Reflecting on the Life and Work of George Müller

Histories of Care - Collections Encounter and Public Roundtable, reflecting on the social care and experience of children throughout history

The forthcoming Histories of Care – Collections Encounter and Public Roundtable, reflects on the social care and experience of children throughout history and seeks to understand how these histories might inform the shape of future childcare. 

George Müller (1805-98) cared for 10,000 orphaned children in his lifetime.  Müller was founder and director of the Ashley Down Orphan Homes in Bristol, England, and is also remembered as one of the founders of the independent Christian congregations known as the Open Brethren. 

Müller was pioneering in his belief that orphan children should be given a good education.  His homes provided an education that was nothing short of life changing.  Orphans entered the homes destitute and left with the skills to go into service or, later, teaching (girls), or to begin an apprenticeship (boys).  

The George Müller collection in the Christian Brethren Archive and records (including for each orphan) at the Müller Museum tell his amazing story.  This Histories of Care event offers an opportunity to see items from the Müller archive first-hand and watch a screening of the latest Müller documentary A Cloud of Witnesses.  Dr Neil Summerton, the author of a brand-new Müller biography, will be on hand to answer any questions and sign copies of his book. 

Born in Prussia, Müller travelled to London in 1829 for missionary training in Hackney.  He fell ill and went to recuperate in Devon where he settled, becoming the minister of Ebenezer Chapel in Teignmouth.  In 1832 Müller, now married to Mary Groves (1797-1870), moved to Bristol.  He and his friend Henry Craik (whom he had met at Teignmouth) became pastors of two linked local congregations, Gideon Chapel and Bethesda Chapel.  At this time, the streets of Bristol were dirty, and poverty and sickness were rife.  Many orphaned children lived on the streets or in the distressing environment of the workhouses.  George and Mary were determined to help. 

Portrait of Mary and George Müller, c.1860.

Mary Müller, c.1860 © The Waverley Abbey Trust. George Müller, 1860 © The George Müller Museum

In 1834, Müller and Craik founded The Scriptural Knowledge Institution (SKI) which aimed to: support missionaries at home and abroad; provide a source of cheap Bibles and tracts; and to open and support Day-Schools and Sunday-Schools for adults and children.  The Orphan Home project was added in 1836.  

Müller rented a property, 6 Wilson Street in St Paul’s, for the purpose of taking in 30 orphan girls.  By 1843, Müller had rented three further houses in Wilson Street and was caring for 120 orphan girls and boys.  A report in 1845, stated that neighbours complained about the noise of the orphans playing and the smell from the blocked sewers!  Müller started planning a new, larger orphan home, outside the city centre, where the children could have space to play and fresh air to breathe. 

Müller did not undertake fundraising or ask individuals for money, but he prayed every day for the resources needed to care for the orphans and reported on what he was doing.  He received answers to his prayers through the generosity of thousands of gifts given or sent to him.  As the work grew, donations came from all over the world as well as from Bristol.  In his lifetime, Müller received £1.5 million in money and gifts in kind.  At present-day prices, this would be over £200 million.

‘. . . a brother in the Lord came to me this morning and, after a few minutes’ conversation gave me two thousand pounds, concerning which sum he kindly gave me permission to use it for the fitting up and furnishing the new Orphan House, or for anything else needed in connection with the Orphans…. Now I have the means, as far as I can see, which will enable me to meet all the expenses; and in all probability I shall have even several hundred pounds more than is needed.’  

(Diary entry for 12 February 1849. Autobiography of George Müller or A Million and a Half in Answer to Prayer, ed. George Bergin, reprinted in facsimile from the 1906 edition, Denton TX: Westminster Literature Resources, 2003. ISBN 0-9647552-0-3.), pp. 260-261.)

By 1849, there were funds to open Orphan Home ‘No. 1’ on Ashley Down, a huge green space to the north of the then city.  By 1870, Home No. 1 had been joined by Homes Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5, together housing 2,050 orphaned children.  

Ashely Down Orphan Home No.2, Bristol, c.1900 © The George Müller Museum

Girls’ classroom, Ashley Down Orphan Homes, c.1900 © The George Müller Museum

The Orphan Homes were pioneering in their provision of care and both Charles Dickens, and Dr Barnardo (also of a Brethren background) visited them.  

The Homes provided an education that empowered each orphan, giving them the means to avoid a life of poverty and early death.  Inside the Homes, life had to be regimented due to the large number of children being cared for, and chores included growing vegetables, laundry, cooking and cleaning.  But as well as receiving an education, there was time for play and the orphans enjoyed two playtimes and three meals each day.  Müller also established infirmaries in the Homes, employing nurses to attend to the children’s health care, under the supervision of retained medical officers.  

‘Demission’ of an orphan, on his way to be an apprentice, Ashley Down Orphan Homes, c.1910 © The George Müller Museum

Between the ages of 75 and 90, Müller embarked on a series of world-wide preaching tours in 42 countries and travelling 200,000 miles by rail and sea, though he continued to supervise the Homes closely by letter and telegram.

The vision of Müller to meet the needs of the vulnerable is alive and active today through the George Müller Charitable Trust.

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