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John Michaelis Barnardo and Abigail Matilda O'Brien were married in the German church in London on 23rd June 1837 on a fine and nearly cloudless day. Thomas John Barnardo was born eight years later on 4 July 1845. By nightfall of this day John Barnardo had lost most of his money in trading shares, but worse still the birth of Thomas had proved difficult and the doctor doubted whether the new baby, sadly small and delicate would survive the night.
Many families embellish their history with myths and stories but often they bear little relation to fact, and the Barnardo family history as recorded is not unusual in this respect. What does make the story unusual is the extent to which certain facts have been suppressed concerning Thomas Barnardo's background and parentage. From what we know John Michaelis was born in the town of Havelberg in 1800, he was thirty seven years of age when he married Abigail O'Brien. Nothing is known of his parents except that they were both originally from Hamburg and had settled in Dublin. In the four preceding centuries the Barnardo's had it was said moved from successive areas of intolerance in Spain, Egypt, north Italy and then in 1823 they had left north Germany after a wave of anti-Semitism.
No record of their early life in Hamburg can be found nor are the reasons that made them leave their native land. He is thought to have arrived in Ireland some time in 1823. Jewish historians writing of the period have assumed the family to be of Jewish extraction but this was suppressed. With so few facts to build upon it is not surprising that a more romantic and interesting background has been woven into the Barnardo story. Although no mention is made of the subject in any of the published biographies.
Jewish historians writing their history know Barnard was a common nineteenth century German Jewish personal name in England and an equivalent for the Hebrew Baruch which means blessed. Michaelis is a Yiddish patronymic. It is possible that John Michaelis Barnado was the first or second bearer of the name Barnado. Ashkenazi Jews have never treated surnames very seriously and change them readily, relying more on personal names. John Michaelis Barnado could be the equivalent of Jacob son of Michael and the surname Barnado or Bernardi could have been adopted in Dublin for business purposes, or else it could be the name under which his father registered the family in Germany after the Napoleonic decree of 1808 by which the Jews of Germany were ordered to register surnames, in which case his father may have been Michael son of Baruch. Although there are no hard facts to support this theory it is interesting that Barnardo believed, as did Disraeli, that their families originated in Spain and that they were Expelled during the persecution of 1650.
Dr. Barnardo's widow, co - author with James Marchant of his memoirs, which were published soon after his death, wrote as though a branch of the family had settled in Venice. The Palazzo Bernardi on the Grand Canal is seen as the original home of the Barnardoís, and a certain Count John is given ancestral status. However, in the only published account of his family background,' Barnardo himself did not include the claim to a noble Venetian ancestor, but said that one branch of his family went to Germany and another went to Russia. It was from the German branch that Barnardo claimed to be descended, and this would seem to accord most nearly with the limited number of known facts. The stories of Spanish or Venetian origin was an attempt to raise the social standing of a rather humble family. There is some evidence that Mrs Barnardo was aware of a Jewish background which she wished suppressed, hence her wide generalisations on the family's Spanish and Italian origins.
So far we have quite a mixture with the bloodline, but now it was going to mix even more. John Michaelis Barnardo met and married Elizabeth O'Brian on New Years Day of 1827 Elizabeth was one of five sisters whose father Philip O'Brien, a Roman Catholic from County Clair, had eloped with Miss Elizabeth Drinkwater, the daughter of a highly respected English Quaker family. The Drinkwaters punished Elizabeth's indiscretion by refusing to ever see her again, with the result that she was cut off by her scandalised family without the proverbial penny. This did not concern John, he had fallen in love with the girl he was going to spend the rest of his life with.
The marriage was blessed with six children within a period of eight years, sadly Elizabeth died giving birth to her seventh child who John had named Elizabeth after her mother, but she was only to survived her mother by a month. John remained a window for less than a year when he decided to find a new wife who could look after his six Children William, Sophie, Theodore, Abigail, Augustus and Bernard. The obvious practical solution was for John to marry Abigail Elizabeth's sister, who had been in charge of the household since her sister's death? However, the bill which was to permit marriage with a deceased wife's sister had not yet been passed, and according to the law as it stood it would have been illegal for John Michaelis to marry his wife's sister, although in Dublin there was less stigma attached to those who disregarded the law of England.
By coming to London and by having the ceremony performed in a German church by a German pastor, John Michaelis was able to avoid the legal impediment to his marriage, for as a Prussian subject he was not bound by English law. The marriage certificate is signed by five witnesses, Jos Tabrum, Fanny and James Connell and Mary and Ellen Bryan, possibly Abigail's two sisters who may subsequently have gone to America.
Very little is known about the O'Briens and it is interesting that it was only after Mrs Barnardo's death that the true facts about Thomas Barnardo's mother were made known by Norman Wymer in his book "Father of Nobody's Children." Until then Abigail Barnardo's maiden name was given as Drinkwater, a family said to be Quakers although no record of them as such exists in Ireland.' Little is known about the O'Brien sisters except that they themselves were the daughters of a romantic union. In the Dictionary of National Biography Thomas Barnardo's mother's maiden name is wrongly given as Drinkwater. This is further evidence of a strong desire to foster the illusion that Thomas Barnardo's forbears were all of impeccable Protestant stock. But the fact is Thomas Barnardo was quite a nice mix from the Victorian melting pot.
After the marriage, which was followed by a civil ceremony on 14 July, John Michaelis brought his wife back to the house in Dame Street where he carried on his business as a furrier. They lived and worked at number 4, a plain Georgian four storied house with two windows to each storey, the houses were mostly occupied by traders in material, perfumes and furs. It was well placed for trade, since the vice‑regal residence was just up the street on the left and Trinity College could be seen from the front door looking to the right.
Here Abigail settled down to care for her new family. The Barnardos must have been a self-reliant pair; as a foreigner John Barnardo had no relations in Dublin, and Abigail's mother was estranged from her family, so that in time of need the couple had only O'Brien relations to call on for help. The house in Dame Street was not a large one, and while Elizabeth was alive John Michaelis had let off a room to increase the family income. So when Abigail started a family of her own, even without a lodger, conditions must have been somewhat cramped.
A son, Adolphus, was born a year after the marriage, but he only survived to the age of two. The following year a second son, George, was born, and two more sons, Frederick and Thomas John, were later added to the family. About this time the Barnardoís were quite wealthy as John Michaelis had been very successful within the fur trade and had made a few successful investments in the Wicklow and Wexford Railway Company. Thomasís birth coincided with the crash of the railway company in which John Michaelis had lost a lot of money. It is not known how much was lost, but this matter was to rear its head many years later with the Reynolds saga.
Thomas John's birth on 4 July 1845 was by all accounts a difficult one and he was so delicate that he was not expected to live. His mother had also fallen ill and was so weak she was unable to nurse Thomas, on the doctor's recommendation Thomas was put in the care of a wet nurse who lived quite near. By one of those strange twist fate, his wet nurse was a Roman Catholic. As you may well know this baby would grow and in later life he would take every opportunity to attack Roman Catholicism.
Abigail Barnardo as we know was rather ill after the birth of Thomas to care for him, but this did not stop her becoming pregnant again within a short time, Abigail was sent to the country to be cared for by relatives most probably with the O'Brien's in County Clair. A baby girl was born the following May, but only survived a few hours. During Abigail's absence, Sophie, then aged seventeen and the eldest of Elizabeth's children, took over the responsibility of running the household; she was devoted to 'dear Tom', as the child became known to the family, and visited him constantly. Arriving unexpectedly at the nurse's home one day, Sophie found Thomas unattended, lying in his cot under an open window. Filled with indignation at this careless disregard for the baby's wellbeing she forthwith carried him back to Dame Street, where a short time later the nurse arrived greatly alarmed at the sudden disappearance of her charge. Sophie refused to allow Thomas to return and told the nurse she could only continue to care for him if she came to live at Dame Street where she could be supervised, to which she agreed and where she remained until Thomas was ten months old.
Two years had passed and Tom Barnardo lay critically ill with diphtheria. Thomas had been frail and had battled constantly against ill health to attain the age of two. But now, as his anxious parents watched over their sick boy, it seemed that this time they would lose him to diphtheria. With heavy hearts they recognised that the childís life was slipping away. The doctor in attendance pronounced Thomas dead. A second doctor was called and also confirmed the sad news so they had called in the undertaker.
With the little white coffin waiting in the house, the undertaker was preparing the childís body to be laid out, when all of a sudden Thomas became conscious with a tiny flutter of movement: then another, and another. Tom Barnardo was not dead. Gradually, very gradually, Tom was nursed back to health and was to become a sturdy and resilient youngster. Thomas could have been buried alive, which sadly happened quite a lot in Victorian times. Thomas had been snatched back from the very gates of death, this child was destined in Godís purposes to rescue many another young life from conditions which could only be called a living death.
The following year another baby, Henry Lionel, joined Thomas in the nursery. Thomas's nursery days cannot have been easy; the new baby had a sunny disposition and grew into an attractive child with curly hair and a musical voice. Thomas, who was plain and whose early experience probably contributed to his reputation for being difficult, must have felt doubly chagrined when the younger Henry was called down to be shown off to admiring visitors while he remained upstairs, and not unnaturally took his revenge when Henry reappeared in the nursery. Sophie remained his special friend, and it was she who taught Thomas his first lessons. He was quick and bright and learned to read and write at an early age, in spite of having more than his share of illness during his childhood, and several times his health gave his family cause for anxiety.
Thomasís first school was St Ann's Sunday school, which he seems to have enjoyed. When he was about ten years old he was sent to St John's parochial school in Fishamble Street, which was not far from his home in Dame Street. His next school he followed his brothers, George and Frederick, to the Rev. William Dundas's school. Dundas's school was, in fact, St Patrick's Cathedral Grammar School, the oldest school in Ireland. The school at 112 Stephen's Green gave instruction in 'every branch of study requisite for preparation for the University, the Queen's Colleges, the Naval and Military Colleges, the Army, the Counting House, the profession of Civil Engineering etc.'. The Rev. Dundas wrote in a prospectus to the school that the unremitting exertions of the principal were devoted to the improvement of the pupils in every department, and that he made it his chief aim to enforce, without resorting to severity. Thomas, however, remembered him as one of the biggest and most brutal bullies, 'the most cruel man as well as the most mendacious that I have ever in all my life seen! He seemed to take a savage delight in beating his boys and there were two or three unfortunate lads in the school who were the special subjects of his increasing persecution.
Thomas grew stronger over the years but he was not an easy child. Thomas was rather plain, with hazel eyes and wiry dark brown hair, and he was considerably shorter in stature than the average boy of his age he was 5ft. 3in. and was extremely sensitive about his height but as equally determined not to allow it to prove a handicap.
The family had lived over the shop at Dame Street from the beginning and were still there in 1860 when John Michaelis decided the time had come for him to seek British citizenship. He may have considered that his appointment as furrier to the vice-regal court, which had been gazetted earlier in the year, made this an opportune moment to make the change. His naturalisation papers confirm that at that time John Michaelis had lived for thirty years at Dame Street and that he had ten children living. A certificate was granted to him in August, but because he was travelling on business he was unable to take the oath of allegiance within the time allowed, and only became a British subject in the following November after making a second application for a certificate.
John Michaelis Barnardo must have been industrious man, for arriving alone in Ireland as a young man he set up his own successful fur business and raised two successive families; apart from the famous Thomas, two of his sons by his second marriage became professional men, while the youngest son remained in Dublin to carry on the fur trade. Thomas as we know travelled to London to train as a doctor in 1866 No one could have predicted that Thomas would become one of the most famous men in Victorian Britain and be an icon today.
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