Barnado’s waifs in Britain and Canada

Boys from the slums of English cities, sheltered on an unknown date by Bernardo Homes. By 1939, some 30,000 Barnardo children were brought to Canada, the boys working on farms and the girls working as domestic servants. Wikimedia Commons, Wellcome Library, London, Welcome Images.


“The August-September issue of the National Waif’s Magazine, the official organ of Barnardo Homes, contains the 37th report of this national and philanthropic work,” reports the Regina Standard, November 5, 1904.

The man behind the Barnardo Homes, Thomas John Barnardo, probably did more to rescue abandoned and destitute British children from lives of hunger, sickness, crime, and prostitution than any other individual. Many found new lives in Canada.

An argumentative and rebellious student, Barnardo never graduated from grammar school in his native Dublin but at age 17 suddenly became an evangelic convert and taught Bible classes at a ragged school. Ragged schools were independent schools that offered free education to waifs, and usually free food, clothing and lodging. A ragged school was Charles Dickens’ inspiration for A Christmas Carol. Ragged school students, Dickens later wrote, “are too ragged, wretched, filthy and forlorn to enter any other place” (London Daily News, March 13, 1852).

At 21, Bernardo moved to London to study medicine, intent on becoming a medical missionary to China. It took him 14 years to become a doctor because he spent most of his time, teaching, preaching, writing and raising money to aid waifs. Three years after he arrived in London, he had raised enough money to establish his first home for homeless children. By the time he died in 1905 at age 60, he had raised £3.25 million—equivalent to $150 million in 2017 Canadian dollars— and Barnardo Homes had sheltered 60,000 waifs.

Better known in Canada are the Barnardo children who emigrated here. By 1903, their numbers totalled 13,657, according to the Regina Standard. When the last arrived in 1939, they totalled some 30,000. They were housed in homes established in Toronto, Peterborough and Winnipeg, before the boys were apprenticed as farm labourers and the girls as domestic servants. From 1887 to 1908, older Barndardo boys received an eight-month farming apprenticeship at the Industrial School for Barnardo Boys, near Russell Manitoba. Many later homesteaded in Western Canada.

There are thought to be more than a million descendants of Bernardo children now living in Canada.


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