Berlie Doherty


Street Child

Street Child by Berlie Doherty

HarperCollins Essential Modern Classics, Ocober 2009. ISBN: 978-0007311255

Click here to buy Street Child from Wordery. Also available as an ebook.

Also available as a Collins playscript. See my Plays page. Also available on Chivers audiocassette, read by Christian Rodska: ISBN 07451 24321. Also available in large print: Chivers ISBN 074512225 6. Also available as Heinemann Windmill schools’ edition: ISBN 043512429 3

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

The Daily Mail

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

Jasper Lowrey-Gold, Colman Middle School

“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.”

Jim Jarvis was a real boy, but not very much is known about him. His story and that of other orphans was written down in a series of very short pamphlets which Doctor Barnardo sent to wealthy people when he was trying to raise money to open an orphanage.

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 soon decided that his real mission was to help the poor children in the streets of London. First he opened up ‘Ragged Schools’ 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 London. It was a warm, sheltered place where children could spend the day learning to read and write and to sing hymns! Later he opened up his first home for destitute children, a Cottage Home, in Stepney, London, in 1867. Barnardo was not a wealthy man himself but he raised money for the Homes by writing short pamphlets about the orphans he came across. He often said that meeting Jim Jarvis was what made him aware of the real plight of destitute children in London.

Foreign editions

Click here for details of foreign editions of Street Child.

Marylebone Workhouse, London, 1867Jim did run away from a workhouse after his mother died, and was helped by a woman who sold whelks and shrimps. He lived for a time on a coal lighter with a man and a dog and was treated very cruelly. After he ran away from them he lived in the streets and slept in the rooftops until he went to one of Doctor Barnardo’s Ragged School classes and asked him for help. That’s all that is known about him, but reading about it was enough to arouse my interest and my sympathy. I wanted to try to imagine what it was like for a little boy like Jim to be so utterly alone. I invented most of the characters in the book, and as far as I know Jim didn’t really have any sisters. His ’bruvver’ friend, Shrimps, is loosely based on Jack Somers, also known as Carrots, who actually came to Barnardo’s notice a little later. In real life Carrots died of starvation in a crate before Barnardo could give him a home. His tragic story also greatly influenced Doctor Barnardo, who put a notice on the doors of the Cottage Homes – ‘NO DESTITUTE BOY EVER REFUSED ADMISSION’.

Eventually Barnardo began to open up homes for girls, too. He died in 1905, but his work became known throughout the world, and many of his homes survived. The charity, now called Barnardo’s, still exists today to help young people in all kinds of ways.

Some of the books I used for background research:

  • 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

You may also like to look at the dramatisation of Street Child (Collins PlaysPlus), 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.

Questions children have asked

Q How long did it take to write?

A About a year, but most of that time was spent in research, reading about Dr. Barnardo and about the conditions of the poor in the 1860s.

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, who told Barnardo that he had run away from a workhouse and who had been badly treated by a coal-bargee. All the rest is made up.

Q Is the setting somewhere you knew?

A No. I don’t even know London very well, let alone the London of over a 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.

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.

Q Is there going to be another book about Jim Jarvis?

A I don’t think so. It would be very interesting to try to imagine what might have happened to Jim in the orphanage but at the moment I think that sequels are best left to the readers’ imaginations.

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 and edited (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 climbs up the wall after Jim and sees all the sleeping boys.

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 Why did you call Carrots Shrimps?

A Because (Jack Somers) Carrot’s story is very well known. Shrimps is based a little on him, but his story is different, so I gave him a different name.

Q Was there already a book based on Jim Jarvis’s life?

A No. There was a little pamphlet a couple of pages long telling how Dr. Barnardo had met Jim Jarvis, when he turned up at the school Barnardo ran for ‘ragged children’, as he called them.

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. Otherwise, I think it may have been the workhouse for them.

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.

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