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

Category: Philanthropists

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution: Compassion, Bravery, and Tragedy

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It was founded in the London Tavern in Bishopsgate on 4 March 1824. At this time around 1,800 ships a year were wrecked on the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Under the aegis of the RNLI, lifeboat stations were strung around the coasts like jewels, but these were not gaudy, meretricious, coloured stones, but plain shelters housing sturdy boats ready to put to sea in the worst of conditions.

Their volunteer crews have saved nearly 150,000 lives, an average of two per day since its inception. But this comes at a cost and more than six hundred people have died in the service of the RNLI. Graves and memorials in coastal towns and villages bear witness to tragedies. One story stands for them all.

The historic fishing village of Mousehole in the southwest of Cornwall is a fairytale place. Huddled cottages of Lamorna granite tumble down to the perfect little harbour once home to the great pilchard fleets. There are seals swimming off the coast and a tidal pool for wild sea swimming. The summer brings holiday makers and in winter the Mousehole Harbour Lights draw crowds from early December to the first week of January. But every year on the 19 December the lights are dimmed in memory of the crew of the Penlee lifeboat, the Solomon Browne.

On the 19 December 1981, the Union Star was sailing from Holland to Ireland with a cargo of agricultural fertiliser. On board were the captain, four crew members, the captain’s wife and their two daughters. Around 6pm the ship’s engines failed, and the fuel system became contaminated with water. As rough seas and powerful winds blew the coaster towards the dangerous shore, she lost one of her anchors. The Penlee lifeboat launched in a hurricane, ploughing against ninety knot winds and 18m waves as it struggled to came alongside the coaster. Once in position, the crew of the Solomon Browne waited to catch people as they jumped for the lifeboat. They radioed to the coastguard that they had rescued four of the eight people, but as they made a final desperate attempt to save the others, radio contact was lost. Ten minutes later the lights of the Solomon Browne disappeared. In the morning wreck debris from both boats washed ashore.  (“The 1981 Penlee Lifeboat Disaster – RNLI History”)

The sea beyond Mousehole harbour may look unthreatening,
but a memorial in the church above the village recalls the tragedy of the Solomon Browne

For all its charm and beauty there is a sadness about Mousehole as in all those towns and villages which have lost brave crews to the sea. The compassion and selfless courage which has led generations of volunteers, often from the same families, to risk their own lives to help others, inspires a measure of love and admiration for the RNLI which is seldom equalled by any other institution.

So, it was sickening  when in 2021 Nigel Farage condemned the RNLI for  rescuing asylum seekers trying to reach the UK in small boats, claiming that the lifeboats were providing “a taxi service” for illegal migrants. Influenced by his demagoguery and the moral panic about migration stirred up by the right-wing press, some members of the public verbally abused rescuers bringing people to safety, others tried to prevent the RNLI launching a rescue boat in Hastings just days before twenty-seven people drowned in the Channel.

Priti Patel, then Home Secretary, and sharing Farage’s views, introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill which sought not only to make it illegal for asylum seekers to enter the UK without permission, but also to make it a criminal offence “to facilitate the entry of asylum seekers” by taking them ashore – an offence which was to carry a maximum sentence of 14 years.

But reaction was swift. The RNLI released harrowing footage of a sea rescue and volunteers detailed the desperate state of asylum seekers in overcrowded boats at risk of drowning in the Channel.

The RNLI chief executive, Mark Dowie, said that the lifeboat service had always rescued whoever needed their help: “We were pulling German airmen out of the Channel in the Second World War.” The RNLI, he emphasised, exists to save lives at sea without judgment. They do not question why people get into trouble, do not ask who they are or where they are from.

Subsequently, the RNLI’s fund raising, with money coming from one off payments, new supporters, and increases in regular contributions, reached £200,000 in a single day, thirty times the usual average, and a record year of donations followed.

Some quirky fundraising campaigns ensued. Partly in jest, Simon Harris sought to raise money for a new RNLI hovercraft to be called the Flying Farage. Donations reached £238,130 of its target £250,000 this Easter weekend. Harris has made clear that the specific proposal was tongue in cheek and that all money raised will go directly to the RNLI to be spent at their discretion.

Recently the local shop owner on the island of Sanday in the Orkneys accidentally ordered eighty cases of Easter eggs instead of eighty eggs. He organised a raffle in aid of the RNLI to get rid of some of the 640 excess eggs. By Maundy Thursday this had raised over £3,000, and the food company producing  the eggs has agreed to match the final total.

Meanwhile,under pressure, and with bad grace, the government accepted an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill in December 2021. The RNLI was exempted, if people’s lives were in danger, from laws criminalising anyone helping asylum seekers to enter the UK.

Blood and Fire: William Booth and the Salvation Army

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the sight and sound of a Salvation Army brass band. The steps of the most hardened atheist slow, and “Bah-humbug” dies on the misanthropist’s lips, as the first strains reach their ears. I stand with the rest of them, personally averse to religion of any sort, sickened by military uniforms of any hue, and yet completely enraptured by the cadences of familiar carols, Christmas shopping forgotten, immovable until the last notes of Silent Night fade away.

William and Catherine Booth established the Salvation Army, at first known as the East London Christian Mission, in 1865. William had resigned as a Methodist  preacher in favour of working as an independent evangelist. Delivering his first open air sermon outside the Blind Beggar pub in Bethnal Green (better known today for its connections with East End gangsters, and specifically as the location where Ronnie Kray shot and murdered George Cornell) he was invited to preach in Mile End Waste, an old Quaker burial ground in Whitechapel, where he set up a tent and began his Christian mission.

Booth proclaimed that  salvation was only possible through repentance from sin and an obedient faith. While the righteous might thus achieve eternal happiness, the wicked who did not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ could expect endless punishment. “Blood and Fire”, the Salvationist “war cry”, professed faith in the saving blood of Christ and the sanctifying fire of the Holy Spirit.

As its name implies, the Salvation Army adopted a quasi-military structure and government, with  General Booth himself at the head of the organisation and a hierarchy of Officers and Soldiers of Christ beneath. They sport a flag, a crest, and uniforms  with colour coded epaulettes denoting rank. In the early days officers could only marry others of the same rank. In 1879 they began publication of War Cry, their campaign magazine, sold widely in pubs to raise funds. And Booth was nothing if not autocratic; three of his own children left to form breakaway movements finding it too difficult to collaborate with him.

But beyond the Christian revivalism and the emphasis on the salvation of souls, Booth was also acutely aware of the poverty, destitution, and hunger prevalent in Victorian England. He summarised his mission as the Three Ss: Soup, Soap, and Salvation, to be administered in that order. The Salvationists provided hot meals, blankets, and toiletries for the homeless. They established night shelters.

Booth’s activities went beyond the alleviation of poverty: In his work In Darkest England and the Way Out he drew up a blueprint for its elimination, and promptly set about putting his plan into operation.

He set up ethical businesses including the Salvationist’s own match factory. There, red phosphorus replaced the dangerous white phosphorus used by Bryant and May which caused necrosis (phossy jaw). His factory paid workers four pence a gross instead of the usual tuppence ha’penny. The match boxes bore the mottoes Lights in Darkest England and Fair Wages for Fair Work.

In 1891 Booth bought 3,200 acres of land in Essex and established the Hadleigh Farm Colony. The young residents were provided with accommodation, a bath house, laundry, reading room, hospital, and meeting room. They learned farming, market gardening, brick making, and construction, enabling them to find jobs in the overseas colonies. By 1912 7,000 trainees had passed through Hadley Farm.

Booth was an early campaigner against child prostitution. He established special rescue homes reaching out to women working on the streets and in brothels, to alcoholics, morphine addicts, and to released prisoners.

From the 1880s the Salvation Army spread abroad, firstly to Australia, Ireland, and America, then to France, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Canada, India, New Zealand, and Jamaica. During Booth’s lifetime branches were established in fifty-eight countries. In the twentieth century the Army became involved in disaster relief work in response to the 1901 Galveston Hurricane and the San Francico Earthquake of 1906.

All this took place against a background of strong opposition to the Army. Booth was accused of being a charlatan, out to make money, and of nepotism in appointing his son, Bramwell, as his successor, and his daughter Emma as principal of the training school for women when she was just nineteen. There were violent attacks by the Skeleton Army, formed by those involved in the production and selling of alcohol which the Salvationists campaigned against. Clashes led to deaths and injuries. The Church of England was hostile, and Shaftesbury described Booth as the Anti-Christ not least for the “elevation of women to the same status as men” within the ranks of his organisation.

Yet by the time Booth “laid down his sword” opinion had swung in his favour, and a reverential attitude accompanied his funeral. 150,000 people visited his body as it lay in state for three days, 40,000 attended his funeral and 7,000 Salvationists including forty bands marched in his funeral procession to Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington.

Grave of William and Catherine Booth, Abney Park.
The stone that marks the grave is in the shape of a Salvation Army badge. In addition to his birth date it records that he was “Born Again of the Spirit 1845,” and sets down with supreme confidence that he “Went to Heaven 20th August 1912”
Nearby is the grave of William Booth’s son, Bramwell, who succeeded his father as General of the Army
The grave proclaims with a glorious, sonorous, orotund resonance which one can almost hear, that he was, “Born of the Spirit 1863” and “Promoted to Glory 16th June 1928”.
And a stone commemorating Robert Hoggard’s work trumpets: “He waved the Blood and Fire Flag throughout the land of Korea…To God be the Glory!”

Today the Salvation Army is an international charity with branches in 133 countries. In America it is the largest non-governmental provider of social services. Where states fail it steps into the breach. Focusing on homelessness, it provides accommodation for 3,000 people a night in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland alone, catering in different establishments for singles, the young, vulnerable women, mothers and babies, families with children, the elderly, those with mental health, drug, and alcohol issues, and those entangled in the criminal justice system. Temporary night shelters cater for rough sleepers in cold weather.

The Army runs adult day care centres and rehabilitation centres for addicts. Hadleigh Farm is now a training centre for young people with special needs who learn horticultural, carpentry, catering, and office skills, in a realistic working environment before seeking  work elsewhere.

Salvationists channel humanitarian aid in response to disasters and help with refugee resettlement programmes and initiatives seeking to combat slavery and human trafficking.

Even  those of us who recoil at their religious dogma cannot but respect and admire their practical philanthropy, unbounded by any fastidious qualms, engaging where many of us would draw back.

And those brass bands? The first one was set up by Charles Fry and his sons in 1878 to support Booth, acting as his “bodyguards” by distracting unruly crowds at open air meetings. They quickly became an integral part of Salvation Army worship and parades, and an instantly recognisable symbol of the Salvationists. And in December they herald the Christmas Season for Atheist and Christian alike as the emotion-charged notes of well-known carols reverberate through our city streets.


Abney Park Cemetery opened in 1840 as a non-conformist garden cemetery when Bunhill Fields ran out of space. When it in turn reached capacity it experienced a period of neglect in the mid twentieth century until the Save Abney Park Campaign was set up by locals. Today it is a registered Historic Park and Garden and local nature reserve run by the Abney Park Trust. See for details of wildlife and nonconformist graves. And by way of contrast see 2019/06/10 on Music Hall Artists in Abney Park Cemetery.

“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.

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