Destitute children

Jim Jarvis was a boy who lived in 19th Century London. Jim was an orphan and lived on the street. There were lots of destitute children then who were either orphaned or abandoned and had no place to live. Jim was like all the other ragged children. Their's was a rough life. During the day they wandered through the London East End alleyways begging from strangers. They were always in danger of exploitation by professional criminals. If begging did not work then stealing food from market stallholders was their only alternative to finding food. None went to school or had an adult to care for them. These were the forgotten boys and girls of 19th Century England.

Ragged School Union

At first respectable society avoided pauper children but a movement started and by the 1860s a more caring attitude to the poor had developed. Ten-year-old Jim Jarvis was not totally alone there were people who cared about him. The Ragged School movement gave the care. It was started by John Pound, a shoemaker by trade, who opened the first Ragged School in Portsmouth in 1818. Others took Pound's idea opened these schools. The facility was free for the poor children who attended. It was Lord Shaftesbury who had in 1844 brought such schools together in an organisation called the Ragged School Union. Angela Cotts, of the famous banking family, gave it large sums of money. The movement flourished and by 1866 it was well established and schools were everywhere.

Thomas Barnado

It seems that it was easy to open these schools. A medical student from Ireland called Thomas Barnardo found a disused donkey stable in the East End of London and turned it into a Ragged School. Thomas Barnado, like nearly everyone else, did not fully understand the plight these destitute children were in when he opened his school. Thomas Barnardo planned to be a missionary in China but it would be a little street urchin who would show him the way to his true destiny. The boy's name was Jim Jarvis.

The Donkey Stable, as the school was called attracted children. Jim and his mates often went there in the evenings. They were a rowdy bunch. Here they could be warm, have a meal and were taught reading, writing and arithmetic by volunteers. They would also be given clothes to replace the ragged ones which had worn out. By all accounts the boys liked Thomas Barnardo. They found him a kindly man. He had their respect and they could talk to him.


One cold winter's night Jim was huddled around the fire talking to Barnardo and time past all too quickly. It was time to go home. Barnardo sent the children away. He thought they were going 'home'. The only boy left was Jim. The boy was dressed in tatty but conventional clothes. These were ready made and most likely third hand clothes. He wore long trousers and a checked shirt. Over the shirt he wore a waistcoat. He wore a pair of worn out boots. The boy's face was pale but filled with dignity and intelligence. The warm fire was inviting. The boy wanted to stay in the warm room and sleep on the floor.

Thomas gentlely spoke to the boy and said 'time you went home' to which the boy replied that he had no-where to live. Barnardo did not believe him. He thought Jim must have a mum and dad waiting at home for him. Jim said he did not have parents and that he lived nowhere. Barnardo was astounded to learn that Jim had no friends and had nowhere to live. He could not believe what the boy was telling him when he said he spent the nights sleeping in a hay cart. It was a bombshell Jim dropped when he told Barnardo that there were lots of children sleeping on the streets. Jim offered to show Barnardo where the children slept.

It was around midnight when he went with the boy. Jim took Barnardo to a market in Houndsditch. Jim and Barnardo climbed a high brick wall. The boy and man looked over the wall and saw 11 sleeping boys huddled together. They were aged from 9 to 14. Barnardo was horrified by what Jim had shown him. He knew he had to do something to help these children. First he helped Jim. He let Jim stay at his lodgings that first night. The next day Jim was found lodgings, which Barnardo paid for. Jim took him on other night searches and before long Barnardo had 15 children whom he had found homes for. Barnado had made a start.

Jim showed Thomas the appalling life that street children led. Night after night Barnardo was shown the hiding places where very young children slept. Ten year old, Jim Jarvis taught Barnardo where to look to find the children. They slept in barrels, on rooftops, under market stalls and anywhere in fact were they could sleep safely, sheltered from the wind and rain. Thomas Barnardo had some soul searching to do. He wanted to be trained as a doctor and go out to China to be a missionary. Jim had shown him a very real social problem in London's East End. Should he stay in London and help rescue other destitute boys and girls? He was the only one who could make that decision.

Missionary Conference

Barnardo could not put Jim's world out of his mind. There came a time when he made the plight of these children known at a Missionary Conference. The audience were amazed by what Barnardo told them. The outcome was a young servant girl gave him money to help him in his work. This touched him greatly for the girl must have taken a long time to save the money.

Lord Shaftesbury

Barnardo's story was reported in the press and Lord Shaftesbury read it. He wanted Thomas Barnardo to show him and one night they went to Billingsgate and found many children, mainly boys sleeping out in the open. Lord Shaftesbury was appalled and could not believe what he saw. In a short space of time 73 boys had been discovered. He said, 'All London should know of this!' Barnardo was promised help by Lord Shaftesbury if he would work with these children. Other influential people wrote to Barnardo asking him to change direction and not go to China but instead organise relief work for London's destitute children. Samuel Smith offered financial backing to Barnardo if he would do this. A banker called John Barclay also offered financial help.

Barnardo Homes

For his part Barnardo could not forget Jim Jarvis and the terrible plight of poor children, which the boy had shown him. Barnardo chose the East End of London and did not become a missionary in China. The Barnardo homes were established in his lifetime. His organisation helped many destitute children find their way. In the United Kingdom of today Barnardo's is the largest children's charity that helps many thousands of children. A 10-year boy called Jim Jarvis touched Thomas Barnardo's heart and opened his eyes to the suffering experienced by street children. This resulted in the formation of a children's charity, to care and help them grow into good citizens.

And yes Barnados is still doing great work to this day


From History of England and the republic of Ireland, 2023

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