If a homeless, hungry child were found sleeping in an empty barrel in your town, you can imagine what a sensation it would cause. But in London, England, a century ago, hundreds of children were living in such conditions, and they considered themselves lucky if they could find even an unoccupied barrel to sleep in.
It is difficult today to realize that such misery could exist in what was then one of the richest cities in the world. The East End in London was a filthy slum, teeming with ragged, starving children whose only means of existence was to sell matches, shine shoes, or steal. Food was attained wherever it could be found—scrounged from garbage cans and gutters or begged from house to house.
To make matters worse, in July 1866, a serious cholera epidemic reached England from the continent of Europe. London was hardest hit. Fifty-six hundred people died there in a matter of days.
The sight of hundreds of abandoned children roaming the streets, their parents having been victims of the epidemic, helped Thomas John Barnardo decide to establish homes for children who had no one to care for them and no place to live.
At the time of the cholera epidemic, Thomas Barnardo was training at the London Hospital to become a medical missionary to China. He was also a good Christian and, after a busy day at the hospital, he would spend his evenings telling people in the streets of East London about the teachings of Jesus.
One evening he came across an old tumbledown donkey shed. With the help of a few friends he patched it up and opened it as a “ragged school” (the name given to schools for poor children in those days) and taught an ever-increasing number of East End children there every evening. Besides hearing lessons, the children had a place where they could be warm and sheltered for a few hours.
One night, after lessons were over and Dr. Barnardo was turning out the gas jets, he noticed that a boy called Jim remained behind. Jim pleaded to be allowed to stay as he had no home, no parents, and nowhere to go. The previous night he had slept in a hay cart. This shocked Dr. Barnardo. He knew there must be many other children in London who were homeless and hungry.
Dr. Barnardo took Jim back to his own lodgings, gave him a good meal, and then asked him if he knew of other children in the East End who also needed shelter.
Jim offered to show Dr. Barnardo lots of “lays” where boys and girls who had no homes were sleeping. Late that night the boy led Thomas down dark alleyways and into all sorts of unpleasant corners where children in tattered rags were sleeping, often with no cover over them.
A few days later Dr. Barnardo spoke at a meeting and told those who attended about the shameful condition of children in the city’s slum areas—children for whom no one cared.
The newspapers reported Dr. Barnardo’s words and many wealthy and important people accused him of making statements that were either untrue or greatly exaggerated. No one seemed interested in helping to change this sad situation. At a time when the doctor was most discouraged, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who was a great lover of children, came to his aid. Someone finally believed Dr. Barnardo!
The Earl organized a private dinner party and invited many of the people who had disputed Dr. Barnardo’s words. At the end of the meal the Earl arranged it so that Dr. Barnardo could take his critics by lantern light on a night tour of the lays and prove his claims.
At the very first lay visited, in Billingsgate Fish Market, were seventy-three homeless, hungry, and uncared-for boys huddled together under tarpaulins stretched over piles of fish boxes. Many more were sleeping in empty barrels. Long before the tour was over Dr. Barnardo had convinced the doubters.
Shortly after this experience, the Earl of Shaftesbury suggested that Dr. Barnardo give up the idea of becoming a medical missionary in China and help the slum children instead. It was a difficult decision for the doctor to make and he prayed for guidance.
Shortly afterward he received a letter from a wealthy Member of Parliament offering to provide £ 1,000 (about $2,000) toward a home for destitute children if, instead of going to China, Dr. Barnardo would remain in London to run it.
He believed this to be an answer to prayer, and opened his first home for boys in Stepney Causeway. Three years later he married and used a wedding gift of a large house to set up a home for girls. His work was blessed and other homes followed.
Today the Barnardo homes house the largest family in the world. At least 8,000 children are being cared for in 100 homes. During the past 100 years, more than 200,000 children have been given a temporary home.
One day, shortly after the first Barnardo Home was opened, a pale and ragged boy asked Dr. Barnardo to take him in. Regretfully, Barnardo had to refuse, for the house was already full. He gave the lad, known as Carrots, some money and asked him to come back later. Carrots never returned, for during that week he died from cold and hunger.
Barnardo vowed that he would never let such a thing happen again. Without delay he had erected over the door of the home a signboard that read, “No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission.” From that day to this, no matter what the hour of day or night, that pledge has been honored.
Barnardo’s doors are always open and no deserving child is ever turned away.
“Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not …” (Luke 18:16.)