The contribution to the history of law of physician Thomas John Barnardo was significant in an active interest in protecting children in need.

His life work and legacy were angelic by any standard.He was a pioneer of the recognition of the particular needs of children and, where circumstances warranted it, their emergency extraction from their family home and placement elsewhere. The modern law of child protection is a direct descendant from the outstanding contributions of this amazing medical doctor.

Thomas Barnardo (also spelled Barnado), was born in Dublin in 1845. When he was only two, he was so sick that he was pronounced dead. The undertaker was called and a small, children-sized coffin brought into his house. But during the process of embalming, his heart fluttered and he survived.1

To train as a medical student, to complement his ambition to become a missionary in China, he moved to London.

"The London in which Thomas Barnardo arrived in 1866 was a city struggling to cope with the effects of the industrial revolution. Population doubled between 1821 and 1851 and doubled again before the end of the century. Much of this increase was concentrated in the East End, where overcrowding, bad housing, unemployment, poverty and disease were rife. One in five children died before their fifth birthday."2

Thomas John BarnardoHis observations of the plight of young children particularly in the poor areas of London, effectively change his life. There, Barnardo:

"... saw a sight which, piercing to his heart, uprooted his life plans, and caused him to dedicate his career to the succour and guardianship of the outcast child."3

The insouciance of the common law towards the reality facing poor children is dramatically portrayed in the works of Charles Dicken's. The criminal law would enforce penalties against cruel parents but there was no formal reporting system. The only thing that often saved the child's life was the benevolence and courage of a neighbor who might observe a neglected child or hear the screams of a child being beaten by a drunken and brutal parent. Most significantly, there was no organization set up to accommodate the children who have to live with the convicted parent during and after his punishment by the court.

Barnardo opened the doors of his first home for children in need of protection in 1870 at 18 Stepney Causeway, London.

He wanted his building to be a true home and simulate family life and relationships for his wards. It was not perfect but it was a start. Comments from former residents included:

"Everyone was known by numbers. Mine was number nine and everything I had had to be chain-stitched with the number nine.

"All the long-term children in our home were black. People didn’t want to foster black children."2

But the mere presence of a sanctuary saved lives. The sign on the door:

"No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission"

Dr. Barnardo often took physician positions with local hospitals. This gave him an opportunity to observe children arriving at the hospital without any obvious or adequate parental involvement. Barnardo poster

In 1873, he married Sara Louise Elmslie (1842–1944). They had seven children including one with Down's syndrome.

Barnardo, again, ahead of his time, branched out and opened a dedicated children's hospital, and in 1876, he opened the Girls' Village Home in Ilford, Essex, a home dedicated to girls.

That same year, 1876, he finally completed his formal training as a doctor, but apparently in response to a court case in which he had been charged with referring to himself as a doctor though he had not yet been qualified. He used the publicity surrounding the trial to garner further support from the public to his work.

His homes were not just to feed and give a roof to orphans and for children. Each home was staffed with what we would now know as social workers who would roam the slums, poor districts, streets and roads of their communities, often with Barnardo in tow, with their ear to the ground, looking for signs of children in distress. Later, he was criticized for encouraging the practice of simply abducting a child from circumstances where his social workers believed the child was not being properly supervised or cared for. The strategy still occurs today in modern societies but within the strict confines and requirements of child protection statutes, and is generally known as removal.

One of, but not the only location for finding children in need of protection was the local courthouse, where young children under 8 convicted of crime would get a beating with a birch stick by a local police-officer, and sent back home.

At Dr. Barnardo's homes, the children were given rough aptitude assessments and then organized and sent to specialized training institutes were they would learn rudimentary trades such as carpentry, boot-making, seamanship or training as household servants. This was designed to give the child an opportunity of breaking the family cycle of unemployment and poverty.

Barnardo later branched his services out and vetted foster homes where he would then send children to be raised in foster families, in exchange for a weekly payment to the foster parents by his agency, and a system or regular and random site visits by Barnardo staff to foster homes. Started in Scotland, this later enabled the placement of tens of thousands of English children to foster homes in Canada and Australia.

As the English became familiar with his work, money started to pour in, money or property and especially gifts left in wills.

In 1899, he formalized his organization by incorporating the National Association for the Reclamation of Destitute Waif Children, the name unknown to anyone but lawyers since the entire population referred to his homes by the name Dr. Barnardo’s Homes.

Increasingly, when adults were convicted of cruelty towards their children, the courts would remove the children and place them in the care of Dr. Barnado's Homes. Similarly, in many cases and especially with young children brought before the court and charged with crime, the sentence would be a referral to Dr. Barnardos Homes.

His legacy was profound.

"Victorians saw poverty as shameful and the result of laziness or vice. But Barnardo refused to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor."1

In the success of Barnardo's Homes, a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children sprung up in 1884 and, in turn, triggered the government to enact child protection legislation

After Barnardo died in 1905, his agency was at risk of financial failure but a massive public appeal guaranteed their future. Already, there were 96 Dr Barnardo Homes.

In 1908, England finally enacted a Children Act, strengthened in 1933 by the Children and Young Persons Act. This ground-breaking statutes were entirely modeled on the work of Dr. Thomas John Barnardo and his specialized residences. The new laws allowed citizens or police officers to bring the identity and circumstances of any child observed or suspected of being at risk to the court which was then required to:

"... in a proper case, take steps for removing him from undesirable surroundings."3

In 1935, from J. Wesley's book titled Dr. Barnado:

"His homes can survey 64 years of unbroken service, during which 110,000 children have been redeemed from a condition of destitution, pauperism or crime, While nearly half a million other unfortunates, Mostly kiddies and youths, have been helped by free gifts of clothing, meals and temporary lodging.

"Barnado's Homes can point to the opposite ends of the earth, in Canada and Australia, where old boys (alumni) Have become ministers of state, ministers of religion, missionaries, doctors, barristers, solicitors, headmasters of schools, college lecturers, etc. With equal pride they can point to old girls who are professional singers, expert musicians, nurses, teachers, lecturers, head of business houses, etc."

Today, Barnardo's is the biggest children's charity in the United Kingdom. It is based in London and with an annual budget of £200-million on more than 400 local services aimed at helping Children in need of protection. The charity operates in many Commonwealth countries around the world. One of their outreach programs is a well-known thrift store known as, simply, Barnardo's.


  • Barnado's website [NOTE 2]
  • Children Act 1908
  • Children and Young Persons Act, 1933
  •, Duhaime's Law Hall of Fame
  • Pettifer, Ernest, The Court Resumes (Bradford, UK: Clegg & Sons Ltd., 1945), pages 75-101 [NOTE 1].
  • Wesley, J., Dr. Barnado (1935 - NOTE 3)