The Barnardo Story

Catholic Disputes

Thomas Barnardo had a very proprietorial attitude to those who came into his care, believing that having rescued a child from destitution or neglect, he was not going to hand it over at the whim of the child's parents of relatives. Accordingly, anyone who placed a child with his organisation was required to sign a written agreement handing over the complete care of the child, for an unspecified number years, during which it was to be brought up in the Protestant faith. For any child who might be a candidate for emigration to Canada, there was an additional form giving permission for him or her to be sent overseas. Legally, however, these forms carried no weight if a parent or nearest relative decided to demand the return of a child. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given his Irish Protestant background, Barnardo's reluctance to had over children was particularly vigorous when it came to his dealings with the Roman Catholic Community.

In 1887, following a number of disputes and legal proceedings, Barnardo came to an agreement with the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, that any Catholic child applying for admission to one of his institutions would first be referred to the Cardinal or one of his agents to deal with. Where Barnardo refused to compromise, though, was with children whom he had already received into one of his homes. Several prominent court cases ensued.

The first concerned Harry Gossage, aged ten, who came into Barnardo's care in the summer of 1888 after being found destitute on the streets of Folkestone. His father was dead and his mother had sold the boy in a pub to an organ-grinder who had then mistreated, starved and abandoned him. The mother, a Catholic, was located and signed the form agreeing to his being taken into the Barnardo's home at Stepney. She was also sent the emigration form but never returned it. In November of the same year, a well-to-do Canadian gentleman named William Norton visited the Stepney home seeking a boy to adopt and take back to Canada with him. Having suitable letters of introduction, he was shown a number of boys and selected Harry Gossage. A week later, Norton returned to remove the boy and, as had been agreed, left no address so as not to be locatable by any troublesome relatives. Barnardo was absent on this occasion, due to illness. In the meantime, a letter had been received at Stepney from a Mr Newdigate who stated that, with the support of the boy's mother, he had arranged for the Harry's removal to the St Vincent's Home for Roman Catholic Boys on Harrow. Eventually, Barnardo was forced to admit that the Harry was no longer in his care and, despite a writ of habeas corpus being issued for his return, the boy could not be produced. Barnardo's view was that since he had no knowledge of Harry's whereabouts the writ was inapplicable, and argument he pursued, unsuccessfully,to the House of Lords.

Another case involving a Catholic mother concerned fourteen-year-old Martha Ann Tye who, in the spring of 1888, had been found at the gates of Müller's Orphan Houses in Bristol, begging to be admitted. It was discovered that amongst other abuses, her mother's lover had sexually assaulted the girl and been imprisoned for the offence. She had subsequently been passed on to Barnardo's and placed in Village Home, her mother signing her consent for just two years admission and no permission being given for emigration. In December of the same year, Martha's mother married the now freed lover and wrote to Barnardo demanding the return of her daughter. Barnardo refused the request and in the ensuing court proceedings claimed that the girls had been handed over to a mysterious, and now apparently untraceable Madame Romand. Barnardo produced some previous correspondence between himself and Madame Romand in which the lady, despite his requests, had refused to bring the girl back. The authenticity of these letters seems doubtful, however, and they may well have been faked by Barnardo. It subsequently transpired that Martha had been actually been placed in the hands of a widow named Mrs Grogan and taken to Canada. Despite further litigation, again ending in the House of Lords, Barnardo was found to be at fault. His desire to prevent the return of a child to the very situation that had caused it to enter his care in the first place carried no legal weight.

Despite Barnardo's failures in the courts, and the criticism for some of his conduct in relation to such cases, the publicity given to the proceeding provoked a major debate about the rights of a mother to retain her child even if she could be demonstrated to be totally unfit as a parent. The power to take legal custody of a child in certain situations had been given to Boards of Guardians (the local poor law authorities) in the 1889 Poor Law Act, for example where the child had been deserted or where a parent had committed and imprisonable offence against it. Owing much to Barnardo's vociferous campaigning, the 1891 Custody of Children Act, made further inroads into the inalienable rights of a parent over its child. The Act provided that where a parent had abandoned or deserted his child, or allowed it to be brought up by another person at that person's expense, or by a Board of Guardians, then the return of the child to its parent could be refused.

Although the 1891 Act provided Barnardo with some consolation for his unsuccessful (and expensive) legal wranglings, the 1891 Act provided some consolation and an uneasy truce with the Catholic authorities came in its wake.