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Street Child

Street Child is my bestselling novel based on the story of Jim Jarvis, who alerted Dr Barnardo to the plight of destitute children in Victorian London. After escaping from a workhouse, his adventures and hardships finally led him to attend a Ragged School, where Barnardo asked him for his story.

Although Street Child has never won any awards and hasn’t been made into a movie, it’s my most popular book ever, and I’m very proud of that!


Available from Amazon.

Published by HarperCollins Essential Modern Classics, 2009, ISBN 978-0007311255.

Street Child is also published by HarperCollins as an unabridged audio book, read by Antonia Beamish. Click here to hear an audio sample and to order.

It was also available in a hardback edition, as well as a Collins playscript (see my Plays page), a Chivers audiocassette, read by Christian Rodska, a Chivers large print edition and also a Heinemann Windmill schools’ edition. These are all unavailable, although you may be able to find secondhand copies.

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“My story, mister? What d’you want to know that for? Ain’t much of a story, mine ain’t!”

And he looks at me, all quiet. “It is, Jim,” he says. “It’s a very special story.”

Excerpt from ‘Street Child’, read by the author

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Street Child’ is an exciting, moving story of the appalling conditions of Victorian London and the deprivation suffered by those who often, through no fault of their own, lived lives of abject poverty and danger.

Val Bierman, Book for Keeps

Foreign editions

Street Child was also published in Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Thailand, Ukraine (with Far From Home), USA and Wales. See some of their covers from over the years further down this page!

What inspired me to write ‘Street Child’?

Street Child began with an idea I had about researching the Victorian philanthropist, Dr Barnardo. I went to the Barnardo headquarters in London, and asked if I could see any material about the early days of the Barnardo Homes. I was given some thin pamphlets, a couple of pages in each, which Thomas Barnardo had written in order to raise money to open a Home for destitute boys. Each of the pamphlets gave a brief outline of the history of a handful of homeless children, and the first one I read was about a child called Jim Jarvis. His desperate plight of being orphaned, of living in a workhouse, and of running away to try to scrounge a living for himself, to find a safe place, filled me with such horror and sadness that I knew I wanted to write about him, this very child. I wanted to imagine what his life must have been like before he met Barnardo, and to write it as a story for children.

I absolutely loved writing Street Child, and getting to ‘know’ Jim. I had to do a lot of research, and part of that research took me to the wharves and warehouses along the Thames, to the tiny alleys and back streets that are off the tourist map. I needed to imagine what all of this would have looked and sounded and smelled like all those years ago, the trundle of carriages and horses, the muck on the road, the stench of the river, the shouts of the crowds, the darkness and loneliness and terrors of the streets at night. I wanted to recreate this, and take the young reader with me.

A brilliant and moving story.

Julia Golding

Who was Jim Jarvis?

Jim Jarvis was a real boy, living in London in the mid 1800s. Not very much is known about him. He and his mother were taken to a workhouse to keep them off the streets, and when his mother died, Jim ran away. He worked on a coal lighter on the Thames, and ran away again because he was badly treated by the owner. That’s as much as we know. But his story was very important to Dr Barnardo. It inspired him to help homeless children. Jim Jarvis was at the very beginning of the Barnardo Foundation, which is a major charity helping troubled children.

Who was Dr Barnardo?

Thomas John Barnardo was born in Ireland in 1845. He came to London to study medicine but never qualified, though he liked to be known as Doctor Barnardo. He was eager to become a missionary in China but after meeting Jim Jarvis he realised that his real mission was to help the poor children in the streets of London. He had already opened up a ‘Ragged School’ in the 1860s. In those days you had to pay to go to school, so Barnardo opened a school that was free, in the back streets of East London. It was a warm, sheltered place where children could spend the day learning to read and write and to sing hymns and learn about God. In 1867 Barnardo opened up his first home for destitute boys. Barnardo was not a wealthy man himself but he raised money for the Homes by writing short pamphlets about the orphans he came across. Those were the pamphlets that I read, and that inspired me to write Street Child. Barnardo often said that meeting Jim Jarvis was what made him aware of the real plight of destitute children in London.

For more information on Dr Barnardo and the early history of his Homes, see my blog post Jim Jarvis meets Dr Barnardo.

Berlie Doherty movingly captures the life of an orphan in Victorian London. She makes the past come vividly alive in this story that will help young readers to fight injustice.

Julia Eccleshare’s Pick of the Month, Lovereading4kids

Questions children ask about ‘Street Child’

Q What happened to Emily and Lizzie?

A Emily and Lizzie’s journey is very different from Jim’s. I’ve told their story in the companion book to Street Child, called Far From Home: The Sisters of Street Child.

Far From Home is available from Amazon.

Q How old is Jim Jarvis? 

A At the time of meeting Barnardo, he is about 10. He was probably born in 1858. There is no record of when he died.

Q Who are the real characters in Street Child? 

A Jim Jarvis, Dr Barnardo, Ma, and Grimy Nick (though I’ve made up his name!).

Q Who are the pretend characters? 

A All the other characters in Street Child are made up! So that’s Emily and Lizzie, The stickman, Rosie, Judd, everybody else at the Big House, everybody at the workhouse, all the street children including Shrimps, Rosie’s grandfather, the Spitting Crow (her grandmother), all the people from Juglini’s circus, everybody Jim meets when he’s working on the Lily, and anyone else who crops up in the book. All made up!

Q Is there a movie of Street Child?

A Not yet, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was one! Street Child and Far From Home could be sequel films, or the lives of Jim, Emily and Lizzie could be wound together into one film. I can just imagine it!

Q Was there really a Juglini’s circus? 

A There was indeed! A journalist’s account of Juglini’s Champion Circus can be read online in volume XVI of All the Year Round, a journal edited and probably written by Charles Dickens.

Q How long did Street Child take to write?

A I shared the first draft chapter by chapter as I was writing it with Dobcroft primary school, which my own children had attended when we lived in Sheffield. It took a term of weekly visits. The children chose all the chapter titles, by the way. Then I did the major research that I knew was needed (research is no good until you know what it is you need to know. Work that out!) So in all, it would be about a year and a half before I sent it to my publisher.

A brilliant book… incredibly carefully crafted narrative.’ Jonny Rodgers of CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) on YouTube

Times Literary Supplement

Q Which is your favourite character?

A I think it was Jim, because he never gave up in spite of all the awful things that happened to him.

Q Where did you get the idea from?

A I wanted to write something about Doctor Barnardo and decided that the best way to do it was through the eyes of one of the real children whom he helped. Jim Jarvis was a real child, and he was a very important figure in Barnardo’s life. Jim changed Barnardo’s life just as much as Barnardo changed his.

Q Is the setting somewhere you knew?

A No. I don’t even know London very well, let alone the London of nearly two hundred years ago! I walked round the streets of London and along the river Thames, read a lot, took photographs, and tried to imagine it all as it must have been a long time ago. That’s the writer’s job. I need to make myself familiar with the place where my stories are set, so it will seem familiar to the reader too.

Q After you’d finished writing Street Child did it make you think more about children on the streets?

A Yes. It’s very hard for anyone of us to imagine what it must really be like to have nothing and nobody in the world. I was showing Street Child to some children in a school in Brussels and a little boy called Juan told me that he used to live on the streets in Peru, and was adopted at the age of nine. Very sadly, many children today live on the streets.

Q Where did you get your information from?

A I did a lot of research for this book. Some of it was at the Barnardo library in London, some at the London Museum, some in the newspapers that Charles Dickens wrote for as a journalist (All the Year Round), and some in my own head!

Q What was your favourite part of the story?

A I think it was at the end, where Barnardo gives Jim a safe place to live in.

Q How did you think up a character like Grimy Nick?

A The real Jim Jarvis was very badly treated by someone called Dick. I changed his name a bit and just tried to imagine someone who could treat a little boy as if he was a slave, or an animal.

Q Are all the names of the people the same?

A Only Jim Jarvis and Dr Barnardo. I don’t know whether Jim had any sisters, or if he knew someone called Rose – they’re all made up.

Q Is Shrimps based on Carrots?

A (Jack Somers) Carrots’ story is very well known. He was turned away from a Home because there was no room for him, and died on the streets, as did so many children. Barnardo decided then that no destitute child would ever be turned away. His story is not really the same as the Shrimps character.

Q What would have been the likely fate of Jim’s sisters?

A Hard to say. Church charities were more alert to the problems of girls on the streets than they were of boys, so they might well have been taken in to an existing Home and possibly put into service when they were older. Later, Barnardo found a way of including girls in his Homes. Otherwise, I think it may have been the workhouse for them. In Far From Home I try to imagine what might have happened to Emily and Lizzie.

Q Why did you write the first chapter in the first person?

A It was my way of setting up the story, so you get the impression that Jim is telling his tale to Dr Barnardo. As you know, Jim Jarvis was a real boy, so I wanted to write in ‘his’ voice. But I felt that this tone wouldn’t be right for the whole novel, so I stepped away from Jim in the other chapters so we could ‘see’ him.

A vivid and moving imagining of the real-life encounter between Dr Barnardo and Jim Jarvis. It has both emotional and educational value.

Jill Murphy, Bookbag

A synopsis of ‘Street Child’: School resources for Key stage 2

I don’t want to give too much of the story away, as some of you will be planning to read it for the first time. However, I know that for the teachers among you it will be very useful to have a summary that gives a sense of the plot of Street Child so you can plan ahead before presenting it to the children. All authors love to know that their work is being studied in schools in all kinds of ways, and I’m no exception!

So I’ve divided the story synopsis into small sections which I hope will be helpful for classroom work. In many schools ambitious projects involving drama, historical research into the Victorian period, art work and visits to places like Southwell (a Victorian workhouse owned by the National Trust), happen as a result of reading Street Child.

Most of the book is a purely fictionalised story of what it might have been like for Jim Jarvis. I created a back story of what his life might have been like before he entered the workhouse, and I invented two sisters for him, Emily and Lizzie. I hope the novel will help young readers to imagine his life and the times he lived in.

The preface

The preface is written in the first person, and Jim is with someone he refers to as Barnie (Dr Barnardo). So, right from the start, the reader knows that Jim is safe and well.

When he tells his story to Barnardo, however, he is looking back over the past gruelling couple of years, leading up to this meeting. All of this is written in the third person.

Jim’s home life

Jim and his sisters Emily and Lizzie live in a London tenement with their mother, Annie. They are evicted by the landlord because Annie is too ill to work and can’t pay the rent. Annie leaves her daughters with her friend Rosie, and then she and Jim are homeless and on the streets.

The workhouse

They are taken to the workhouse, where Annie dies. Life in a Victorian workhouse was harsh and hopeless for Jim. Imagine the workhouse school, the workhouse infirmary, the madhouse.

London street life

Jim has escaped from the workhouse. His mother’s friend Rosie gives him work selling whelks and shrimps. He dances and skips in front of theatre queues. He befriends other street urchins, who make a few coppers selling bootlaces, sweeping horse muck off the streets. Mostly they survive by stealing and begging.

Life on the River Thames

The bustle of ship traffic, the wharves, the tides. Jim is sold to Grimy Nick, a coal lighterman (a bargee who ferries coal to and from ships and warehouses on the Thames). The work is tremendously hard, and he is badly treated.

The Victorian circus

Jim runs away from Grimy Nick and, desperate to hide, joins Juglini’s circus.

Barnardo’s Ragged School

Eventually, back on the streets, Jim tries to get help from Barnardo by attending his Ragged School for penniless children.

Useful Street Child classroom resources for KS2 teachers:

CLPE (video)TwinklTES termlyKS2HistoryLiteracy Shed+

Some of the books I used for background research when writing ‘Street Child’

  • Ackroyd, Dickens
  • Chesney, The Victorian Underworld
  • Dickens (ed), All the Year Round (journals)
  • Hibbert, The Making of Charles Dickens
  • Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor
  • Midwinter, Victorian Social Reform
  • Pyke, Human Documents of the Age of the Forsythes
  • Seaman, Life in Victorian London

A terrific adventure story, heart-warmingly poignant and a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit.

The Daily Mail

Dramatised version of ‘Street Child’

You may also like to look at the dramatisation of Street Child (Collins PlaysPlus – sadly currently unavailable, although you may be able to find secondhand copies), which has some very useful research and resource material.

The dramatised version of Street Child is performed extensively in schools and theatres throughout the country. Cotton Grass Theatre created a highly successful version for life-size puppets and real actors.

A writing idea

Summary writing

In Street Child, Jim tells Dr Barnardo his life story. But he couldn’t possibly tell it all in one go, or Dr Barnardo would have fallen asleep! So let’s pretend that you are Jim, sitting on a stool by a lovely warm fire, and you’re telling your story in real time (rather than novel time). So, as you read each chapter, I suggest you summarise it in just a few sentences. 

For instance: ‘I bought a pie for me and Emily and Lizzie. Ma was very ill, and she couldn’t eat any. She couldn’t work so she couldn’t pay the rent. The Stick Man came and turned us out on the streets.’

And so on as you read through the book.

That way, you’ll never forget the story line. 

Creative writing

Then choose one of those sentences, or just part of one, and write it in a vivid, exciting way, as if you can see and hear and feel it all yourself. For instance, The Stick Man came. Who is he? What does he look like? His clothes, his shoes. What is his voice like? Is he old or young? How does he walk and move? Describe his eyes. His hands. The way he breathes. Are you scared of him? What do you want to do? 

See how well you can build up the scene from Jim’s point view.

Homelessness is the central topic of this grim and gripping novel set in Victorian England, with its snootily authentic atmosphere.

Publishers Weekly, USA

Some of the foreign editions of ‘Street Child’

…It has suspense, it has grief, and best of all, it has joy.

Jasper Lowrey-Gold, Colman Middle School

If you enjoyed reading ‘Street Child’…

You may also enjoy my other historical novels.

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