounds of his Barkingside children’s home?
We are, of course, talking about Thomas John Barnardo. SoG Members and guests were treated to these and many other snippets about his life, by Erica Davies, the Director of the Ragged School Museum on Copperfield Road, Mile End, during a visit on the 21st August 2012. Yet in over an hour she was only able to scrape the surface of a lifetime dedicated to the poor and needy.
In 1877, Barnardo rented a canal side warehouse to convert to a ragged school and todays museum was an adjacent building which he added to his ragged school in 1895 because of overcrowding. Copperfield Road Ragged School was not the first by any means but was the largest, accommodating nearly 300 children in day classes rising to over a thousand by 1895. In addition, there was a playground in the basement for the younger children, evening classes for the older working children and a gymnasium for the boys. The Sunday School was attended by 2500 at that time. The children were also provided with free breakfast and dinner which in 1888 alone amounted to a staggering 68,000 free meals. The school bell still remains and is shown in the photo below.
His first venture into missionary work with children was in 1866 when he took two cottages in Limehouse and founded the East End Juvenile Mission which ran a ragged school, church services, bible & sewing classes. It proved to be a turning point in his life’s work. One evening, a child remained behind and begged to stay the night in front of the fire. The boy was not only an orphan but was also homeless, sleeping rough on the streets. It was then that Barnardo discovered there were many similar children who had somehow slipped the Poor Law net and he opened his first boy’s home at Stepney Causeway.
With his unbounding energy and exceptional organisational skills he went on to found not just a few ragged schools but a whole network of institutions aimed at helping the poor and disadvantaged lead more fulfilling lives. His overriding aim was to save, educate, train and find employment for these children, enabling them to lead decent, Christian, family lives. He bought the Edinburgh Castle public house and converted it into a Coffee Palace for Working Men. He created the Boot Blacking Brigade, the City Messenger Brigade, the Wood Chopping Brigade, the Servants Free Registry and Training School, the Factory Girls Club & Institute, the Working Lads Institute and a host of other similar opportunities to help those at the bottom of the human pile to gain their independence through employment.
He produced a relentless stream of pamphlets, aimed at tugging the heart strings in a way that today would be seen as exploitation or politically incorrect and even in those Victorian times got him frequently into trouble. Yet they helped him to raise during his life time the staggering sum of over £3 million (worth £200 million at today’s prices), without which he could not have helped the thousands who passed through his hands. Some of his methods bordered on the criminal but always with the children’s interests at heart. Sending children to Canada became a contentious issue because of some well publicised failures but there were many hundreds more who were helped to a prosperous life in a new country. Neither were they sent to fend for themselves. Before they left, Barnardo ensured that a proper care structure was in place and each child had a bank account into which their wages were paid and saved until they were 21.
His funeral came as close to a State Funeral as imaginable, demonstrating the love and affection the East End had for Thomas John Barnardo. His body lay in the People’s Mission Church at the Edinburgh Castle for four days where thousands of people came to pay their last respects. On the day of the funeral, thousands lined the streets, shops closed and the cortege was followed by 1500 boys from his many homes and institutions.
Even now, more than 100 years since his death, Thomas John Barnardo is still an inspiration and led me to seek out so much more of the life story of this remarkable man, beyond the commonly held perception of his Children’s homes and questionable practice of sending of children to Canada.
– Barry Hepburn
The Ragged School Museum is located at 46-50 Copperfield Road, London E3 4RR. For more information, visit their website
© 2012, Society of Genealogists. All rights reserved.
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