Those who believe in the good old days and believe that, overall, things are getting worse in society are likely ill-acquainted with what life was like in the great cities of England and America during the late 19th century and early 20th century. With almost no government run social services to fall back on, the poor lived a hard scrabble life. As usual, those who suffered the most were the children, who often represented an impossible burden to an impoverished family. In Victorian England, being a single mother or having a child out of wedlock condemned the woman to shame and ostracism. As a result, many babies were simply abandoned.
Thousands of orphaned and abandoned children were left to fend for themselves in great squalor and poverty. Few did anything about it.
One man that did care was Dr. Thomas Barnardo, (4 July 1845 – 19 September 1905) an Irish born British philanthropist. Shocked by the poverty and appalling living conditions of children throughout the British Isles, Barnardo set up a series of homes for orphans and foundlings.
The first of Barnardo’s Orphanages, or “Dr Barnardo’s Homes” as he liked to call them, was opened in 1870 in London and by the time that Barnardo died, in 1905, there were 112 such homes established. It is estimated that during his career, Barnardo saved 60,000 children. The Barnardo organization still exists in England.
In 1893, the Strand Magazine, which described itself as “An Illustrated Monthly” ran an article about Barnardo and his orphanage. Pictured below is what the article described as Dr. Bernardo’s Babies’ Castle in Hawkurst. At the time of the article, 1893, there were 28 Barnardo’s orphanages.
The magazine included an obviously staged photograph of a foundling supposedly dropped off at the front steps of the orphanage. The caption reads: “To Dr. Barnardo With Care”
The magazine article where this photo first appeared tells a strange story about the girl in the picture. According to Barnardo, who is quoted, the child was found on the doorstep of a church (as the usual cliche goes) and taken to the nearest workhouse. Later the baby was transferred to Dr. Barnardo’s home for children. Eight years later a woman described as “a lady” arrived at the orphanage claiming that her baby daughter had been stolen by a disgruntled servant and she had been looking for her. She could only supply the date of birth and the date that she had disappeared. Dr. Barnardo showed her a photo album of babies that had been taken in around that date, and she the lady recognized her as her daughter. The girl, now eight, was handed over to her “mother” after some inquiries to determine if she was of good character and had the financial means to support a child. In the days before genetic testing, I suspect that the odds were low that this girl was actually the woman’s daughter. Hopefully, this makeshift adoption ended happily and the woman and child both believed they were actually mother and daughter.
Less obviously staged were the pictures of the inside of the orphanage and the nurses and children who lived there.
In the picture to the left the orphans are depicted praying before bedtime. The Barnardo organization cared about instilling virtues in its young charges. While the Barnardo home offered love and protection to the children, the conditions were still not ideal by today’s standards. Notice the overcrowded communal living. The children are all in beds with metal railings in a single room.
Meals were also communal. In this picture the children are eating heir meals in the large dining hall. The article describes the portions for the children as abundant, so at least this was not an Oliver Twist style workhouse.
The younger children were given nap time in the afternoon as this picture illustrates:
The orphanage was run by nurses and religious sisters. Here are some pictures of the staff:
The pictures below are interesting in many ways. The children certainly appear well cared for. There is no apparent malnutrition and they are wearing nice clothes. It is also interesting that the pictures depict the faces and identities of the children, which speaks to the different concepts of privacy that existed back then.
And so, like the picture above, it is time to say goodbye to this piece of history. I wonder what became of these children and if they went on to have happy lives.
This article about the Barnardo Orphanages – homes for children – was last updated on April 15, 2021.