Barnardo, Thomas John (1845–1905), philanthropist, was born 4 July 1845 at 4 Dame Street, Dublin, the fourth son of John Michaelis Barnardo (d. 1874), a wholesale furrier, and his second wife, Abigail Matilda (née O'Brien). His father was born in Havelberg, Prussia, and settled in Ireland in 1823; his first wife had been Elizabeth O'Brien, Abigail's older sister, who died in 1836, leaving five children. Thomas was educated at St Patrick's cathedral grammar school in Dublin, and at the age of fourteen was apprenticed to a Dublin wine merchant, but quit after becoming convinced of the importance of temperance reform. During the revival of 1862 he experienced a religious conversion and joined the Plymouth Brethren, regularly attending prayer meetings at Merrion Hall and Aungier Street, and teaching in Sunday school. He also tried to help the sick and poor by joining the Swift's Alley Mission. With a view to becoming a missionary, and against his father's wishes, Barnardo left for London in April 1866 and settled in Stepney, working with Rev. Hudson Taylor of the China Inland Mission and Henry Grattan Guinness (qv), whom he had met at evangelical meetings in Dublin. He registered with the London Hospital as a missionary medical student in 1867. Volunteer work in the East End of London during the cholera epidemic of 1866–7 and his association with the Ernest Street Ragged School had a profound effect on him, and his concern for London's poor led him to abandon the idea of foreign missionary work. In early 1868 he opened the East End Juvenile Mission in Hope Place, Stepney; it offered Bible classes and a day school.
It was through his encounter with Jim Jarvis, a destitute child attending the mission, that Barnardo first became aware of the plight of London's homeless children and began his life's work with them. The first of what became famous as ‘Dr Barnardo's Homes’ opened in Stepney Causeway (December 1870), and was followed by a separate institution for girls (1874) and by the Girls’ Village Home at Barkingside, Essex (1876). In 1874 Barnardo adopted the policy of never refusing a destitute child admission. His reputation and his management of the homes came under fierce attack in that year from George Reynolds, a baptist minister, and Frederick Charrington, the temperance advocate and mission leader, who sought to discredit him. During the lengthy controversy that ensued, Barnardo's policy of eliciting sympathy and subscriptions by selling photographs of rescued children, often in rags, came in for particular criticism, while his use of the title ‘Doctor’ from 1872 also proved problematic. Such criticisms motivated him to qualify from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in 1876. Widely reported in the London press, the conflict was further complicated by the appearance of letters to a newspaper, signed ‘A Clerical Junius’, sympathising with Barnardo's work, which many believed were written by Barnardo himself. An outstanding publicist and speaker, Barnardo collected huge sums from the public but, as more and more questions were asked about his finances, support for the homes declined. In 1877 the charges against him were brought to arbitration and, though his name was cleared, a board of trustees subsequently assisted in the management of the homes and other aspects of the work. Despite growing debts, trustees had great difficulty in reining in Barnardo's obsessive efforts to expand his activities. A man of great energy, conviction, and determination, he was almost impossible to control, and came into conflict with the catholic church over his unwillingness to return children to catholic parents. Between 1889 and 1891 this led to several widely publicised and damaging legal battles.
From 1882 Barnardo sent numbers of orphaned or abandoned children for resettlement in Canada. In furtherance of this work he visited the country five times and established offices in Toronto and Peterborough, Ontario, to receive new arrivals; more than 11,000 destitute children were sent for training and work in Canada. Children were also settled in New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. Such mass resettlement and its effects on children attracted strong criticism, but Barnardo pressed on regardless. In 1886 Barnardo first adopted a boarding system by which young children were cared for in private homes, and in that same year he opened the Babies’ Castle in Hawkhurst, Kent. It catered for 100 infants. In 1891 he founded the Young Helpers’ League, which aimed at encouraging charity in wealthy children; the duchess of Teck became its first president. He produced a wide variety of pamphlets and leaflets and edited several successful magazines, among others The children's treasury (1881–94) and Night and day (1877–1905).
Despite recurring financial difficulties, more than 59,000 children were cared for during Barnardo's lifetime, and his name became synonymous with children's charities. He also maintained an interest in temperance reform, and was involved in the conversion in 1874 of the Edinburgh Castle public house at Limehouse in London into a mission church, gymnasium, and coffee-house. This attracted considerable publicity, and in 1876 the Dublin Castle public house at Mile End was similarly transformed.
Barnardo married Syrie (Sarah) Elmslie of Richmond on 17 June 1873; they had five sons and two daughters. Three sons predeceased him, and their daughter Gwendoline Maud (Syrie), the interior decorator, married Sir Henry Wellcome, the American pharmaceutical manufacturer, and then the author Somerset Maugham. Barnardo died 19 September 1905 and was buried in Barkingside, Essex.