Dr. Barnardo: Saint or Villain?

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

—British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1845)

Was Dr. Barnardo a saint or a villain? The reality is that humans are far too complex to put into a neat box like that. Who of us is all bad or all good? In fact we are all mostly varying shades of grey—sometimes literally if we’re over 50! The psychologist Carl Jung taught us that the human psyche is made up of a collective unconscious, an unconscious and a conscious mind. In the unconscious lurks our shadow side—the part of human nature that starts wars, steals food from the mouths of children, or beats a wife. And we’re equally composed of a light side, the part that will expend endless energy to help strangers, save a dog from drowning, or shovel a neighbour’s driveway in wintertime. Russian evolutionary scientist Peter Kropotkin, in his book Mutual Aid, proved that humans are as hard-wired to help as they are to compete, if not more so.

A popular portrait of Dr. Barnardo.

A popular portrait of Dr. Barnardo.

Dr. Barnardo was a living embodiment of the Victorian era, with all its contradictions—its light and shadow side. In many ways it was a progressive era, with the first stirrings of the drive toward women’s rights that would finally blossom in the 20th century. We forget today that the concept of a childhood as we know it today did not exist in the 19th century except in idealized images of children as ‘little angels.’ But these sanitized images hid a much darker reality. The rosy-cheeked images of well-fed children found in Victorian books and magazines represented but a narrow slice of the population—the children of the richest in British society. For the poor—who comprised the majority—the reality was overcrowded, filthy tenements with a single standpipe in a courtyard for water, open sewers and regular outbreaks of deadly diseases like cholera. Annie Macpherson’s journals according to her niece Lilian Birt suggest a child mortality rate in London’s East End as high as four out of five children younger than five years. (Children’s Ghosts, p. 65) These shocking conditions were well portrayed by Charles Dickens and more recently by Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, depicting Irish slums as late as the mid-20th century. People sometimes forget that Dickens started as a journalist, so his depictions of Victorian poverty in novels like Oliver Twist were based on observation.

So how is it Dr. Barnardo embodied the contradictions of Victorian society? On the one hand, as I write in Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, whether we’re speaking of Dr. Barnardo, Annie Macpherson, William Booth or any of the other philanthropists who went into the bowels of British cities to help out, “You don’t walk into an inferno like that unless you’re powerfully motivated by some form of altruism.” Yet we know—despite the fact that Dr. Barnardo’s policy was not to allow physical punishment—that it did happen in his Homes. We know that despite the best of intentions, boys and girls were abused, whether in the Homes in Britain or on Canadian farms. This is a fact and we do these children an injustice if we turn away from it or try to hide it. We owe those boys and girls acknowledgement and truth. We owe them what so many were not given in their own lives—their own story. All of it—the light and the shadow.

A colour plate from the 'Our Darlings' magazine, one of many published by Barnardo's showing an idealized image of Victorian childhood. Courtesy Ivy Sucee Collection.

A colour plate from the ‘Our Darlings’ magazine, one of many published by Barnardo’s showing an idealized image of Victorian childhood. Courtesy Ivy Sucee Collection.

So what went wrong? How did someone like Annie Macpherson or Dr. Barnardo end up at the head of an organization where abuses crept in? A hint is given in the economics text Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher. In Children’s Ghosts, I write: “The problem seems partly to be one of scale—beyond a certain size, an organization too easily goes off the tracks originally laid out for it.” Australian social scientist Dr. Barry M. Coldrey has examined the factors that led to widespread sexual and physical abuses in charitable homes and institutions. “Often the staff were almost as deprived as the young people for whom they were caring. In fact, some had been raised in institutions themselves. They had a sparse, sometimes miserable life and projected their frustrations on to the children.” In other words, many were themselves victims of abuse. Dr. Barnardo, even with his controlling nature, was simply unable to ensure everyone who worked for him was purely motivated. The same thing happened in Fairbridge Farm Schools, both in Canada and Australia. The discovery of a secret register of payoffs in a ledger book in Western Australia has resulted in a major lawsuit against Fairbridge. And the same thing happened here in the Indian residential schools.

In my conclusion to Children’s Ghosts, I continue: “Then there’s the old equation of power. Under a patriarchal system—or any system of hierarchy—there’s bound to be abuse of authority. It’s inevitable. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Dr. Barnardo to some extent illustrates this point. Starting off as an eager missionary in London’s East End, he demonstrated real compassion for destitute children and he set about doing something about it while others were content to let the poor rot. (However) by insisting upon total control of his organization, Dr. Barnardo allowed his ‘bad wolf’ too much room, so that the desire to help children became a possessive demon, ready to snatch children forcibly away from their parents.”

This is the more accurate representation of Britain's urban poor in Victorian times. Image public domain

This is a more accurate representation of Britain’s urban poor in Victorian times. Image public domain

So on one hand, you have a man who—by all accounts—adored children and expended his life energies helping them, perhaps working himself to an early grave. Yet on the other, you have a man who believed he had the absolute moral authority to pass judgment on their parents and take charge of their children’s lives. This is hardly surprising given the tenor of the times, when you had social revisionists like Robert Thomas Malthus writing that the poor were “surplus population” and therefore disposable. “This is how Christian England treated her widows and fatherless orphans…” wrote Lilian Birt in her memoirs. It was also an age when the church doctrine of inherent sinfulness was propagated. And if you were poor in a class hierarchy like Britain’s in the 19th century, you were even more sinful than anyone else. “The terms ‘vicious’ and ‘depraved’ were often used in connection with poor parents dealing with chronic unemployment or alcoholism.” (Children’s Ghosts, p. 87) You therefore literally needed “saving” from yourself by someone of greater moral purity. And the pious were all to ready to place themselves in that position. In Marjorie Kohli’s book The Golden Bridge (p. 110), she writes: “Annie Macpherson, Louisa Birt and William Quarrier would, as a rule, only emigrate with parental consent. Barnardo, however, required the ‘Canada Clause’ to be signed when a child was placed in the home and was pleased, states Gillian Wagner in her book Children of the Empire, “to call it philanthropic abduction.” Barnardo even pursued some cases through the courts…”

Child emigration as a solution to the massive poverty problem in Britain—as high as 30 percent in London in the 1890s—was a dubious solution. It seems to have been equal parts expediency—trying to keep up with the relentless flood of human misery coming through orphanage doors—and profiteering. As I write in Children’s Ghosts, there were dissenting voices to the practice even in its heyday. Catharine Garrett of the Manchester (Chorlton) Board of Guardians in 1910 protested that the indentured labour contracts Home Children in Canada had to serve until legal age would be illegal in England. (p. 71) Another trustee on the Manchester board, William Skivington, protested that the whole child emigration scheme smacked of “traffic in child labour.” (p. 72) But sadly, these conscientious voices were the minority, drowned out by the chorus of child emigrationists eager to populate the colonies with British stock and cheap labour. The notion promoted by some philanthropists that they were sending children to Canada for adoption is false. Federal child immigrant inspector George Bogue Smart wrote in 1905: “Juvenile immigration assists in filling a gap in an important branch of our labour market, and numbers of farmers regard the influx of the so-called English Home child as a veritable boon.”

These 'before and after' images were used to raise money for Barnardo's before controversy forced him to stop using them. Courtesy Ivy Sucee Collection

These ‘before and after’ images were used to raise money for Barnardo’s before controversy forced him to stop using them. Courtesy Ivy Sucee Collection

The British upper classes and aristocracy found child emigration an expedient solution to a social problem the excesses of the Industrial Revolution had created. Annie Macpherson was among the few of her day who clearly saw that it was the “captains of industry,” as they were known, who were content to become rich off the backs of the poor while leaving them next to nothing. Rather than seek some sort of social reform to deal with the burgeoning poverty problem, the Earl of Derby stated: “We are and we must be an emigrating country.” It would take a new century and advances in child psychology and sociology for a system of social services to be established. Tragically, we now seem to be reversing those gains in the name of global capitalism.

So once again, we must ask: Was Dr. Barnardo—and his contemporaries in the child emigration movement—a saint or a villain? There is no simple answer. Like many of his era, he unquestioningly accepted the social order that created so many millions of victims. The Victorians liked to deal with symptoms, not causes, and there was certainly a boom in philanthropy. The best that can be said of Barnardo is that he tried to do good and often failed. At times he actually caused harm. But was he a villain? Not exactly. Was he a saint? Hardly. Like all of us, he had a light and a dark side. Sometimes the darkness won, and sometimes the light.

NOTE: All research sources are thoroughly noted in the 40 pages of footnotes I include in Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest. However, I am grateful to Andrew Simpson of Manchester, who discovered the dissenting voices in the Manchester Board of Guardians early in the last century.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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