"Doctor Barnardo" Reviewed

This is not really a biography of Thomas Barnardo. It does include material related to his family background, but the only further information is notice of his marriage and the births and deaths of his children. Neither is it a detailed study of the work done by the Mission. The author does not discuss the practicalities of day to day running of the homes from the perspective of child or guardian. Instead, he looks at the work through the challenges of organisation, administration and finance.

The author’s style is colloquial, which allows him to have one foot in the Victorian era and one in modernity. This should not be a problem, because at best it allows him to make historical curiosities intelligible to his audience. But it also reveals just where the author does not understand his subject. Having devoted a whole chapter to three court cases between Barnardo and Roman Catholic charities, the author gets no deeper than disregarding the affairs as Sectarianism. He cannot comprehend the religious convictions of Barnardo, the opposition or even the culture around them. This is not just a problem with regard to the court cases but in the book as a whole. Since Barnardo’s Christian motives are not a reality to the author, he fails to include them in his interpretation of him as a man.

The Victorian Christians are consigned to history as a necessary, well-meaning step towards the vastly superior modern welfare state. The comparison is often made, that nowadays we would do this, think that, or have that safeguard. But the author is disingenuous. For instance, he finds fault in the Barnardo fostering of British children in Canada without providing anything that resembles evidence. His condemnation is based on the fact that not all of the children grew up to have happy and fulfilled lives. Are we really supposed to think that children leaving the modern care system are guaranteed happiness?

There is a great deal to fascinate in this book, as long as you are willing to acknowledge the author’s perspective and filter his facts as glorified opinions. But it falls short. The author has overcome any Romantic ideals of the Victorian era only to idealise the modern welfare state. He shows at great length how the work of people like Barnardo was lifted first from the hands of individual Christians into committees and then taken on by the State. He relishes the State’s new laws in making the child into a citizen. But that same State would go on to change the status of the child again, so that protection as a citizen only begins at birth and not at conception - only if a child is "wanted". Thomas Barnardo worked tirelessly for the unwanted children of British society because he saw them as not only possessing dirty faces but souls.