Barrett, Rosa (Mary) (1854–1936) philanthropist, child-care worker, and suffragist, was born 15 January 1854 in Royston, Hertfordshire, England, daughter of the Rev. W. G. Barrett and Martha Barrett (née Fletcher). From the 1860s she was resident with her family in Dublin. Her interest in child care developed at an early age, when she used her pocket-money to pay a nurse to mind the children of working charwomen, and by the late 1870s she had become a significant figure in Dublin philanthropic circles. In 1879 she founded Dublin's first crèche, the Cottage Home for Little Children, in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire). Catering initially for working mothers on low incomes (it cost a penny a day), the home subsequently expanded into an orphanage which by 1900 provided care for up to forty-five children under the age of 6. During the Great War, Belgian refugees added to their numbers. Barrett was herself a congregationalist, and the home was open to children of all protestant denominations. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s it pursued a policy of boarding-out and emigration. This led her to visit Canada on several occasions to inspect the children's adoptive homes, after which she made a detailed study of adoption legislation in Canada and the US, the result of which was her article on adoption in the Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (1891).
Having long campaigned for a modernisation of the laws relating to children, in 1889 she broadened her child-care activities with the establishment of the Dublin Aid Committee. This provided the basis for what became the Irish branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Founded in the aftermath of an investigation she initiated into the mistreatment of children in a home in Tuam, Co. Galway, it sought to ensure that the legal rights of children were enforced. Both she and her brother William were original general committee members of the NSPCC's Irish section; though his association with it was brief, she remained on the committee until 1908.
Though she was best known for her work with children, she also took part in other philanthropic projects, among them the Irish Home Industries Association of Lady Aberdeen (qv) and the Philanthropic Reform Association. She often raised the issue of women's welfare and was among those who assisted in establishing the Women's National Health Association. Formed in 1907, it sought to promote public awareness about the prevention of diseases, particularly TB and infant mortality. A prominent figure in the suffrage movement, she was an active member of the non-militant and non-party Irish Women's Suffrage Federation, and as such was included in the delegation that travelled to London in 1912 to lobby Irish MPs in connection with the home rule bill. She was also a keen temperance advocate, serving for a time as president of the Irish Women's Temperance Union.
A prolonged illness in 1919 forced her to retire from her position as secretary of the Cottage Home in 1920, after which she left Kingstown and moved to England. Nevertheless she maintained her connections with the home, continuing as a committee member and its president until her death. Throughout her career she produced various publications on child-related issues, most notably her paper ‘Juvenile criminals’, given to the International Congress on Prison Management in Budapest (Sept. 1905), which won the Howard medal. She also compiled Lock's Guide to Dublin charities (1884) and wrote a biography of the White Cross pioneer Ellice Hopkins (1908). A keen traveller, over the years she visited Sweden, Norway, and South Africa. She died unmarried (28 August 1936) at her home in Hanside Lane, Welwyn Garden City, Herts.
Her elder brother William Fletcher Barrett (1844–1925), physicist and psychical researcher, was born 10 February 1844 in Jamaica, and was educated at Old Trafford Grammar School, Manchester. In 1863 he became assistant to Professor John Tyndall (qv) at the Royal Institution. After a short period as science master at the International College, London, he was appointed physics lecturer at the Royal School of Naval Architecture (1869), before moving to Dublin, where he was appointed professor of physics at the Royal College of Science (1873–1910). Popular with students, he was very involved in college life and wrote a short history of the college for the college magazine The Lynx ((1906), vol. 1, no. 1, 60, (1907), vol. 1, no. 2, 56).
As a physicist his researches encompassed the electric and magnetic properties of various metal alloys. His most noteworthy discovery (1899) was that of ‘Stalloy’, one of the silicon-iron alloys, which are used in the construction of electrical machinery. He also investigated ‘sensitive’ flames that flare under the influence of certain sounds. As well as writing introductory science manuals he contributed articles on physics to the Transactions of the Royal Dublin Society and the Philosophical Magazine. However his career as a physicist was overshadowed by a growing interest in spiritualism. What began as a scientific interest in unnatural phenomena or psychical activity, popular at the time, grew to dominate his investigations. He carried out experiments and wrote numerous articles on thought transference, hypnotism, and dowsing. His publications included several books; On the threshold of a new world of thought (1910), On the threshold of the unseen (1917) and The divining rod: an experimental and psychological investigation (1926). In 1882 he helped found the Society for Psychical Research, where he served as council member and president, and contributed to its journal and proceedings. His initial scientific rigour became clouded as his researches entered the realm of pseudo-science: he believed that Christianity and spiritualism provided sufficient evidence to prove the existence of a spiritual world, survival after death, and communication with those in an after-life. Despite his unorthodox researches, he was respected as a scientist for most of his life. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1874), MRIA (1874), and FRS (1899). In 1912 he received a knighthood.
Living at De Vesci Terrace, Dún Laoghaire, he moved to London on his retirement (1910) and later married (1916) Mrs Florence Elizabeth Willey, MD and gynaecologist. They lived at 31 Devonshire Place West. He died suddenly from heart failure 26 May 1925, and was buried at Long Cross, Chertsey, Surrey. The National Portrait Gallery, London, holds three photographic portraits of him.