A century apart: children face poverty trap as deep as ever

To mark the centenary of Dr Barnardo's death, the charity that bears his name commissioned a report on child welfare in Britain over the past 100 years. As Maxine Frith reports, not much has changed
Click to follow
The Independent Online

1905

1905

In the spring of 1905, a seven-year-old girl from London, known only as Emma, was taken into the care of a residential home run by the famous Dr Thomas Barnardo.

She was thin and dressed in rags, and the notes taken by the charity worker admitting her make for grim reading. They state: "Father, a collier, is a violent, quarrelsome and drunken fellow ... has served nine months for manslaughter, four months for wife assault and several terms for drunkenness. Mother also of very bad character, drunken and immoral, has left her husband and is co-habiting with another man.

"Father and Emma were living in common lodging houses, moving from one to another as no one would tolerate the man's conduct for long. Girl is in great moral danger."

Six months after Emma entered the care home, Dr Barnardo died, driven to an early grave at the age of 60 by his dogged refusal to abandon his exhausting round of charity work despite suffering from a serious heart condition. His final words, as he rested his head on his wife's shoulder, were: "There is still so much to do."

His comments reflected the huge gap between rich and poor in early 20th- century society, which he desperately wanted to change.

Examples of the hardship suffered by the poor were everywhere. In 1905, a London medical officer reported that babies born in tenements with only one room died at the rate of 219 per thousand, while those born into a family with four rooms had a death rate of just 99 per thousand.

One of Dr Barnardo's lasting legacies was his refusal, unlike other Victorian philanthropists, to distinguish between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor.

The Victorians saw poverty as shameful and a result of laziness and vice; people who couldn't work or fend for themselves ended up on the streets or in the workhouse.

Much of Barnardo's work focused on disabled children (his seventh child was born with Down's syndrome") and families from ethnic minorities, two groups who suffered the most in early 20th-century Britain.

Contemporary theories on eugenics meant that many disabled children and their families were left in poverty.

The admission notes for a nine-year-old girl called Gertrude read: "Both parents lying dangerously ill in the same workhouse infirmary, and not expected to live long. "Father, a man of excellent character, has been a sufferer for years and is now afflicted with nephritis, tumour and paralysis. Mother in advanced state of consumption. Gertrude quite homeless."

Overcrowding, malnutrition and abuse meant that the most common cause of death among children in Dr Barnardo's homes was from respiratory illnesses, diarrhoea and tuberculosis.

Grinding poverty meant that many youngsters were either forced or fell into prostitution to survive.

In 1899, Barnardo wrote: "The very saddest of all the child rescue cases which come into my hands are concerned with the saving of young girls from conditions of very grave, often very imminent moral peril, and yet alas these are by no means few in number."

Alcohol and tobacco could be legally bought by minors, and pubs often had bowls of sweets on the counter for children, leaving them open to abuse.

Children were also sedated with laudanum-based elixirs, adding to their vulnerability. Partly due to Barnardo's campaigning, the legal age of sexual consent for girls was raised from 13 to 16 in 1885. Barnardo also set up two refuges for prostitutes, inadvertently putting him in the frame for the Jack the Ripper murders, because it was thought the killer had a medical background.

Children in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Britain often lived in a state of absolute poverty, but experts say the abuse and neglect they suffered are still the experiences of millions of children 100 years later.

2005

Unlike other eight-year-old girls, Lizzie never had a stable home and often found herself caring for her drug-addicted parents.

A century after Emma's tale was reported to Barnardo's, outreach workers for the charity were once again dealing with a depressingly similar case. "Lizzie has never had a stable home or family life," her notes state. "Her parents are both long-term heroin users and her father is currently in prison. At times ... it is Lizzie who becomes the family carer. She has experienced a variety of problems in her short life, including health issues due to a poor diet, low school attendance and various behavioural difficulties."

Lizzie's story is just one of many and Dr Barnardo's great-great-nephew, David, who currently chairs the council of trustees of the charity that bears the family name, still believes, like his relative, that there is much to do. He says: "The society in which children and young people lived then was different in many ways from that of today.

"However, many of the issues that profoundly affect children's lives have not changed, such as poverty, attitudes to disability, poor physical and emotional health, substance misuse, injustice and sexual exploitation."

To commemorate the centenary of its founder's death, Barnardo's has released a report condemning the failure of successive governments to improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

In 1999, Tony Blair, pledged to halve the number of children living in poverty in Britain by 2010, and entirely eliminate it by 2020.

The Barnardo's report, Then And Now, highlights the progress made, but says the Government is in danger of missing the 2020 target unless more resources are committed to child poverty. According to the End Child Poverty Now coalition of charities, of which Barnardo's is a member, more than 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty since 1999.

But 3.6 million youngsters are still classed as living in poverty, which is now assessed in relative terms by a complex formula based on household income and what an average home contains, such as a washing machine, car or television.

As in 1905, infant mortality rates are still 70 per cent higher in low-income areas than in more affluent areas.

Five years into the 21st century, Barnardo's aims to focus on families from ethnic minorities still stand. Just under a third of white children live below the poverty line, compared to 73 per cent of their Pakistani and Bangladeshi peers. The infant mortality rate of children in Britain born to mothers who were themselves born in Pakistan is 100 per cent higher than it is for women born in the UK.

The Then and Now report says that cases of once-eradicated diseases such as scabies and rickets are again being identified in children in the most deprived areas of Britain. Diagnoses of TB have risen by 25 per cent in England over the past 10 years.

Again, as in 1905, the sexual exploitation of children remains one of the biggest fields of work for Barnardo's.

One interview with a 14-year-old boy last year could have easily come from a 19th-century archive. He said: "Well, do you think I just woke up one day and thought, I know, I'll be a rent boy?

"Thousands of things have happened to me to get me here - Mum leaving, no one at home, hanging round the pub late and waiting to go home with Dad, having blokes trying to touch us up, seeing boys doing tricks and getting cash and fags. If you want to change me, you're probably going to have to do thousands of things, too."

The fact that Britain is still fifth from bottom in the league table of European child poverty rates highlights the mountain which the Government still has to climb, the charities say.

It is telling that in the east London ward of Stepney, where Dr Barnardo opened his first home, more than half the children currently live in poverty.

Additional reporting: Laura Riddell

A rebel transformed by the sight of beggars and prostitutes on London's streets

Thomas Barnardo was a teenage rebel turned evangelist who transformed Victorian attitudes to the poor and devoted his life to deprived and vulnerable children.

Born in Dublin in 1845 to a furrier, he was considered a troublemaker and, having failed his public entrance examinations, became an apprentice to a wine merchant at the age of 16.

Just before his 17th birthday, he experienced an evangelical religious conversion and planned to train as a doctor and then travel to China as a missionary. But, when he arrived in London to study medicine, he was shocked by the sight of children sleeping in the street, begging for food and becoming involved in prostitution.

He set up a "ragged school" for children in the East End and in 1870 established his first home in Stepney for orphans and neglected children. The children were fed and clothed, with some "boarded out" to foster parents or sent abroad to Australia or Canada. Girls were trained in domestic service and boys learnt a trade.

Always an astute networker and self-publicist, Barnardo enlisted the help of Lord Shaftesbury and the banker Robert Barclay to fund his work. He also revolutionised attitudes towards charity by encouraging small donations from as many people as could afford to give, rather than focusing on rich philanthropists.

He became known for his non-judgemental attitude towards those he helped, refusing to distinguish between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, and his work with prostitutes. He was once named as a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders because of his association with prostitutes.

One of Barnardo's more canny moves came in 1874, when he set up a photography department at his Stepney Boys' Home. Over the next 30 years, every child who entered the homes had a "before" and "after" photograph taken to illustrate the success of Barnardo's work. The pictures, with captions such as "Once a little vagrant - now a little workman!" were turned into cards which were then sold for sixpence each.

They became hugely popular, although it subsequently transpired that many of the "vagrant" children came to the homes well-dressed and had to be changed into rags.

Before his 30th birthday, he was one of the leading lights in Victorian philanthropy, having established more than a dozen children's homes, a mission church, an employment agency and schools.

Barnardo was also one of the first people to focus on the needs of disabled children, a field he focused on after his seventh child was born with Down's syndrome.

But Barnardo's methods were by no means universally applauded, not least by the parents of some of the children he claimed to have "rescued". His "philanthropic abductions" from parents he considered immoral or neglectful led to 88 appearances in court by 1896.

The doctor also ran his ever-expanding charity concerns almost single-handedly, and his high profile began to irk rival evangelists and charity workers.

In 1877, the Charity Organisation Society accused him of financial malpractice, cruelty to children, falsely claiming to be a doctor and even immorality. A court of arbitration mounted a four-month investigation and eventually dismissed the most serious charges against him, but it was critical of the lack of a committee to oversee his work and his somewhat slippery financial practices.

By the time Barnardo died in 1905, there were nearly 8,000 children in 96 residential homes. It was estimated that over 40 years he raised almost £4m and helped 60,000 children.

In more recent times the charity's image suffered from allegations of sexual and physical abuse in its homes. Tales of hardship suffered by many of the children who were sent abroad led to that process being stopped in 1967. The last traditional home closed in 1989.

Comments