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British explorer, journalist and politician, Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904), was in kinship care, foster care, and the workhouse as a child. 

Henry Morton Stanley was born John Rowlands. He never knew his father, who died shortly after he was born. He was abandoned by his mother, eighteen-year-old unmarried Elizabeth Parry, almost immediately after his birth. She handed over care to his grandfather, Moses Parry, who lived in Denbigh, Wales.  

When I attempt to arrest one of the fleeting views of these early stages of my life, the foremost image which presents itself is that of my grandfather’s house, a white-washed cottage, situated at the extreme left of the [Denbigh] Castle, with a long garden at the back, at the far end of which was the slaughterhouse where my Uncle Moses pole-axed calves, and prepared their carcasses for the market; and the next is of myself, in bib and tucker, between grandfather’s knees, having my fingers guided, as I trace the alphabet letters on a slate… (15-16). 

John was about six when his eighty-four-year-old grandfather died in 1847. The boy was taken to live with another couple, Jenny and Richard Price, and his care was paid for by two uncles. When the Prices decided the rate was too low, and the uncles declined to pay more or care for the child themselves, John Rowlands was transferred to the St Asaph Union Workhouse 

To the aged it is a house of slow death, to the young it is a house of torture. Paupers are the failures of society, and the doom of such is that they shall be taken to eke out the rest of their miserable existence within the walls of the Workhouse to pick oakum (Stanley, 19). 

More than forty-five years later, John Rowlands could still remember the stinging blows, beatings, and whippings of the workhouse schoolmaster, James Francis, in a school designed to prepare “farmers, tradesmen, and mechanics” for the future. 

When he was about fifteen, John left the workhouse and, after being rejected by several relatives, was taken in by a cousin, Moses Owen, a schoolmaster in Brynford. Nine months later, John went to live with his Aunt Mary who introduced him to another aunt, whose partner worked in insurance in Liverpool. The clerkship John Rowlands had hoped for in Liverpool did not eventuate, and eventually, he signed up as a cabin boy on a ship headed for America. 

John Rowlands landed in New Orleans in 1859 and became Henry Morton Stanley after he became friendly with a merchant, Henry Hope Stanley. Henry Morton Stanley was a soldier and seaman before he became a journalist. He was sent by the New York Herald in 1869 to find the Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, who had not been heard from since he left for Africa in 1866. 

Stanley spent the first part of the journey slogging through a swamp and struggling with malaria before the expedition narrowly escaped being massacred during a civil war. After six months…Stanley was down to 34 men, barely a quarter the size of the original expedition, and a dangerously small number for traveling through the hostile territory ahead (Baumeister & Tierney). 

Stanley became a celebrity on his return to the States, and the first words he spoke to Livingstone: “Dr. Livingston, I presume” are now famous. How I Found Livingstone was published in 1872. 

After Livingstone died in 1873, Stanley decided to continue exploring Africa. He was financed by the New York Herald and Daily Telegraph in London and left for Lake Victoria in 1874, reporting on his trip in The Congo and the Founding of its Free State (1885).  

During his expedition, Stanley filed some 10 dispatches, which ran from top to bottom of broadsheet pages for column after column, unrelieved – except in one case by a map – by any illustration. If they are grey in the type, they are certainly not in the telling … (The Telegraph). 

Stanley left for his last expedition in Africa in 1887, writing this up as In Darkest Africa (1890). 

The journey proved to be a disaster on almost all fronts. Stanley split the expedition in half and eventually reached Pasha with the front column in 1888, but not before several hundred members of his party perished from disease and Pygmy attacks. Even more horrific were the atrocities committed by the expedition’s unsupervised rear column, whose members indiscriminately tortured and murdered countless Africans (Andres). 

Although Henry Morton Stanley ended up with a reputation “as the harshest explorer of his age”, Baumeister and Tierney argue that, to the contrary, he learned Swahili, was humane and made friends with Africans.

In 1890, shortly after his marriage to artist Dorothy Tennant (1855-1926), Henry Morton Stanley toured the United States and Australia giving lectures.

Henry Morton Stanley was elected to the House of Commons in 1895 and knighted in 1899 but was not buried in Westminster Abbey alongside David Livingstone. His statue in Denbigh, built in 2010, is an ongoing source of controversy, particularly by those who see Stanley as a “symbol of European arrogance and aggression.” 


 Andrews, Evan. “When Stanley Met Livingstone.” History, 2018. 

Baumeister, Roy and Tierney, John. “Henry Morton Stanley’s Unbreakable Will.” Smithsonian Magazine, December 2011. 

“Henry Morton Stanley in the Congo.” The Telegraph, 10 November 2015. 

Middleton, Dorothy. “Henry Morton Stanley. British Explorer.” Britannica. 

Ravenstein, E. “Obituary: Henry Morton Stanley. The Geographical Journal, vol. 24 (1904): 103-106.

Stanley, Henry. The autobiography of Sir Henry Morton Stanley: the making of a 19th-Century explorer. Santa Barbara, Calif: Narrative Press, 2001/1909. 

 Image available here.