It is ironic that these massive buildings that dominate the ridge at Ashley Down were known for generations as the Muller Homes. Their founder, German immigrant George Muller, was insistent on the title 'The New Orphan House' as he did not want his name to be prominent, for he considered himself merely an instrument in the venture. In fact, in his youth he must have seemed an unlikely candidate for such benevolent activities, due to his dissolute lifestyle.
After a great change of heart he became a minister and in 1832 was appointed joint pastor of Bethesda Chapel in Great George Street. That same year he started an orphanage at no 6 Wilson Street, St Pauls, near to where Elizabeth Blackwell once lived. The Blackwell house, though dilapidated, still stands but the Muller house was pulled down several years ago.
Over time George Muller rented several other houses in Wilson Street, to accommodate the increasing number of orphans he took into care. As the work expanded he realised that these rented houses were far from ideal for many reasons. One of these was the fact that the residents of the street raised objections to the noise made by the children playing outside. Purpose built premises were the answer.
Muller operated his orphanages on the 'faith' system - having faith that money would be provided to him for their upkeep. In faith he embarked on the search for suitable land and found it in Ashley Down. The money for the construction as well as the other costs came from donations.
In 1845 he entered into a contract for the purchase of the 7 acres of ground at 120 per acre for the accommodation, feeding, clothing and education of 300 destitute and orphan children. On June 18th 1849 the orphans transferred to the new building. By 1886 he had received 700,000 through prayer and had over 2,000 children in his care.
The buildings are made of grey Pennant stone dressed with freestone. They may present a grim exterior to the world, but one of the features is the high ceilings and the number of windows - 300 in Number 1 House.
Although the day started at 6am for the orphans, this was normal for working-class children of Victorian times. The standard of education was high, with boys staying at school until 14 years old and always being provided with a job to go to when they left the home. Girls stayed until they were 17 years old and went into domestic service, nursing and teaching.
George Muller died a poor man in 1898, with few possessions. At his funeral over 100 carriages followed the hearse and thousands of people lined the route to Arnos Vale Cemetery. His work was carried on but by the 1950s the large communal dwellings were being phased out in favour of smaller family units in ordinary houses. In 1958 the children and organisation headquarters had moved from Ashley Down and the buildings became Bristol College of Science and Technology (more recently changed to City of Bristol College, Brunel Campus).
A museum showing items from Muller's work, including information on the children, is at Muller House, 7 Cotham Park, Bristol, BS6 6DA. The museum is open between 10am and 4pm Monday to Friday excluding bank holidays. Visitors are welcome but prior notification is appreciated.
A memory shared byon Dec 5th, 2009.
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