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Jim Jarvis meets Dr Barnardo

To help teachers presenting my novel Street Child as a KS2 book in schools, I have explored the relationship between Dr Barnardo and Jim Jarvis, as well as providing some facts about Thomas Barnardo, and describing Ragged Schools and the first Home for Destitute Boys in Stepney.

‘Street Child’

My novel Street Child is widely used in KS2 History and KS2 English lessons. It is my fictionalised account of the life of a Jim Jarvis up to the time of his meeting with Dr Barnardo.


Published by HarperCollins Essential Modern Classics, 2009, ISBN 978-0007311255. Available from Amazon. Also published by HarperCollins as an unabridged audio book, read by Antonia Beamish.

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.

This website contains affiliate links. If you buy items using these links, I receive a commission, at no extra cost to you.

Who was Dr Barnardo?

Dr Thomas Barnardo writing at his desk
© Barnardo’s. Supplied by Barnardo’s.

Dr Thomas Barnardo, who is famous for establishing homes for destitute children, said that he was inspired by a homeless orphan called Jim Jarvis. Today, the charity which bears his name helps with fostering and adoption, as well as supporting children and young people in other ways. You can find their website here.

Thomas John Barnardo was born on 4th July 1845 in Dublin. He was very poorly at birth and was not expected to live. His mother was too ill to look after him and put him in the charge of a wet nurse. When his older sister Sophie visited him there she was so horrified to see how neglected he was, that she kidnapped him! We might have lost one of our greatest benefactors!

By his own account, Barnardo was a lively, conceited boy: “I was just as cheeky as a young fellow can be.” He came to London in 1866 to study medicine, and this is how he was described by Dr WL Meyers (as quoted in The Memoirs): “He rarely laughed. His bearing was that of a thoughtful, resolute, obstinately persevering man.” Meyer also felt that Barnardo’s heart was not in his work at the college and hospital.

Barnardo the preacher

Dr Meyers was right. Barnardo was a deeply religious man, and used to preach in alleyways and public places. Sometimes eggs and flour were thrown at him. He desperately wanted to be an evangelist missionary in China – it was all he thought about. Barnardo rejected all the pleadings of his family to give up his idea and stay in London. He was absolutely determined to go to China. He never actually qualified as a doctor, spending his time preaching instead of studying; preparing himself for life as a missionary.

Only one thing changed his mind: his meeting with Jim Jarvis at the Ragged School.

What is a Ragged School?

Ragged Schools were first opened in 1844, long before Barnardo came to London. The president of the London Ragged Schools Union was the great Victorian educational reformer, Lord Shaftesbury. The aim was to provide free education, food, clothing and shelter to children too poor to go to school. Ragged Schools were set up in old stables, lofts and even railway arches.

Children were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and the Bible. But the schools were often squalid, badly ventilated and overcrowded and the teachers untrained volunteers.

Charles Dickens, by Jeremiah Gurney
Charles Dickens, by Jeremiah Gurney. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens visited a Ragged School in 1843 and was deeply moved by what he experienced. His visit inspired his famous book A Christmas Carol.

Dr Barnardo opened his own Ragged school in 1867 “to prepare children for heaven”. He was not a well man, as he was recovering from a serious illness; in fact once again it was feared that he might die. But after meeting Jim Jarvis in his Ragged School he was absolutely determined to help poor children. From now on all his energy went into this cause.

You may be interested in the Ragged School Museum in London.

The Ragged School Museum, London
The Ragged School Museum, London. © Pierre Terre/Ragged School

The destitute child

At the end of a day of teaching in his Ragged School, Dr Barnardo met a completely destitute child. That boy, Jim Jarvis, remained behind when all the other children had gone home. This is how Barnardo later reported the conversation that took place (The Christian, How it all Happened, 1872).

“Come, my lad, had you not better get home? It is very late. Mother will be coming for you.”

“Please Sir! Let me stop!”

“No, I cannot, I think it’s quite time for you to get away now. Why do you want to stop?”

“Please sir, do let me stay. I won’t do no ’arm.”

“Well, but had you not better get home? Your mother will wonder what kept you so late.”

“I ain’t got no mother.”

“Haven’t got a mother, boy? Where do you live?”

“Don’t live nowhere.”

Barnardo then asked the ‘quaint little vagabond’ if there were many more children in his situation:

“O yes sir, lots. ’eaps on em! More’n I can count.”

Dr Barnardo with Jim Jarvis, from the cover of the magazine The Children’s Treasury (1870), which Barnardo edited
Dr Barnardo with Jim Jarvis (magazine cover, 1870). © Barnardo’s. Supplied by Barnardo’s.

The hayloft lay

The child led Barnardo to ‘the hayloft lay’ – one of the secret places where children hid from the police. Dr Barnardo describes the scene:

“It was a large hay loft. This loft was closed, but a great deal of straw had dropped from it into the gutter, and was put into use by the lads, whom we saw lying there asleep. With their heads upon the higher part of the roof and their feet somewhat in the gutter, but in a great variety of postures, lay eleven boys huddled together for warmth. No roof or covering of any kind was over them and the clothes they had were rags.”

This description of homeless children sleeping on the rooftop were the words that inspired me to write my novel Street Child. More importantly, they inspired Thomas Barnardo to follow a new mission. Not to convert people in China, which had been his lifelong ambition, but to provide homes for destitute children.

Stepney Home for Destitute Boys

He gave up all idea of becoming a missionary in China and turned his energy and will towards opening a home for destitute boys. He allowed nothing to stand in his way, and in 1870 his great ambition was realised. Barnardo opened his very first Home, in Stepney. He was by no means the only Victorian benefactor, nor was his Stepney Home the first, but he went on to open many more, and later, to open Cottage Homes for Destitute Girls.

The “Godly brother and his wife” as he called the first governors in the Stepney Home, had their own private quarters. There were five dormitories, each sleeping about 12 boys. He found many of the boys during midnight walks around the ‘lays’. He collected the completely destitute “gutter boys and Arabs” as he called them, “whose poor wan faces and ill-nourished bodies betoken their previous histories.” Also, boys turned up of their own accord. Any homeless boy needing work could apply for a place any Friday afternoon at 2.30.

Life in the Home

Barnardo interviewed every boy himself and then gave them a hammock to sleep in and a blanket. Their day was divided between schooling and working, so they learned trades such as brushmaking, breadmaking, tailoring and shoemaking. The workshops and outlets were part of the Home. One single schoolmaster saw to the education of all the boys, and he must have had to work very hard!

The boys had a play time, you’ll be relieved to know, but they also had to do all the housework. They scrubbed all the floors, and sometimes visitors came to watch. “It was somewhat amusing to see twenty fellows with their shoes and stockings off and their trousers turned up at the knees, all in a line scrubbing the floor.” Also the boys did all the cooking, waiting at table, made their own beds and cleaned their own boots!

So, the Stepney Home did not provide not an easy life for a child like Jim Jarvis. But he was fed, dressed, taught a trade, schooled and, above all, given a safe place to live in.

'Barnardo's family' – magazine article
The cover of a resource pamphlet. © Barnardo’s. Supplied by Barnardo’s.

How did Dr Barnardo raise money?

Barnardo raised money in many different ways. He published stories in magazines, principally The Children’s Treasury. In 1867 he wrote an article in The Revival to raise money for a ‘Tea Party Service’ for 2347 children!

He gave talks to religious groups, unions and to philanthropic society throughout London, frequently describing his meeting with Jim Jarvis. He took groups of interested or sometimes sceptical parties to see the ‘lays’ where homeless children slept.

At one public meeting a poor young woman came to him and pressed a little screwed-up paper into his hand. It contained 27 farthings. In today’s money – well, about 2.7p? A tiny sum – but this kind of grassroots donation mattered as much to Barnardo as the major donations he might receive from wealthy benefactors. It meant he had touched people’s hearts with Jim Jarvis’s story.

Barnardo also raised money by writing a series of short pamphlets about the destitute boys he met. One of these, perhaps the first, was called ‘My First Arab’ and was about Jim Jarvis.

Finally, in 1870, he had raised enough money to open his very first Home.

What do we know about Jim Jarvis?

In fact we know very little about Jim Jarvis. His story, as reported by Barnardo, is that he and his mother were in a workhouse, where his mother died. He ran away from the workhouse and worked for a coal bargee, Swearing Dick (Grimy Nick in Street Child). Later, he helped an old woman to sell cockles and whelks (in Street Child she’s a younger woman, Rosie). For much of his young life Jim Jarvis lived on the streets.

Yet, after the meeting at the Ragged School, that major event that changed Barnardo’s destiny, there is no further mention of Jim Jarvis. When Stepney Home opened there is no Jim Jarvis in the archive records of the boys who lived there. This was not unusual, as the Home did not keep scrupulous records in the early days.

Some boys went to Canada under a scheme led by Annie McPherson – but it cost £10 for each child. That was quite a sum in those days. Is that what happened to Jim?

Who knows? But it does seem strange that this very important child seems to have simply disappeared from Barnardo’s life. Surely we should know something more about Jim Jarvis.

What happened to him?

Did Jim Jarvis actually exist?

Barnardo’s great achievement

Whether Jim Jarvis existed or not, his story was crucial to Barnardo’s great achievement.

It is estimated that Dr Barnardo rescued over 60,000 children like Jim Jarvis from lives of poverty, crime and starvation.

Destitution in 19th century London

Many social reformers and philanthropists in the 19th century were all too aware of the scale of destitution in London.

In 1848 Lord Ashley referred to more than thirty thousand “naked, filthy, roaming lawless and deserted children, in and around the metropolis”.

Henry Mayhew wrote a series of articles about poverty in his book, London Labour and the London Poor. In the introduction he wrote:

“…the condition of a class of people whose misery, ignorance, and vice, amidst all the immense wealth and great knowledge of ‘the first city in the world’, is, to say the very least, a national disgrace to us.”

There were children living with their families in desperate situations but there were also numerous homeless, destitute children living on the streets. They were often turned out of their homes because in lots of families there were just too many children to support. The children lived by begging and stealing, and many respectable people thought of them as a very real threat to society. “Something had to be done about them” to preserve law and order.

Many thought that education was the answer, and Ragged Schools were established to bring education to the poor and destitute. But not everyone agreed that it was a solution. Henry Mayhew, for instance, wrote: “Since crime was not caused by illiteracy, it could not be cured by education.”

It was also often said that if you gave money to the poor they would just spend it on drink and gambling. (Does that sound familiar?)

Barnardo’s final years, his death and his funeral

Barnardo was a passionate and dramatic speaker. Throughout his final years he held meetings at the Albert Hall, presenting them as theatrical production. In 1896 he put on a tremendous show of tableaux and drama about homelessness in which 30,000 children took part. Imagine! THIRTY THOUSAND!

But his enthusiastic fundraising events took their toll on his health. He had his first heart attack just before his 50th birthday. 

He continued with his public meetings, in spite of deafness and weakness, but he was always exhausted, always pushing himself to the very limits of physical and mental endurance. His doctor advised a trip to Nauheim to recuperate, but he was too ill to complete the journey. After a series of painful angina attacks, during which he continued dictating letters, he died at home in September 1905. He was 60.

All the newspapers reported his death. His funeral procession was followed by staff and children from the Homes, and finished at the Girls’ Village Home. Thousands of children with pasts just like Jim Jarvis’s lined the streets to mourn the passing of their benefactor and friend. 

My acknowledgements

  • Kellow Chesney, The Victorian Underworld (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972)
  • Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (Introduction) (London: Penguin, 1985. Originally published 1851)
  • Pamela Horn, The Victorian Town Child (Stroud: Sutton 1997)

For all the quotes from Barnardo’s writings: Gillian Wagner, Barnardo

For advice and help, and permission to use the photographs of Dr Barnardo at his desk, the Stepney Home for Destitute Boys, the Williams boys, the pamphlet cover and the image of Dr Barnardo with Jim Jarvis: Barnardo’s.

‘Far From Home’

What if Jim Jarvis had sisters? What would happen to them? Far From Home is also used frequently in KS2 History and English lessons.

It describes the working life of mill girls in a north of England cotton mill in Victorian times. It takes us up to the time when the sisters, Emily and Lizzie, find one of the pamphlets that Dr Barnardo sends to wealthy families to raise money to found a Home for Destitute Boys. The title of the pamphlet is My First Arab, and it is about their brother, Jim Jarvis.


Published HarperCollins, January 2015. ISBN 978 000757 8825. Available from Amazon. Also published by HarperCollins as an unabridged audio book, read by Karina Fernandez.

Over to you!

I’d love to hear your recommendations of other books for children who love historical fiction. Tell me in the comments box below!

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her most recent books are Far From Home and Joe and the Dragonosaurus. Her latest novel The Haunted Hills will be published in 2022. See the About me page for more information.

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