The Charismatic Dr. Barnardo
1. August 14, 1884. Mrs. Whyte and Mrs. Bradburn have reconvened at their favourite teashop. Impeccably dressed, their dresses trimmed in lace, broad summer hats set off by shiny ribbon, they pick delicately at the china plate loaded with bite-sized cakes.
“Well!” says Mrs. Whyte, brushing crumbs from her fingertips. “Wasn’t Dr. Barnardo simply amazing!”
“Yes,” says Mrs. Bradburn. “Imagine, preaching three sermons in one day! Such Christian devotion!”
“Not to mention stamina!”
“Indeed. I’ve read of the good Doctor’s stamina. His poor wife must fret for his health.”
“A shame we couldn’t attend together,” sniffs Mrs. Whyte with a hint of reproof.
Mrs. Bradburn smiles. “Ah yes, my dear, but I can’t imagine you—a good Presbyterian—setting foot in a Methodist church!”
“Really, you mustn’t think me as starched as all that! His Sunday morning sermon at the Opera House was thrilling. His theme was the Book of Revelations, chapter nineteen, verse nine: ‘Happy are those invited to the Lamb’s wedding dinner.’ The marriage of the Christ to the faithful.”
“And did the faithful attend?” asks Mrs. Bradburn with a teasing lilt.
“Indeed they did! To standing room only!” answers Mrs. Whyte triumphantly.
“A wedding feast seems an appropriate choice for a man who feeds the poor, wouldn’t you say? By the way, how long until the Presbyterian Church is finished? Regal as the Opera House is, you can’t go on meeting there forever.”
“Oh, weeks, months, who knows? I leave those details to the men. And how was Dr. Barnardo’s sermon at George Street Methodist Sunday evening?”
“He spoke on the theme, ‘Pilate said unto them, what shall I then do with Jesus, which is called the Christ?’ A reminder that we mustn’t sacrifice Christian devotion to worldly duties no matter how pressing.” Mrs. Bradburn sighs wearily.
Mrs. Whyte smiles. “Well a woman’s work is never done, dear. All part of the cross we must bear. And how did your congregation fare?”
“A full house, just the same. And I hear good things of Dr. Barnardo’s sermon at the YMCA Sunday afternoon.”
“Such dedication! God’s hand must surely be upon him.”
2. Not content to preach three sermons in one day, during his visit to Peterborough Dr. Barnardo not only does a careful inspection of Hazelbrae and its new tenants, but also delivers a lecture in the Opera House on another evening. Once again the house is full, this time to hear of his work with England’s ‘waifs and strays.’ John Burnham, MP for East Peterborough, rises to the podium to speak.
“The large audience present is a proof of the great interest the people of Peterborough feel in the work carried on by Dr. Barnardo, who is well known to all by reputation—in fact his name is a household word,” announces Burnham. “Citizens of Canada cannot, from the absence of want and misery here, appreciate the great work carried on among the teeming millions of London.”
Burnham next offers a summary of Dr. Barnardo’s work over the past 18 years starting with the legendary encounter with street urchin Jim Jarvis. From such humble beginnings, explains Burnham, has arisen a network of homes and training schools providing for 1,300 boys and girls. The annual budget for the work had grown from $1,000 a year to $225,000, testament both to its need and its success.
Burnham’s introduction has the intended effect. When Dr. Barnardo finally steps up to the podium he must modestly wave down thunderous applause. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am at a loss to make you understand the conditions upon which the work was founded. The object of the work is to rescue the perishing, especially as they exist amongst homeless boys and girls. London as well as the Old Country is too full, and it is impossible to find work and subsistence for all. With the prosperity that reigns in Canada the people cannot understand the misery and homelessness that marks London, in which there are vast numbers without a home. Homelessness in London means far more than its same condition in Peterborough.”
Dr. Barnardo explains that London’s licensed and unlicensed lodging houses only have capacity for 58,000, while the rest of the homeless sleep on the street, under archways, in coal carts, on roofs or anywhere else outside police surveillance. But as usual he spices up his narrative with half-truths. “All these are poor, degraded, and live by begging, stealing and crime. Many of these people have brought themselves down by drink and improvidence but if these were to blame, the thousands of children they degraded along with themselves were not to blame, and it was to the rescue of these unfortunates from lives of shame, sin, crime and misery that my work is addressed.”
He repeats in detail the origins of his work in the early 1870s that led to the establishment of the home at Stepney Causeway, now the world headquarters of his operations. “There are more homeless girls than boys in England,” he explains, “and many of these have grown up in such squalor that they barely know what a bed or bath is.” Unlike many in Britain, he does not see these children as inherently evil by virtue of their poverty. “Yet hundreds of them retain, amidst their vicious surroundings, the instincts of virtue, and are capable, if rescued, of becoming respectable and useful members of society.”
Dr. Barnardo speaks of the Girls Village Home at Barkingside, a property he secured with the help of his father-in-law William Elmslie. Established in July 1876, the home attempts to simulate an English village, with its central green and Tudor style cottages, each housing about 20 girls and a ‘cottage mother.’
The Doctor’s astute eye for publicity ensures that he misses nothing. Like Burnham he anticipates his critics, few though they may be. These critics see child emigration as making Canada a dumping ground for the lame, the defective, and the criminal. “Some of these girls have been sent to Canada, and are doing well and leading useful lives. The homes educate and train them but only the flower of the flock is sent to Canada. Though we rescue the morally and physically tainted, we do not send them to Canada.”
Mrs. Whyte and Mrs. Burnham and their social circle will be buzzing with excitement for weeks following Dr. Barnardo’s visit. Many of them are supporters of Hazelbrae and will donate generously. But few of them will have any idea of what becomes of the girls once they are sent out into the Ontario countryside. For the lucky few, it will indeed be the opportunity of a lifetime. For the rest, the stigma of the ‘home child’ will mark them—and their descendants—for life.
Sources: August 14 & 21, 1884 Peterborough Examiner. Special thanks to Heather Aiton-Landry and the Trent Valley Archives for this material.