Dr Barnardo: Champion of Victorian Children : by Martin Levy

First, a caveat. I am not an expert in the life of Dr Barnardo, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the book’s facts or the choice and balance of the material chosen, but it is clear that the author has done a lot of research and has formed his own views on earlier accounts. As he points out, the use of electronic searches for material can make information more readily available to today’s biographers.

Dr Barnardo was an outstanding man and one of the great figures of nineteenth-century Britain. As the cover says, “Much of modern child welfare started with him”. He is perhaps the one person involved in child care whose name will be known to the man (or woman) in the street.

Thomas John Barnardo was born in Dublin, but moved to London as a young man, and immediately became involved in good works. His character was complex. He could motivate people, challenge people to fund his enterprises, and set up invaluable services for children. He could also irritate people to the point that they became virtual enemies, he battled in court with opponents quite unnecessarily, he was economical with the truth on occasions (the title Doctor being somewhat questionable), he lost his personal credibility with many influential people who supported his good works, and some of his enterprises were shaky.

His motivation was clearly Christian and his evangelical work was at times a greater priority to him than the practical outworkings of his faith. His father had been Jewish, but became a member of the Church of Ireland; his mother was Catholic by birth – and mixed marriages of this sort were most unusual at that time. He himself was evangelistic but able to work with people of any protestant denomination, though there were serious tensions in his relations with the Roman Catholic Church, who felt that he was subverting Catholic children. Overall his commitment to help the homeless children of Britain could not be doubted and, despite his enormous energy, he overworked himself and died at the age of sixty.

If you don’t know about Dr Barnardo, the book gives a graphic description not only of his life and deeds but also of the Victorian social and economic context in which he lived and worked. I particularly enjoyed Martin Levy’s accounts of Barnardo’s temperance talk in an East End pub and the rumpus it caused (pp. 31-32), and of Barnardo’s guided night-time visit when he took Lord Shaftesbury and other worthies to the back yards where homeless boys were sleeping (pp. 71 ff.).

Much of the book majors on his legal battles, which appear to have resulted largely from parents, urged on by the Catholic Church and its lawyers, seeking to retrieve children who had disappeared into Barnardo’s care, perhaps sent abroad to Canada. These convoluted cases are interesting, but it would have been more balanced if there had been more on the myriad services which Barnardo established, and the way they spread through the UK.

What is unusual about the book is its style. It reads as if it is the transcript of talks given to sixth-formers. Martin Levy has updated some of the Victorian quotations and written out some of the meetings as dialogues, both of which make the text more accessible to the modern reader. His language, though, is in my view at times unsuited to a serious work, being somewhat familiar and chatty. He continually refers to Barnardo as “our hero” or “T.J.”, and at one point explicitly assumes that the reader is a middle-class adult. He inserts odd comments and exclamations, such as “Shock! Horror!” (p.10). His explanations of the social and historical context sometimes end up as red herrings, nothing to do with Barnardo, such as the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997 (p.237).

A good example of Martin Levy’s chatty style is his summary of Dr Barnardo, “He was a bloke who got off his backside and did things, and while he wasn’t perfect he still managed to be marvellous” (p. 243). True, but for a serious biography, an idiosyncratic way of putting things. Readers may find that none of this is objectionable, and some may find that Martin Levy’s way of writing makes the book more accessible; I found it at times rather irritating, though I gradually got used to it.

Levy, Martin (2013) Doctor Barnardo: Champion of Victorian Children
Amberley Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire
ISBN 978 1 4456 0923 2

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