Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: September 2023

“No destitute child ever refused admission.” Dr. Thomas Barnardo

In the late 50s and early 60s Chester Children’s Library boasted many volumes on the lives of worthy Victorians, and there I became acquainted with Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, Josephine Butler,  Thomas Barnardo, William Booth. I recall illustrations of ladies in voluminous dresses and gentlemen with  voluminous beards ministering to the needs of the sick, the imprisoned, the orphaned and the destitute. I was both fascinated and horrified by that extraordinary world, which was just within touching distance for my grandparents had been born towards the end of it, with its monstrous inequalities of wealth and income, of health and opportunity. Fascinated too by those individuals who with courage, compassion, and abounding self-confidence, did not wait for a tardy, lacklustre government to act, but took  it upon themselves to tackle society’s ills.

I learned more of Doctor Barnardo when my primary school issued us all with papier mache collecting boxes shaped like small cottages, with thatched roofs and roses round the door painted in bright primary colours.

Thomas Barnardo had begun studying medicine at the London Hospital in 1866. The following year he followed the example of other philanthropists when he established a Ragged School at Hope Place in the East End providing free basic education for poor children. But 1866 had also seen a cholera outbreak which increased the number of orphaned and destitute children on the streets of London to 30,000. Many of the children coming to the Ragged School were not only poor but homeless, and doubtless as much attracted by the warm fire and the free meal which the school provided as by an introduction to the three Rs.

Jim Jarvis, a homeless boy who attended the  school, took Barnardo to see “the lays,” places where children slept in gutters, under market stalls, and on roof tops huddled against the chimneys for warmth.  Barnardo abandoned his medical training to concentrate on helping these children and in 1870 opened his first boys’ orphanage in Stepney. The number he could accommodate was limited and a year later he had to turn away John Somers, an eleven-year-old who had already lived on the streets for four years. Days later the child was found dead of malnutrition and exposure. Barnardo vowed that he would never turn another child away. By the time of his death in 1905 he had raised the money to establish 122 homes which had helped 60,000 children.

Alongside the boys’ homes Barnardo established a “Babies’ Castle” in the countryside at Hawkhurst in Kent. After he married in 1873,  he and his wife, Syrie, opened the Girls’ Village in Barkingside, where girls were housed in groups with a housemother in “cottage homes.” By 1900 the village with its own school, hospital and church accommodated 1500 girls in 65 cottages.

Eager that they should experience a family environment, Barnardo also assisted the fostering of children, and with Syrie’s help he established  a Rescue Home supporting those who had been driven to child prostitution and protecting them from further sexual exploitation.

The work of Dr. Barnardo’s Homes continued after his death with its watchword “no destitute child ever refused admission.” By the 1960s however  the availability of efficient contraception, the greater acceptability of single parenthood, and the growth of the welfare system meant that fewer children were taken into the homes. With the emphasis moving towards fostering, adoption and supporting children in their own families rather than direct care, the last of the Barnardo’s orphanages closed in 1989. Today the charity works with vulnerable children facing sexual and domestic violence, FGM, child trafficking and drug abuse, and offers support to young carers.

Though the books I read and the stories we were told when we picked up our collecting boxes  painted a glowing portrait of Barnardo and his work, there were always critics. He was accused of kidnapping children who had parents, taking them away without their parents’ permission. As a result, he appeared in court 88 times. He freely admitted this accusation, reasoning that the child’s welfare overrode any parental rights, that children should be removed from violent and abusive homes, and that the end justified the means. He was invariably exonerated by the courts.

Other detractors claimed, possibly correctly, that the photographs he produced for fund raising campaigns, portraying children before and after their admittance to the homes, were stage managed, doctored to make the changes appear more dramatic.

Most seriously, Barnardo’s was one of several charities involved in government schemes to send children to Australia and Canada. Whilst there is no doubt that Barnardo saw this as a means of rescuing children from a corrupting environment and securing for them a new healthy life with jobs and prospects, his good intentions were misguided, and many children faced exploitation as cheap labour, harsh conditions, and abuse.

Finally, there were reports of unsanitary conditions, badly managed homes, and children being cruelly treated. An orphanage is surely no one’s idea of a perfect environment for young children, and yet, the alternatives for many of Barnardo’s children were cold, hunger, abuse from drunken parents, child prostitution, death from exposure. Even for less extreme cases the orphanage could be a haven. My paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, was sent to an orphanage (not a Barnardo’s,  but the Hull Seamen’s Orphanage) following the death of his father. The regime was harsh: if the boys wet the bed they were beaten, the girls were made to parade around the room with their mattresses strapped to their backs. And yet, my father told me, my grandfather always spoke highly of the shelter which the home provided, of the education he was given, of the lessons in health and hygiene; and from games at the orphanage he developed a lifelong love of cricket. All these things he tried to pass on to his own children, and my father and his brothers were taken every year to the Open Day at the orphanage. And if my father’s inherited obsession with immaculate fingernails seemed a little excessive to me as a child, still my Barnardo’s box always weighed heavy with his loose change.

I doubt if today children’s libraries stock eulogising, uncritical hagiographies of Victorian philanthropists, and if I read those books again now I might find their tone cloying. Modern accounts of those nineteenth humanitarians do not spare them accusations of conceit, arrogance, paternalism, and dogmatism. And yet they were brave, good people who gave of their time, money, and energies, faced down criticism, sneers and personal attacks to make their world a little better for others.

Thousands of people filed past Barnardo’s coffin as it lay in state for three days in Limehouse, and lined the streets as it passed through the East End to Liverpool Street Station to be transported to Barkingside. Barnardo had chosen to be buried at the Girls’ Village Home, where Syrie later joined him. A  magnificent monument designed by George Frampton marks their grave. Today many of the original  cottages have been demolished and the land sold to developers so that utilitarian new housing forms an unprepossessing backdrop to the Barnardo memorial, but it still looks out onto the “village green” surrounded by the remaining Victorian cottages now leased to a housing association. And looking across the green and the waterfountain towards the church it takes but little imagination to hear the children’s voices and to catch a glimpse of little girls in button boots, long frocks, and white aprons.

New housing on land formerly a part of the Girls’ Village has crept up on the Barnardo memorial
But it still looks out across the “Village Green” at some of the original cottages
The children’s church and the water fountain on the village green. New housing on the right.
Village green and original cottages, now leased to a housing association.
Detail of memorial, Charity embracing two children
Detail of memorial, Barnardo and three children, modelled on girls at the Village Home

Since 2016 a new memorial in Tower Hamlets Cemetery has commemorated the lives of 500 Barnardo’s orphans who died in childhood and were buried in unmarked graves. Barnardo buried three of his own seven children there too, in graves also unmarked in keeping with the other children. The memorial, designed by Tom Nicholls, is in the form of a pair of hands releasing a sparrow into flight symbolising the care and support of Barnardo’s Homes which enabled children to fly free into the world. Volunteers from the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery have researched the names of the children buried here cross-referencing Barnardo registers with cemetery registers.

Memorial stone marking the graves of 500 orphans who died in childhood and three of Barnardo’s own children
Detail of memorial
Remembering Doctor Barnardo’s children laid here to rest.

The stone also bears a quotation from a poem of disputed authorship. Contrary to the exhortation, it always makes me cry.

 Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there, I did not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glint on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you wake in the morning hush,

I am the swift , uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft starlight at night.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.

I am not there, I do not sleep.

(Do not stand at my grave and cry.

I am not there, I did not die!)

And on the base a poignant reminder of Barnardo’s own beloved sons, as vulnerable to the illnesses that stalked Victorian childhood as any of the orphans for whom he cared.

Thank You Mary, for My Education and My Rights

I stood on a muddy patch of grass on  Newington Green looking up at Maggi Hambling’s  memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft, a small naked silver figure emerging above a swirl of organic matter, gleaming and glittering like a fish in the pale autumn sunlight. It was my first visit to London since the pandemic, in  that strange time when the full wrath of Covid had passed but we still moved in and out of changing restrictions, alternating between nervous caution and an impatient desire to re-engage with the world.

After a few moments other women joined me: some still wore masks and we all kept a discreet distance from one another, but the air was heavy with unspoken thoughts. Eventually someone broke the hesitant silence: “I’m not quite sure that I understand it.” Empathetic murmurs preceded a burst of speech as we shared knowledge: “I read that she is arising out of female forms to show that she is supported by her predecessors.” “Hambling says it represents everywoman and the birth of the feminist movement rather than Wollstonecraft herself.” “She said that she made it in deliberate opposition to traditional male heroic statuary.” “She made her naked so that she would be relevant for all time, not bound to a certain era by her clothes.”

We were silent again for a few moments, then: “The most important thing is that it is here.” “And that it was made by a female artist.” “Anything new and different is always a bit challenging.” “It would have been inappropriate just to put up a conventional statue.” “I expect it will grow on us.” We parted agreeing that we would revisit the statue.

Two years on and I greet it as a familiar friend and a fitting tribute to Wollstonecraft, for as it says on the plinth, the statue is “for Mary Wollstonecraft,” not of her.

Mary Wollstonecraft memorial on Newington Green
Gleaming and glittering in the autumn sunlight

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. She had variously earned her own living as a lady’s companion, teaching in a school which she founded with her sisters and friend in Newington Green, as a governess, and as a translator before focusing on her own writing.

Her output was prolific, but two books stand out like especially bright stars. Critical of aristocracy, monarchy, church and military hierarchies, all hereditary privilege and advocating Republicanism, Wollstonecraft celebrated the  revolutionary events in France. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) she countered Edmund Burkes’s conservative critique of the French Revolution. When a group of angry women had  marched the royal family from Versailles to Paris, Burke had praised Marie Antoinette describing her surrounded by “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women.” Mary responded angrily that they were working women angry at the lack of bread to feed their families. Though deeply saddened and depressed by the Jacobin terror and the executions of the Girondin leaders, and offended by the Jacobins’ treatment of women to whom they refused to grant equal rights, nonetheless Wollstonecraft continued to believe in the ideals of the revolution and remained true to her conviction that it represented a great achievement.

At the heart of all her work lay a conviction in the importance of education for women. In  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, (1792), she argued that while women were not inherently inferior to men they often appeared to be because of their lack of education which made them seem silly and superficial, frivolous and incapable, leading to excessive sensibility at the expense of rationality. It precipitated them, unable to support themselves independently, into patriarchal marriages based on economic necessity. They became the mere ornaments and property of men,helpless adornments of their households. Such marriages infantilised them, made them poor companions for their husbands and poor mothers for their children, poor citizens, and poor human beings. Only with education could they achieve independence, support themselves, blossom as individuals with the same rights as men, and realise relationships based love and affection.

Mary had begun an affair with the philosopher William Godwin and when she became pregnant they had married so that society would consider the child legitimate, but Mary died of septicaemia eleven days after her daughter was born.

Godwin’s memoir of his wife, though motivated by his love, compassion, and sense of loss,  destroyed her reputation for many years. For he wrote candidly of her personal life as well as her writings, and her love affairs, illegitimate child, and suicide attempts shocked nineteenth and early twentieth century society. She had sought unsuccessfully to live with her married lover, Henri Fuseli and his wife. She had an illegitimate daughter, Fanny, by Gilbert Imlay. She made two suicide attempts when Imlay rejected her, the first by laudanum and the second by trying to drown herself in the Thames. The opprobrium which these actions engendered meant that only in the 1960s did her star begin to rise again when attention refocused on her work.

Godwin buried Mary in the churchyard of Old Saint Pancras Church where they had married, and when she was a small child he took their daughter, also a Mary, on visits to her. When Godwin remarried, the child, unhappy with that second marriage, continued her visits alone. There she would read her mother’s works, and later meet in secret with one of her father’s political followers, the poet Shelley. An unsubstantiated tradition has it that there beside the grave she lost her virginity to him. I choose to believe it.

Like her mother, Mary led a turbulent and unconventional life, eloping with Shelley in the face of her father’s disapproval, facing ostracism and debt. She had four children with Shelley, whom she married after the suicide of his  first wife Harriet, but only one of them, Percy Florence Shelley survived. Mary supported herself through her writing producing travelogues, historical fiction, short stories, biographies, and novels, most famously Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. After Shelley drowned in 1822 while sailing from Livorno to Lerici she devoted herself to promoting and editing his work and  ensuring the education of their son.

Mary Shelley had asked her son and his wife Jane to bury her with her parents in Old Saint Pancras, but when she died in 1851 they thought the old graveyard a “dreadful” place. Indeed a local resident had written to The Times in 1850 complaining that, “More than 25 corpses have been deposited every week for the last twenty years in an already overcrowded space: and at this very time they are burying in it nearly twice that rate…teeth, bones, fragments of coffin wood are seen lying in large quantities around these pits.” A few years later it featured in Charles Dickens’ Tale of two Cities as a site of body snatching. Moreover, the arrival of the railway brought further disruption and  the railway company supervised the excavation of over 10,000 graves to make way for the new London train terminus at St. Pancras. So they buried her in the churchyard of St. Peter in Bournemouth near their own home and to fulfil her wishes disinterred  her parents and reburied them with her.

Later in her desk they found a box containing a human organ wrapped in the preface to Shelley’s poem Adonais, an elegy on the death of his friends Keats. They thought it was Shelley’s heart, for in accordance with quarantine regulations his friends had  cremated Shelley on the beach where his body had been borne by the tide, but Trelawny had rescued the slow burning heart and given it to Mary. When Mary Shelley’s son died, both he and the heart joined his mother and grandparents.

At least one modern medical speculation however has suggested that this organ may have been Shelley’s liver rather than his heart, for the liver is a denser and more solid mass and more likely to have resisted the heat. I choose to believe it was the heart; keeping a liver, even one wrapped in poetry, in a desk drawer for thirty years lacks romance.

St. Peter, Bournemouth and the Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Shelley grave
William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, removed from St.Pancras, London to St. Peter, Bournemouth
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her son and his wife

Today the Bournemouth grave despite its famed collection of inhabitants is little visited, the churchyard and the grey Victorian church a little bleak, while ironically the church and graveyard of Old Saint Pancras have a new vitality. The redevelopment of the surrounding area, the restoration of  King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations along with the magnificent old Midland Grand  Hotel, and the opening of the Crick Institute, have transformed the neighbourhood. The metamorphosis of Coal Drops Yard has seen designer outlets, an abundance of cafes and restaurants, fountains, and gardens  replace the dereliction  which previously blighted the area with disused railway sidings and warehouses. Ingenious designs have slotted clever apartments into old gasometers. The Central School of Art  has located in an old granary. Bright river craft dawdle along the Regent’s canal. And across the road from this vibrant area the graveyard offers a  tranquil green space, with its paths and gates recently repaired, shaded seats beneath the mature plane trees and neatly trimmed grass around the tombs. The pretty church is open daily hosting concerts and community groups as well as religious services.

It is Mary Wollstonecraft’s original grave marker which draws her admirers today though neither she nor Godwin lie beneath it. Nonetheless devotees leave tributes to Mary, the tomb chest always bearing an array of pens, pencils, flowers, stones and ribbons  There are notes too; like medieval pilgrims visitors seek Mary’s help with exams, relationships, careers, and sometimes they just tell her about their lives, their joys and sorrows, successes and failures, hopes and fears.

I lifted a crystal holding down a sheet of paper torn from a small notebook: “Thank you Mary,” it read “for my education and my rights.”

The original Wollstonecraft Godwin tomb at Old Saint Pancras
Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
Tributes laid on top of Mary’s tomb

To find out more about Mary Wollstonecraft read Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft.

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