Almost 150 years since Syrie Barnardo first believed in the destitute girls of London’s East End, her legacy lives on in the work of the UK’s leading children’s charity. This Women’s History Month we remember the inspirational woman and reflect on how her early influence paved the way for Barnardo’s work today.
Although Thomas Barnardo’s vision more than 150 years ago may have been to help all destitute children, his early work focused mainly on boys. It wasn’t until he married Sara ‘Syrie’ Louise Elmslie that Barnardo’s was able to care properly for the thousands of girls living on the streets or in abject poverty around London’s East End.
A philanthropist in her own right, Syrie had already set up her own Ragged School, and her marriage to Barnardo in 1873 paved the way for the charity’s work helping girls – a legacy that continues to this day.
As a wedding present, the Barnardos were given a 15-year lease on Mossford Lodge in Barkingside – the site of the charity’s headquarters today – which became Girls’ Village Home.
Syrie’s involvement in Barnardo’s opened the door for thousands of girls who would otherwise have been forced into begging or prostitution to earn money.
It’s this which laid the foundations for Barnardo’s current work supporting victims of child sexual exploitation like Martha.
Martha was targeted online by a group of older boys and began to meet up with them. They took her to parties, and made her feel special and grown up. She trusted them and thought one of the boys was her boyfriend but, one night at a party, he held her down for the others to rape her.
After her horrific experience, Martha urgently needed Barnardo’s specialist care to cope with the trauma she had suffered and was supported every step of the way as she relived her experiences by telling her story to police and in court.
With help from her support worker Emma and a specialist counsellor, Martha was able to talk about her feelings, and she now has more self-belief and confidence and knows how to recognise abusive relationships.
Today, Barnardo’s has 40 services across the four nations of the UK and, last year, the charity’s direct child sexual exploitation support services worked with more than 2,400 people.
In total, Barnardo’s provides more than 996 services across the UK, including supporting young carers and care leavers, providing fostering and adoption services and providing training and skills or parenting classes. Last year 248,000 children, young people and families were supported.
In the 19th century, Syrie Barnardo was instrumental in setting up the Girls’ Village Home in Barkingside, Essex which provided a safe haven for the street girls and offered them opportunities to train in domestic service and nursery nursing.
“She was described by Barnardo’s contemporaries as determined,” Barnardo’s Archive Manager Martine King said.
“This determination and hard work made the village the success it was, providing safety, education and training to nearly 250 girls in the first year alone. By the 1920s there were around 1,500 girls living there.
“Syrie’s dedication to the organisation after Thomas Barnardo’s death in 1905 continued for another 40 years, until she died at the age of 96.”
Her legacy continues with the thousands of women who now work or give up their time voluntarily to support the UK’s most vulnerable children and bring out the best in each of them, whoever they are and whatever their circumstances.
Viv, 76, and her husband Ken, 84, have dedicated the last 30 years to fostering scores of children through Barnardo’s, many of whom have had a very difficult time.
“All they want is love, and often they are very loving themselves because they haven’t had it at home,” said Viv. “You try to give them such a happy experience and show them it’s not all doom and gloom and their life can be good.”
Barnardo’s also provides specialist services for girls through the National FGM Centre – run with the Local Government Association – which aims to end new cases of FGM in England in 15 years.
Jenny battled for years trying to get the authorities to do something after her husband threatened their daughter with female genital mutilation. Thankfully, a chance meeting with a police officer at a women’s refuge changed that.
She was referred to Barnardo’s last year and since then her and 14-year-old Dominique have been helped by Helen, a specialist family support worker from the National FGM Centre.
Sensitively, Helen explained to Dominique about FGM and the country where her dad was born, and has helped her talk through her feelings about what her dad wants to have done to her.
Working with a legal team, she is now helping Jenny through the court process to get a restraining order and an FGM protection order, to protect Dominique.
Jenny said: “It feels like nobody has done anything before and now suddenly it’s going at 90mph because Barnardo’s has come in and said: ‘Actually no, we are going to protect your daughter and teach her that what her dad is trying to do is wrong.’”
Barnardo’s work lets girls be girls and can help them to reclaim their childhoods. The charity runs 20 services across the UK for young carers and their families by helping them find support through local services and clubs, providing advice and emotional support, liaising with schools so that teachers can better support their students, and providing opportunities for young carers to take a break from their caring responsibilities.
Fourteen-year-old Tomomi has had to grow up fast, doing chores around the home to help her mum who suffers from sickle cell anaemia, instead of enjoying a carefree existence like her peers. It has meant becoming self-reliant and helping before and after school with her older sister, which she does without complaining.
For Tomomi, visiting Barnardo’s Indigo Project gives her the opportunity to feel like a normal teenage girl.
She said: “I make new friends every time new people come into Indigo. It helps children to express their feelings.
“For young people who don’t have the opportunity to take time for themselves, it’s fun to get to know other people from the area who are in the same situation and have the same problems. People don’t judge you like they might do in school.”
Today, women make up more than two-thirds of the workforce in the charity sector. Syrie’s pioneering work almost 150 years ago laid the groundwork for generations of women to follow in her footsteps, and helped lay the foundations for gender equality in highlighting the plight of girls in Victorian London.