What would the good Doctor have thought?

Robert Winder's Notebook
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The Independent Online

The other day, I was stopped in the street by a volunteer waving a Barnardo's box. It brought back childhood memories of those yellow and green papier-mâché houses we used to carry from door to door, raising money for Dr Barnardo's homes, fighting the temptation to rip the sticky label off the bottom and splurge the proceeds on Wagon Wheels and sherbert fountains.

The charity that bears the Doctor's name no longer runs orphanages as such, and Barnardo's might have receded somewhat in the public imagination: these days, it is a still-significant but vaguer pressure-group for children, conducting surveys on drug use and so on. Shorn of the bricks-and-mortar aspect that made the old Dr Barnardo's house-boxes so tangible and easy to fill, the new box seemed (unfairly, of course) slightly insipid and purposeless. But it did make me realise, with a stab of shame, that I never had been curious enough to find out who Dr Barnardo actually was.

I presumed, from the name, that he must have been Spanish or Italian. In fact, he was a Dubliner with a Jewish father, an evangelical Christian who came to London in 1866 hoping to become a missionary in China. That didn't work out, so he became a teacher at one of the East End's many "ragged" free schools. Then, in 1867, the cholera epidemic that ravaged London confronted him with the stark details of urban squalor, and he found a new vocation. He set up a school of his own in Hope Street, and a charitable empire was born.

Free state education did not become a civic right until 1870; until then, destitute children would have been entirely unschooled had it not been for the ragged schools, a loose association of philanthropically financed schools established mainly for the promulgation of Christian standards of behaviour: they were designed to "stop crime while it is in seed, and sin before it has broken into flower".

The school was a success, and so was Dr Barnardo. Before long, he had engaged the support of Lord Shaftesbury and a banker, Robert Barclay, who was pretty big even then. In 1877 he bought two warehouses by the Regent Canal in Mile End and turned them into what would become, in just two years, the biggest such school in London, with over a thousand children.

Book-learning was only the half of it. "We find in many cases," wrote the good Doctor, "that food is more essential to the boys and girls than education." The children were given breakfast (bread and cocoa), and the kind of cheap but healthy dinners modern Londoners can easily spend a fortune on if some celebrity chef with a finger on the pulse is involved: "lentil or pea soup and bread, varied occasionally by rice and prunes or haricot beans".

It wasn't all plain sailing. But evangelical Christians don't mind an uphill struggle. Barnardo's energetic desire to spread the word once took him to a large, fortressy local pub called the Edinburgh Castle. He strode into the smoke-filled, gin-soaked room and started offering Bibles for threepence, or New Testaments for a penny. There weren't many takers. In his memoir, Night and Day, he recalled the pointed lack of enthusiasm: "I presently found myself on the ground with the flat part of the table pressing on me. Several of the biggest lads leaped inside it, dancing a 'devil's tattoo', to my great discomfort."

Still, he persisted. Virtue might have its spoilsport aspects, but it can be robust. He raised funds, bought the Edinburgh Castle and turned it into a Christian mission. It became the headquarters of a charitable giant. By the time he died, in 1905, Dr Barnardo's schools had trained over 50,000 children. His orphanages, those famous "homes", had housed 12,000 more. And he had sponsored the migration of a further 18,000 to jobs in Canada and Australia.

He also inspired a historic archive of before-and-after photographs of the children in his care, designed to demonstrate the excellence of his methods. He was once accused of deception and found to have employed "artistic fiction" by overdramatising the impoverished aspects in some of the "before" photographs. So he even has some claim to be considered the father of docusoap. But his was a sterling life by any standards, a reminder that even in the history of protest, action can speak louder than words.

His original school is now a modest but inventive museum of local history: the Ragged School Museum in Mile End. It occupies a historic site in one of the few surviving warehouses that used to line the Regent's Canal, the waterway that linked the docks at Limehouse to the rest of England (via Paddington). It has exotic roots: originally it was used to store limes (as in Limehouse). And it squats on the literary-sounding junction of Copperfield Road and Ben Jonson Road.

But in Barnardo's day, it must have been fantastically grimy and foul-smelling. The canal would have been full of coal barges ferrying fuel to the gasworks a few hundred yards away (the great iron towers still fill the sky). Smoke from the giant Bryant and May match factory down the road would have showered soot onto the children. The sports stadium and park outside the front door were not so much as twinkles in the town-planner's eye.

The museum opens only twice a week and is visited mainly by children on history projects. They get to sit in the original Victorian classroom, with the prison decor familiar to anyone who has been to boarding school: chunky wooden desks with flaps and inkwells, big dusty blackboards, tough iron railings, stale wooden floors, and gloss paint slopped onto plastered brick walls in odd, regimental colour schemes (Dr Barnardo favoured a chocolate brown and primrose combination).

The teachers who protested so loudly at Llandudno last week might not have enjoyed working there: in Victorian times, learning was a mechanical business, and teachers were treated (and paid) like mechanics. There were only six subjects: reading, writing, arithmetic, recitation, grammar and geography ("capes and bays"). The basic textbook was the Bible (the only one schools could obtain free). Silence, in those noisy days, was even nearer to godliness than cleanliness. There were strict drills for ending the lesson: students would obey a sequence of commands - "Return! Slates! Lift! Desks! Stand! Out!" - like soldiers presenting arms.

Interestingly, however, many of the problems faced by those ragged teachers have hardly changed in a hundred years. Attendance medals were deployed in the neverending fight against truancy (destitute children were often the last people to know what was good for them). And the key problem for any schoolmaster or mistress was discipline. When Lord Shaftesbury visited one ragged school, he was surprised to find "only one or two lamps burning, all the windows broken, two of the teachers outside covered with mud from head to foot, while in the school the master was lying on his back with six boys sitting on him, singing 'Pop goes the weasel'."

Sin bins? Performance pay? Children, it seems, will be children.

It was reported the other day that one mile in 20 of Britain's roads is crumbling and inadequate. But much as one loves to join any old chorus of disapproval, I alas must report that my own latest experiment with our reviled motorway system - a Bank Holiday drive from London to Cornwall and back over the Easter weekend - passed off uneventfully. Of course the road was jammed: for a couple of hundred miles we were all one blown tyre away from gridlock. But it held. Our road network is clearly creaking at the seams, but on this occasion the seams didn't split.

On the radio they were talking about the uproarious road works at London's Hyde Park corner, which as an Easter surprise were re-routing traffic all the way up Park Lane to Marble Arch and down again. What could you do but sigh: take to the roads these days, and you're dodging bullets all the way.

The real blight on the journey was the so-called "welcome break". There has been much moaning about these motorway pit-stops in recent weeks, all of it justified. What should have been a breather was an obstacle course. The commercialisation of childhood is now so advanced that the only thing on offer, apart from over-the-odds prices, was the nerve-jangling fuel of family rows: amusement arcades at a quid a go, Star Wars merchandising outlets and "free" Pokémon toys with Happy Meals.

A welcome break? Whose idea of a joke is that? We swung back into the drift of traffic with a wash of relief. Brooking no further arguments, we slipped The Old Curiosity Shop into the tape player, and dozed away the hours listening to the antique torments of Little Nell. What bad luck for her that Dr Barnardo was still in Dublin, dreaming of a mission in China, as she dragged her grandfather from place to place, with nowhere to go but down, nothing to hope for but the kindness of strangers, and not so much as a Pikachu to keep her amused.