It is difficult to believe that not long ago St Andrews was a place of pilgrimage and small miracles. Visitors to Bristol at the beginning of the twentieth century were encouraged not only to visit the great sights of the city such as the Suspension Bridge and St Mary Redcliffe but also venture up Ashley Hill to Muller’s Orphan Houses.
While London had Dr Barnardo, Bristol had George Muller.
A guidebook of 1910 states: ‘Here, on the top of the hill, healthy and pleasantly situated, are those marvellous instances of answered faith which rebuke the scepticism of the present time, and belong not so much to Bristol as the whole world.’
George Muller founded his orphanage in 1834 in Wilson Street, St Paul’s. Condition of entry to Muller’s orphanage was straightforward: all were welcome. All were welcome with one exception – the illegitimate. It was a typical Victorian twist; young people, who through no fault of their own were born out of wedlock, were not offered help.
The demand for places in the Wilson Street home outstripped availability. Another adjacent house in Wilson Street was bought. But this was quickly filled. During the Victorian era the birth rate and survival rate was rocketing. It was clear that something radical had to be done. A purpose-built house was needed.
Muller bought seven acres of farmland on Ashley Hill and opened his first house in 1849. By 1870 there were five Houses at Ashley Down costing over £100,000 and housing more than 2,000 children. Over 200 staff were employed - many of them living-in.
The houses of the orphanage were an incongruous and forbidding sight - reminiscent of the prison on Dartmoor - a cluster of enormous grey institutional building sitting isolated in the countryside. Muller’s five orphan houses were all built on similar plan and were self-contained, having their own laundries and medical facilities. The grounds were used for the cultivation of vegetables.
The orphans ranged in age from just a few months old up to seventeen. The girls were trained for service while the boys were apprenticed to a useful trade ‘of their choice.’
Muller, a man of astounding faith, ran his institution on the pledge that ‘he would ask for money from no man’. Yet the money flowed in. If at times somewhat precariously. Apocryphal tales abound. On one occasion, when funds for food had virtually run out, a horse towing a baker’s delivery van stopped outside the orphanage and refused to budge. It would only move when all the bread had been unloaded and distributed to the children.
While Muller never asked for money he made sure that there were ample opportunities for people to make donations. There were daily tours of the orphanage. They lasted one and half hours and gave an opportunity for the public to see the work and contribute financial support if they felt so moved.
Muller spent his last years living in an austere room in House Number Three. He died in 1898 and was buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery. The work of the orphanage continued largely unchanged for another fifty years. It was with the beginning of the Welfare State after the Second World War that the care of orphans was re-evaluated. The belief was that it was far better if parentless children were looked after by foster parents or cared for in smaller children’s houses.
As a result of the 1948 Children Act the Muller Trustees decided to sell the five homes at Ashley Down. They bought instead, smaller properties to house family groups of from ten to twelve children. It was felt that this would provide the children with a more natural environment in which to grow. Married couples were taken on as house parents to care for the children and they were helped by assistants.
Eventually, the five Ashley Down Houses were purchased by the local Education Authority in 1958. Two are now used by City of Bristol College while the other three have been converted to housing.
From today’s perspective, Muller’s massive unadorned houses can appear bleak and institutional. They look as if they could crush the spirit of even the most resilient child. But one should not forget that the Muller homes offered a structured upbringing, education and hope when it was needed most. The alternative could have been far, far worse.
TBS is grateful to Mike Manson – local historian and author who allowed us to publish this extract before it appears in his new book: Manson’s Bristol Miscellany – to be published 2019. Mike Manson’s latest novel is ‘Down in Demerara’ (Tangent) to be published 11 October 2018.