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The long-lasting fruits of 'planting a seed and embedding an idea'

26 August 2016

Newly released archive material reveals the origins of Thomas Barnardo’s foster-care scheme, which continues to meet a need. Pat Ashworth reports

Barnardo’s archive

Before and after: Arnold Thilibert Boursay (or Bourcey), aged three, from Switzerland: one of the first children to enter the Barnardo’s foster scheme

Before and after: Arnold Thilibert Boursay (or Bourcey), aged three, from Switzerland: one of the first children to enter the Barnardo’s foster ...

WHEN Herbert John Ransom’s father died of dropsy in 1887, his widow, Ann, struggled to provide for their seven children. In poor health herself, she earned a meagre seven shillings a week as a char­woman in Manor Park, London, coupled with a parish al­­low­­ance of six loaves and six shillings a week.

In desperation, she asked the children’s charity Dr Barnardo’s Homes to take the four boys. Thus, Herbert — who, at the age of nine, weighed just 3st 6lb — became one of 320 children to be fostered that year, in a pioneering scheme born out of Thomas Barnardo’s growing con­viction that no system was better for the rearing of “a certain class of our children” than “boarding them out with respectable foster parents”.

Dr Barnardo, described by the charity’s archivist, Martine King, as “a man very good at looking out­wards at what was going on in the rest of the world”, knew that “board­ing out” was done among the clans in Scotland, and in Scan­dinavia.

”He had the boys’ and girls’ homes, but his policy was that no destitute child would ever be refused admission, and to be able to achieve that, he knew he would need to look for more alternatives for the chil­dren,” she says.

He raised the suggestion in the charity’s house magazine, Night and Day, in 1887, advocating that foster parents “should be cottagers and working-class people” living in homes that promised “satisfactory sanitary conditions, pure moral sur­roundings, and a loving in­­fluence”. Success came quickly because, as Ms King notes, Dr Barnardo was “very good at planting a seed and embed­ding an idea. He had men­tioned in early 1886 that he had seen this scheme, and it looked very success­ful.”

An advertisement in Night and Day in May 1888 reads:
"Wanted, a promise of five shil­lings per week for one year, to defray the cost of boarding out One Little Child in a country cottage home. About three hundred and fifty chil­dren are now being boarded out with homely folk in scattered vil­lages throughout the country, and the editor is anxious that each of these should, if pos­sible, be paid for by a separate gift from some friend who will take an interest in the welfare of a particular child."


The records show that Herbert Ransom was fostered first in God­man­chester, and then in Loughton, Essex. He successfully moved into employment after training by Dr Barnardo’s, and died in 1963, aged 83. His story is one of many that has come to light in archive material previously unpublished by the charity, which reveals that 4000 children were fostered between 1887 and 1905, the year that Dr Barnardo died. Many came from the polluted and overcrowded East End slums, where they had suffered abuse or neglect. Of the first 457 boys who entered the charity’s care, one third had rickets, 21 had ringworm, and many had bad teeth.

Foster carers were sought who lived in the country, away from railway stations or factories, and who had space to ensure that no child would have to sleep more than two to a bed. Barnardo’s particularly looked for families without smaller children of their own, and older couples whose children had left home. A number of children might be placed in one village. Top of the list in the Barnardo’s foster-parent agreement pre-1900 was the com­mitment “To bring up the said child carefully, kindly, and in all respects as one of my family.”

Children such as James Keen, born in Stepney in 1872, thrived in better and cleaner air. He weighed 5st 6lbs when he entered Barnardo’s at the age of 14, had a dilated heart that made him prone to fatigue, fainting, and chest pain, and had been led astray by “bad com­panions”. He lived with foster families for seven months, moving to the fresher air of Essex. He was able to undertake an apprenticeship in Stepney, and left Barnardo’s in 1889 to take up employment.


MS KING has also unearthed the fascinating story of Arnold Thilibert Borsay, born in 1882, in Swit­zerland, to a kitchen maid who had been abandoned, and disowned by his father. He was handed over to Barnardo’s in England at the age of three as “a most engaging little fellow . . . who prattles very prettily in a peculiar Swiss patois”.

His 13 years of care with the charity included seven years with the Revd James Darling and his wife, Mary, in Eyke, in Suffolk. The clergyman came from a humble background himself. As a bright child, he had attracted the patron­age of the Marquis of Waterford, who had paid for his education at Trinity College, Dublin. In seeking, in his turn, to help children from similar back­grounds, Mr Darling founded a village school, and took in Barnardo’s children, along with “local paupers” — a move that led to an increase in the school roll from 50 to 150. In addition to a sound scriptural education (and every Saturday a holiday), the chil­dren received “such other instruc­tion as will fit them for their respective stations in life”.

Borsay left Barnardo’s in 1898 to work at the prestigious Hotel Bel­gravia in London; and in 1902, he migrated to British Columbia under the assisted-passage scheme. Out of thankfulness to Barnado’s, he made regular donations all his life, and, when he died in 1963, he left the charity a sum equivalent to £134,000 in his will.


DR BARNARDO’s boarding-out scheme was so successful that the number of children in foster care more than doubled within two years, and took in girls as well as boys. Many of these had been at risk of sexual exploitation, known as “moral danger”. Women doctors undertook visits to check on the children’s welfare; one, Dr Jane Walker, was always keen to em­­phasise that foster parents “should never be above the children socially, and should always have their meals with them and treat them in every respect as their own family”.

The reforming Liberal MP for Sheffield, A. J. Mundella, was a great supporter of the pioneering scheme, and admired Dr Barnardo for often boarding out “more than the whole of the local authorities of this king­dom”. He noted from the doctors’ reports that the children were “comfortably tended in their homes, often most affectionately tended; but also the sanitary con­dition of all the children under Dr Barnardo’s care is something that is marvellous, in contrast with those under our local and our state system”.


TODAY, three in four children in care in England are fostered. The charity, which maintains Dr Barnardo’s vision that no child should be turned away from the help they need, last year supported 240,000 children, young people, and families, through 960 services around the UK. The chief executive of the charity in this, its 150th an­niversary year, Javed Khan, urges anyone considering fostering to get in touch with the Barnardo’s foster-care team.

”Much has changed over the past 130 years; but there are still vul­nerable children who simply need someone who can always be there for them,” he says. “Just as in Victorian times, today we’re looking for people with a genuine desire to make life better for some of the country’s most vulnerable children, to become foster carers. Barnardo’s foster carers benefit from our ex­­perience. We know how to sup­port both you and the child you care for.”

The head of fostering and adop­tion at the charity, Brenda Farrell, has been working in this field for more than 20 years. “Fostering remains our main form of caring for the most vulnerable children in our society,” she confirms. “The res­idential environ­ment can still be appropriate for short times, as part of the care experience, but it’s the one-to-one relationships and attach­ments that a family environ­ment can bring that [are] so valuable.”


THE number of looked-after chil­dren in England — 69,450, as at March 2015 — has increased stead­ily over the past seven years, and is now higher than at any time since 1985. Of these, 52,000 are fostered.

”Our focus now, in 2016, is to recruit 9000 carers, a figure based on the projected numbers coming into care this year “ Ms Farrell says. “The need is as great as it has ever been. Every year we have a cohort retire, after playing a wonderful role in so many lives. We need to replace them and increase the number.”

Children have many different needs, and all sectors of society — single, cohabiting, married, di­­vorced — can consider fostering. “We need a broad range of members of the public to come forward: people who have a genuine interest, who are motivated by care for children,” she says. “With the right training and support, we can help them find their skills and strengths.” And nobody cares alone, she emphasises: neighbours, family, and friends are all part of the support network.

”People can be anxious, and be­­lieve they are not capable or strong enough,” she reflects. “We try to reassure people. We help them identify if this is the right time to foster, and whether they do have the stamina and skills to support. People are at different junctures in their life. We need a family to be in the right place to be able to give their energies to understand this new young person, and that does take a lot of insight.

”But we do always reassure people that we would never put them on the journey down the road to be a foster parent if it wasn’t right for them. The assessment process is very detailed: we take people on a journey, get to know them through a series of meetings and home visits, reference checks, medical checks, authority checks . . . There’s nothing like it, really. When you come to the end of that journey, you know you are in the right place at the right time.”


MANY children may need to be cared for for only a short time: while work is being done with their home family; while a mother is ill; or, in dire situations, where parents have died. For some, it is longer term; for others, it is helping them to leave care and start out on their own. Some carers may become “for ever” parents.

The charity still firmly adheres to Dr Barnardo’s principle that no child in need should be turned away. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was one of the pioneers of moving disabled children with complex needs and behavioural issues out of hospitals and psychiatric units and into family environments. “The challenge to us as a society was seeing beyond the medical model to what is now called the social mo­­del,” Ms Farrell says. “That goes for all the issues that are present in today’s society. Our job is to help children adapt to live in our communities.

”At the end of it, it is just care — good, loving care. We’re trying to attract members of the public who would think ‘Yes, I can make a difference.’ We’d encourage them to pick up the phone, look at our website, give us a ring, get their questions answered. We’ll be honest if it’s not the right time.”

Needs in different areas change, and Barnardo’s works with services and local authorities in England to identify constantly what is the projected need in a particular area — whether that is for sibling groups, teenagers, unaccompanied asylum-seekers, or “all of the above”.


THERE are about 280 independent fostering agencies in England, as well as local authorities. All are needed, Ms Farrell emphasises. She concludes: “One of the great strengths of Barnardo’s is that we are part of a much bigger child-care organisation, and so constantly aware of the issues that are pre­sent­ing to children in our society. That’s an amazing advantage.

”We’re very fortunate that we are a brand that people connect with, and which has a positive association. Part of what we’re trying to do with our 150th anniversary is to say that we have been around for a long time as a valued and trusted organisation. Over all these years, we have learned what works.”



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