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culture

Historicist: Dr. Barnardo’s Children

Dr. Thomas Barnardo brought thousands of destitute children through Toronto.

Dr. Thomas John Barnardo, date unknown. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4205613.

Born in Dublin in 1845, Thomas Barnardo converted to evangelical Christianity as a teenager and soon developed an urge to perform missionary work in China. Like many of his era, Barnardo saw medicine as a means of administering charity and advancing his religious beliefs, and thus he relocated to London to train as a doctor. His experiences with the many destitute children in Victorian London soon steered him in a new direction that would make him famous across the British Empire for a lifetime of work to improve the lot of impoverished children, and the founding of a charity that still bears his name today.

In 1870, Barnardo opened his first home for destitute boys. The home provided shelter, food, clothes, and some rudimentary work training designed to break the cycle of urban poverty and enable the boys to earn a living once they reached adulthood. The Barnardo’s website points out that this work with the poor was somewhat rare in its time, as “the Victorians saw poverty as shameful and the result of laziness or vice. But Barnardo refused to discriminate between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.”

Over the next decade, Barnardo’s work and fame grew. He and his wife were soon operating dozens of homes in England, taking in boys and girls and providing them with amenities and training. In addition, his network of sites soon included workshops that taught teenage boys practical crafts like carpentry and brush-making.

Although he initially housed the children in sizeable groups, Barnardo was conscious to avoid an environment that exploited children, like the much-maligned workhouse system. Thus, he initiated a practice in which healthy children of good apparent character were boarded out with families, usually in rural or suburban communities, away from the urban slums. Beginning in the early 1880s, Barnardo hit upon another project he believed would be beneficial to his children, and which was somewhat controversial even in its own time: sending impoverished children to Canada, in the hopes they would find a better life there.

Girls from one of Dr. Barnardo’s homes, date unknown. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3367684.

Barnardo’s immigration program, despite many criticisms, was certainly well-intentioned and more carefully considered than other similar schemes of the era. His primary goal, of course, was to provide better living conditions and more opportunities for children than those offered in the horrible, Dickensian slums of England. He also believed his program benefited both countries, as it would lessen the burden on England while providing Canada with much-needed English-speaking labour. Indeed, Barnardo’s own records show that, once his immigration program was firmly established, he usually had difficulty finding enough children to meet the Canadian demand. “Well-planned and wisely conducted child emigration,” Barnardo wrote, “especially to Canada, contains within its bosom the truest solution to some of the mother country’s most perplexing problems, and the supply of our Colonies’ most urgent needs.”

While children of all ages and backgrounds were accepted into the Barnardo homes in England, only those at least 14 years old and meeting certain standards were to be sent to Canada. In theory, each child who went to Canada was to meet requirements in health and moral character, with Barnardo proudly claiming that only the cream of his program would be making the voyage. In appraising his career in 1905, however, the Globe wrote that “in the early stage of the experiment not enough care was taken to select the proper kind of emigrants, and the work was regarded with a great deal of distrust in this country.”

Once in Canada, the Barnardo children were first sent to distribution centres, until a suitable placement could be found for them. These placements were generally labour-based: a Barnardo child might expect to work on a family farm as an agricultural labourer, or as some other form of domestic servant. Although there are some examples of Barnardo children being adopted by the families who took them in, these instances appear to be quite rare.

Barnardo’s first small party of children came to Canada in 1882. After initial results seemed favourable, Barnardo began preparations to increase his immigration scheme. A notice in the Globe in 1883 announced the imminent establishment of a Toronto branch of his institution at the corner of Front and Windsor, and that “from two to three hundred boys and girls of good character and training will be received into it annually” from the Barnardo homes in England.

Barnardo himself first visited Toronto in 1884, to personally inspect the institutions his organization had set up in Canada and to visit with many of the teenage children who had been placed here. During this visit, plans were underway to establish a new Toronto site at 214 Farley Avenue, which is now a part of Richmond Street, between Tecumseth and Bathurst. In the years to come, 214 Farley would serve as the headquarters for Barnardo’s Canadian work under the administration of Alfred de Brissac Owen, and also as a distributing home for boys; an equivalent distributing home for girls was set up in Peterborough. Although it is reasonable to assume that both distributing centres were well-populated, the high demand for Barnardo children meant that 214 Farley was often only occupied by staff.

Photos of Barnardo’s Canadian homes, including 214 Farley at the lower left. Mrs. Barnardo and James Marchant, Memoirs of the Late Dr. Barnardo (Hodder and Stoughton, London: 1907).

While in Toronto, Barnardo explored the city and toured various public institutions, recording favourable impressions in his diary; he found Toronto the Good to be considerably different from the slums of England. His memoirs note approval of the strong religious character of the city, and also the apparent scarcity of alcohol. In his private notes, he wrote that “there is a powerful sentiment throughout all classes of society in favour of temperance, using that word in its best sense. I have been a guest in many families, but I have never once been offered beer or wine, and I never once saw it on the table in any private house where I called.”

The building on Farley Avenue remained the Canadian headquarters for Barnardo, as he worked on building up a larger immigration network. Despite being apparently pleased with Toronto, he still believed that rural and suburban placements were the most appropriate environments for teenagers to blossom into good citizens and Christian adults. In addition to placing children throughout southern Ontario, Barnardo also worked on several other Canadian projects, most notably a boys’ industrial farm in Russell, Manitoba.

Barnardo made three other known visits to Toronto, in 1887, 1890, and 1900, each time personally inspecting his facilities and making a series of public appearances, often at public meeting halls or churches, where his speeches would address the variety of criticisms levied against his organization.

“A group of young girls connected with Dr. Barnardo’s home in Toronto.” The Globe, September 30, 1905.

Barnardo was certainly not the first to consider relocating English slum-dwellers to Canada; several others had organized similar schemes in the 19th century, either with children or with adults, apparently with mixed results. Thus, when Barnardo’s work in Canada began, several Toronto newspapers expressed apprehension about the work, worried that England would be shipping troublemakers and future criminals to the colonies.

Of considerable concern in the Toronto press was the quality of children being brought in. Toronto newspapers were quick to report any example of a Barnardo child breaking a law. Barnardo would refute these connotations by providing statistics indicating that his children had a lower criminal rate than that of the general Canadian population. These statistics, however, do not necessarily indicate how effectively these children were assimilated into the Canadian population. Writing in 2001, Kenneth Bagnell cites a conversation Barnardo had with John Joseph Kelso, a local journalist and social crusader. Kelso pointed out that “girls who fail are lost sight of, [so] they don’t show up in your statistics, because they don’t end up in court. . . . The same with boys who run away.”

A further objection was that England was exporting children when Ontario had children of its own who needed help. In a Toronto Star interview with John Joseph Kelso, a reporter explained that Kelso “deserves to be known as the Canadian Barnardo. The only difference between the famous Doctor and Mr. Kelso, and it is an important one, is that the former gathers up young waifs of London and unloads them on Canada, whilst the latter endeavours to prevent the neglected children of his own province from becoming paupers dependent on the charity of the public.”

Dr. Barnardo. Rev. John Herridge Batt, Dr. Barnardo: The Foster-Father of “Nobody’s Children.” (S.W. Partridge & Co., London: 1904).

The loudest opposition to Barnardo’s work in Canada came from the labour movement, and in particular the Toronto Trades and Labour Council. In their eyes, Barnardo was importing a cheap form of labour from outside of Canada, often with the financial support of local government.

An 1888 Toronto Mail article on a Trades and Labour Council meeting reveals some of the public dispute Barnardo had with the Council. The Council cites Barnardo as calling his detractors “agitators,” who are “utterly reckless as to the accuracy of the statements they disseminate,” and notes Barnardo’s objection to his immigrants being described as “another batch of little paupers on their way from Dr. Barnardo’s.” The Council responded to Barnardo by referring to “the tactics through which this man secures money and countenance from the gullible, and a fat living for himself,” and petulantly rejoined that they “are very ready to acknowledge an error in calling his consignment of waifs ‘little paupers,’ for a more correct term to apply would have been ‘big paupers,’ as many of those imported to Canada in the past sported a fair growth of whiskers.”

In 1890 (some sources say 1900), Barnardo’s visit to Toronto lined up with the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, which had a particularly strong agricultural focus at the time. Many former Barnardo boys, now grown up and residing in southern Ontario, chose to visit Toronto during this time, drawn by both the Exhibition and by the opportunity to meet Dr. Barnardo himself. Although Barnardo appears to have stayed at the Queen’s Hotel during this visit, he spent much time at his headquarters on Farley, where the local administrators took in any former Barnardo boy who wished to visit. In a letter to his wife, Barnardo wrote, “[W]e keep open house for them for the whole week while the exhibition lasts. Until last night two hundred and forty fellows had registered their names in our book as visitors during the week. . . . Then we took them last night out on the lake. We chartered a steamboat and had them for a moonlight expedition. . . . It was lovely and the young men enjoyed this immensely. It was something good to hear their cheers!”

Dr. Barnardo’s Peter Street site seen at left on the 1913 Goad fire insurance map.

Barnardo’s trip in 1900 would be his last in Canada. Although only 55, his life’s work was by all accounts exhausting, and he died of heart problems five years later. Although Toronto journalists had frequently criticized him and the Barnardo children during his lifetime, the local press mourned his passing and expressed admiration for his work and his dedication. The Telegram wrote that between “17,000 to 18,000 boys and girls have been sent to Canada since the Canadian branches were established in 1882,” and notably praised Barnardo for having “kept in touch with the graduates of his homes till their success in life seemed assured.”

Barnardo’s charity continued to send children to Canada for many years following the death of its founder. In Toronto, operations soon relocated from Farley Avenue to 50-52 Peter Street (now Blue Jays Way), and later to 538 Jarvis, at Isabella. Child immigration ended in 1939 due to a variety of reasons, including the Second World War and changes in Canadian legislation. While Barnardo’s shifted its focus during the 20th century, it remains one of Great Britain’s most active child welfare charities to this day.


Additional material from: Kenneth Bagnell, The Little Immigrants: The Orphans Who Came to Canada, New Ed. (Dundurn, Toronto: 2001); Mrs. Barnardo and James Marchant, Memoirs of the Late Dr. Barnardo (Hodder and Stoughton, London: 1907); The Globe (July 10, 1883; August 5, October 3, 1884; October 26, 1887; July 26, August 4, August 5, 1890; October 27, 1894; September 21, September 25, September 30, 1905; April 16, 1907; January 9, 1909; January 30, 1922); The Toronto Evening Mail (October 6, 1888); The Toronto News (May 6, 1884); (Roy Parker, Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867-1917 (UBC Press, Toronto: 2008); The Toronto Star (October 20, 1894; March 9, March 22, 1895; July 27, 1898; September 20, December 2, 1905); The Toronto Evening Telegram (September 20, September 21, 1905); Gillian Wagner, Barnardo (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London: 1979).


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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