The charity was established when its founder Thomas Barnardo opened a school in the East End of London to care for and educate children of the area left orphaned and destitute by the recent cholera outbreak. In 1870 he founded an orphanage at 18 Stepney Causeway with the same goals. By the time of his death in 1905, Barnardo's institutions cared for over 8,500 children in 96 locations. His work was carried on by his many supporters under the name Dr Barnardo's Homes.
Following societal changes in the mid 20th century, the charity changed its focus from the direct care of children to fostering and adoption, renaming itself Dr Barnardo's. Following the closure of its last traditional orphanage in 1989 it took the still simpler name of Barnardo's.
H.M. Queen Elizabeth II is the current patron of Barnardo's. Its Chief Executive is Martin Narey, formerly head of the National Offender Management Service. His appointment was warmly welcomed by staff at Barnardo's and in the wider children's sector.
Today, the charity works with disabled children, victims of sexual abuse, mental health problems, homeless children, and children and young people affected by HIV and AIDS. The alleviation of child poverty links most of its work with more than 115,000 children. In recent years it has accompanied its service delivery work with some robust campaigning on Sarah's Law, asylum seeking children, children in care, young carers and, most prominently, child poverty. The combination of service delivery, in which it is second only to NCH in size, and its campaigning voice makes it one of the UK's leading children's charities.
The charity's current tagline is: believe in children.
During the 1950s, children from the homes made some significant recordings. Their biggest claim to fame was featuring on Petula Clark's 1952 recording of Where Did My Snowman Go. They also made some other recordings as a vocal group for Polygon,Pye Nixa