Street Child

“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.

WorkhouseJim 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.

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