Ancestry UK

The Müller Orphanage, Ashley Down, Bristol, Gloucestershire

The Müller Orphanage, also known as the Bristol Orphan Houses, at Ashley Down, Bristol, became Britain's largest single-site children's home, with more than two thousand children in residence.

George Müller

The home's founder, George Müller (originally Johann Georg Ferdinand Müller, also found spelled as "Mueller" or "Muller" though not by Müller himself), was born at Kroppenstaedt in Prussia, on 27th September 1805. He came to England in 1829 to work for the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. In 1829, he visited Teignmouth in Devon to recuperate from illness. After resigning from the Mission Society in December, 1829, he took up an appointment as pastor of the Ebenezer Chapel at Teignmouth early in 1830. Later the same year, he married Mary Groves. At around this time he also adopted the principle that prayer would supply all his needs and refused to take a fixed salary since the funding for this often came from the renting of pews by the wealthy or was grudgingly paid by the congregation. Henceforth, instead of asking for contributions towards his support, he relied on unsolicited offerings.

Müller moved to Bristol in 1832 to work at the Bethesda Chapel. Then, in 1834, he founded the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad whose aims were to aid Christian schools and missionaries, to distribute the Bible and other Christian works, and to run scripturally-based day and Sunday schools. By 1835, five day schools (three for girls and two for) were in operation.

George Müller, c.1860. © Peter Higginbotham

The Wilson Street Homes

Müller's work with destitute children began in 1836 when the idea for an 'Orphan House' which had been forming in his mind started to become reality. With the help of donations of money, household goods and clothing from his supporters, he rented a large house at 6 Wilson Street in the St Paul's district of Bristol. The home, which was just for girls, opened its doors on April 11th and by May 18th twenty-six children were in residence, under the care of a matron and governess. Entry to the home was restricted to destitute children, born in wedlock, both of whose parents were deceased.

Encouraged by the success of the venture, Müller decided to establish an Infant Orphan House which opened on November 28th 1836 at 1 Wilson Street. In October 1837, a further property was taken at 3 Wilson Street to house forty boys from the age of seven upwards. A fourth home was opened at 4 Wilson Street in July 1843, with a total of about 120 places then being provided. During this time, the finances of the homes were often perilously low but donations always seemed to appear at the last moment to keep them running.

Wilson Street, Bristol, date unknown.

Orphan House No. 1

In October 1845, following a complaint from nearby residents about the large numbers of children congregating on Wilson Street, Müller began to think about moving to a new location with purpose-built premises that would house up to 300 children. Despite the great expense such a scheme would involve, a flow of donations soon began to arrive, the first being for a thousand pounds. In February 1846, a seven-acre site was acquired at Ashley Down on the north side of Bristol, which the owner sold to Müller at a much reduced price for the project. By May 1847, with the total donations having reached £11,000, construction work began. The New Orphan House, as it was originally known, was opened on June 18th 1849 and all the existing children were transferred from Wilson Street. They were joined, a few weeks later, by 170 new arrivals with a total of 288 children then in residence. At the same time, a board of eleven trustees was set up to take on legal responsibility for the home and its management.

The New Orphan House from the east, Bristol, c.1870. © Peter Higginbotham

The layout of the new home bore some similarities to workhouse designs of the period, with four wings radiating from a central hub, all enclosed in an outer square, except for one corner.

The location of the home, marked "1", is shown on the 1903 map below.

Ashley Down Orphan Houses site, c.1903.

The New Orphan House from the south, Bristol, c.1865. © Peter Higginbotham

Orphan House No. 2

Not long after the opening of the new home, Müller started to think about increasing the institution's capacity by adding a second and much larger building which would house up to 700 children. The proposal was made public in May 1851, with the cost estimated at £27,000 for the land and building, plus about £8,000 for fitting up and furnishing. Money for the new building accumulated slowly at first but was boosted by a number of major individual donations including one of £8,100 in 1853. By mid-1855, the building fund contained over £23,000. A problem arose, however, when it was realised the ground left around the existing house lacked sufficient space for the new building, and the adjoining fields turned out to be unavailable for purchase. Undaunted, Müller revised his plans which were now to include two smaller buildings, one housing four hundred children and another for three hundred. Construction work on the first of these began in May 1855 on land to the south of the existing home. It was completed on around September 18th 1857, on which date Müller recorded that he had just tested the new building's 150 gas lamps. The building also had 300 large windows which had been glazed free of charge by a local company. To fit into the available space, the new house had a more linear layout than the original house. The building was occupied by 200 infant girls and 200 older girls.

New Orphan House No. 2 from the west, Bristol, c.1870. © Peter Higginbotham

Orphan House No. 3

Construction of the third house, whose 300 places would take the establishment's total capacity to a thousand, became possible in September 1858 when an 11.5-acre site was purchased across the road at the south of the existing buildings. A steady stream of new donations, including one of £7,000 in January 1859, allowed Müller to increase the capacity of the new block from 300 to 450 places. The building began construction in July 1859 and opened on March 12th, 1862. Similar in layout to its predecessor, it was 550 feet in length and had 390 windows. Internally it had 94 rooms: 36 on the ground floor, 35 on the first floor, and 23 on the second floor. The dining-hall was a spacious T-shaped room. The two largest dormitories were each nearly 90 feet long and contained 50 beds.

New Orphan House No. 3 from the south-east, Bristol, c.1870. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 3 from the north, Bristol, c.1880. © Peter Higginbotham

Once the new building was opened, it began to take in new children, which were arriving at Ashley Down at the rate of up to twenty a week. To help the smooth running of the home, older residents from the existing houses were mixed in with the new children.

New Orphan House No. 3 from the west, Bristol, c.1900. © Peter Higginbotham

Orphan Houses No. 4 and No. 5

Even before House No. 3 had opened, Müller was formulating plans for two further blocks whose 850 places would take the site's total capacity to two thousand. As ever, the cost of the scheme, which he estimated at about £50,000, seemed daunting. On top of that, consideration had to be given to the running costs of all the homes, which would then be in the region of £35,000 a year. Müller outlined his plans in the Orphan Houses' 1861 annual report, Amongst other matters, he suggested that there was a particular need to provide more places for boys who had suffered from the establishment's existing bias towards helping girls, who were seen as in greater need of protection.

By the end of 1864, the building fund had reached £27,000. Though Müller was determined never to go into debt, having reached more than half his target, he felt able to begin work on the next home. The ideal site for both of the planned new houses was across the road from House No. 3. The land proved to be for sale, although for rather more than Müller thought it was worth. In addition, it was already being let until March 1867 and was also wanted by the Bristol Water Works Company as a site for a reservoir. Compromise was reached on all the difficulties and the land was acquired. It soon became apparent, though, that constructing both of the new houses at the same time would prove greatly more convenient and cost-effective than building them separately. Unfortunately, increases that had taken place in the costs of labour and building materials meant that Müller's original estimate fell short by £8,000. Nonetheless, Müller was able to sign the contract for house 4, with an option to proceed with the contract for the second on the assumption that sufficient funds would materialise. The construction of House No. 4 began on May 7th, 1866 and was ready for use on November 5th, 1868. After sufficient donations were received to finance House No. 5, its construction began on January 15th, 1867, and it opened on January 6th, 1870. As had happened previously, the glass for the two buildings' 700 large windows was donated by a local company.

New Orphan House No. 4 from the east, Bristol, c.1870. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 5 from the south, Bristol, c.1870. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 5 from the east, Bristol, c.1880s. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 5 from the east, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

A Visit to the Homes

A picture of life at the Orphan Homes is provided by the following description of a visit to the establishment in the 1870s.

It is a striking sight to watch the Orphans passing through the streets of Bristol, on their way to attend Divine worship. Every Sunday morning they may be seen marching, two and two, up and down the hilly thoroughfares of that ancient city, on their way to Bethesda Chapel, where Mr. Müller ministers, there to hear the words of eternal life expounded. Each Orphan House contributes its troop of two or three hundred children — the boys and girls being marshalled in separate bands, and accompanied by their different masters, matrons, and teachers.

The Orphan House No. 1 is open to visitors every Wednesday, No. 2 every Tuesday, No. 3 every Thursday, and No. 4 every Friday. Three sets of visitors are admitted from March 1 to the end of October, at half-past two, three, and half past three o'clock. During the remainder of the year only two sets are received, at the hours of half-past two and three. Mr. Müller is exceedingly strict in enforcing these rules, as otherwise the arrangements of the Houses would be materially interfered with. We remember hearing of that eminent and good man, the late Sir Robert Inglis, having requested permission to go over the Establishment on an irregular day, as his stay in Bristol would not permit him to wait. Mr. Müller had an interview with the worthy Baronet, but felt bound courteously to refuse the request, on the ground that if he broke through the rules for the sake of one, he would be expected to do so for others also.

It was on a fine autumnal afternoon in October that we paid a long-promised visit to this remarkable Institution. As we briskly walked up the hill which separates what is called Ashley Down from the city, the woods in the distance were already clothed in the various hues of autumn. At length we came within sight of the New Orphan Houses, and truly vast erections they are of almost interminable length. On entering the grounds in which two of the Houses stand, we passed the lodge, a neat little cottage on the right, and proceeded along the pathway by the side of the carnage drive, which together with a well-trimmed lawn, and some pretty flower beds, separates No. 1 House from No. 2. There are large pieces of ground surrounding each of the Houses, devoted to the cultivation of vegetables. The perfect order and neatness characterizing everything outside the establishment gave us a good intimation of what we might expect within, nor were we disappointed.

On ringing at the entrance, we were admitted by a respectable female into a stone hall, and thence up a staircase into the waiting-room, already occupied by several visitors seated in groups and chatting together in subdued tones. Books and pamphlets were spread out on a table near which sat a well-dressed young person sewing. She was placed there to receive the money from any visitors who wished to buy Mr Müller's Reports, or the Narrative of his life; but none were asked to purchase.

The Orphan House No. 1, which contains usually 140 girls above seven years of age, 80 boys of the same age, and 80 infants of either sex, was that we first visited: but in describing it we shall follow that order which seems best fitted to give a clear understanding of the Establishment, and not that in which the different parts are — to save time — shown to visitors.

There are three school-rooms — Boys', Girls', and Infants' — all large, airy, cheerful-looking apartments. The Girls', which is shown first of the three, is very spacious and lofty, situated on the ground-floor, and well fitted up with the best modern maps and other helps for learning. As our party, numbering some sixty or seventy, entered, we beheld about one hundred and twenty girls, sitting at work at low desks — all clothed alike in blue print frocks and neat pinafores, and with their hair cut short behind, but arranged with the greatest neatness. On a signal from the principal teacher, who was stationed on a small platform, with a desk in front, the girls all stood up and placed their hands behind them. At another signal one of the Orphans struck up a cheerful song, which the rest at once joined in, and all marched out in single file, with as much precision in their steps as any of our modern volunteer corps would exhibit. The effect of this sight was really very striking; and he who can witness unmoved these helpless Orphans winding their way between the desks, to the music of the touching songs which they sang, one after another, must indeed be made of very impenetrable materials. As they passed round the ends of the desks in front of the visitors, who lined the walls on either side, I looked carefully at the features of each child, and, although in some cases I thought I saw evident traces of disease, inherited, doubtless, from the parents whom they had lost, still there was a general appearance of health and of cheerfulness in their happy faces.

Then we were taken to the Girls' "Cloak and Shoe Room," where we found a vast number of serviceable plaid cloaks hanging up around the room, for winter wear. Each girl, too, has three pairs of shoes for use — a mark of sound economy on Mr Müller's part, as every paterfamilias well knows.

The Boys' School-room does not materially differ from that of the Girls. There were, at our entrance, about 80 boys seated at desks, dressed all alike in blue cloth jackets and corduroy trousers. Their appearance was certainly that of vigorous health They looked sturdy, good-tempered fellows. At the word of command they all rose from their seats, and marched one after another between the desks to the air of some spirited song, just as the girls had before. Two separate rooms are appropriated as Work-rooms also — one for the boys, and one for the girls; the former are taught, a few at a time, to knit and mend their own stockings, and the girls to make their own garments, under the superintendence of a teacher who does the cutting out for them. Then come the Play-rooms, one for boys and another for girls. These are large, lofty rooms, with a few low forms, and nothing else in the shape of furniture. These are, of course, only intended for use in bad weather, at least in the case of the boys. For there is a capital court for playing in for each class of Orphans, and swings and other apparatus for exercise and play. The Girls' Play-room was provided with large cupboards, divided into small pigeon-holes, one for each child, well stored with dolls, dolls' houses, and a variety of other toys, the gifts, sometimes of relatives (who are allowed to visit the Orphans once a month), sometimes of ladies, who present them to the teachers, to be used as rewards.

Boys at New Orphan House No. 2, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

Boys' school-room at New Orphan House No. 3, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

The Infant department in the Orphan House never fails to arrest the attention of visitors. Would that we could adequately bring before the reader the "Infant School" with its two hundred little ones, or nearly so — many not more than three years of age. A prettier sight we have rarely witnessed than that of these destitute children, all marshalled in perfect order at word of command, and marching round the room to the sound of their own merry voices. Then they proceeded in very soldier-like style to the gallery, and, when seated, sang two or three very pretty songs. One was, —

"The little watch goes tick, tick, tick.
So many times a minute;
And as it goes so quick, quick, quick.
What can the watch have in it?"

The words in Italics were sung with particular emphasis and spirit.

Another was, —

"O, we're all sawing — saw, saw, sawing —
O, we're all sawing, at our pretty Infant School!
The saw goes up and down, with a push, push, push,
And through the log it cuts, with a whish, whish, whish"

At the word "push" the little creatures suited the action to the word, and so with the corresponding word in the other lines of the song.

We must say a few words about the "Infant Nursery." Some infants, it should be remembered, are taken in so young that they are literally babies and these are nursed in a small comfortable room by a motherly-looking head nurse, assisted by two or three of the elder girls. It was a touching sight to watch these helpless infants toddling about with pretty horses or dolls in their hands, and some in the arms of their nurses. Around the room, too, we noticed several little basket beds in which these tiny babies might be placed, when overcome with sleep, with all the fondness of a mother's love.

Nursery at New Orphan Home No. 2, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

Many visitors seem to regard as one of the prettiest sights in the whole Establishment the "Infants' Wardrobe." It was a room about twenty feet long, and ranged on each side of the room stood painted deal presses, divided into small pigeon-holes, in each of which were laid by, neatly folded up, small duplicates of all the various articles of clothing worn by the Infants. The one side was set apart for the girls' wardrobes, each little pile of clothing being crowned by a pretty little straw bonnet, and each garment being most carefully and neatly rolled up and pinned together. On the opposite side stood the same number of presses for the boys' clothes, and on the top of each tiny wardrobe that occupied the pigeon-holes there was placed a little blue cloth cap. It is a fact, that scarcely any part of the house affects strangers so much as this Infants' Wardrobe; and it is a common thing to see tears in the eyes of one and another of the visitor, as they gaze on the exquisite order and nicety which prevail on every side, and think of the tender love which had so wonderfully cared for the smallest wants of these helpless little ones.

Next to the Infants' Wardrobe room comes the Infants' Dormitory. At the end of the Dormitory is a passage on each side of which are situated the private rooms of the Matrons and Teachers. These were most comfortably furnished, and quite in keeping with the station of those who occupy such positions in the Orphan Houses. Each individual has a separate apartment.

Nursery at New Orphan Homes, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

The Infants' Dormitory, to which we have referred, is a spacious room, with abundance of air and light — filled with little tiny bedsteads. These are all of iron, painted of a light yellow colour, and many fitted round with railings to preserve the younger babes from falling out. The beds are ranged in three rows from one end of the room to the other. There is no other article of furniture in the room of any description. Four larger beds — two at each end of the room — are occupied by the elder girls who take charge of the forty little Orphans who nightly sleep in this cheerful room. Forty other infant Orphans occupy the corresponding room to this, which we were afterwards shown.

There is a third bed-room for girls, in which 140 female Orphans sleep — two girls occupying one bed. The same marvellous cleanliness of floors, and spotless purity of quilts and bed-clothes, with which our party was so impressed in the Infants' Dormitory, strikes us here. One good woman, in the height of her amazement, exclaimed, looking at the well-scrubbed boards, "Why, you might eat your dinner off them!" Another visitor, of the opposite sex — whose face was an index to the benevolence which filled his heart — observed, as he gazed at the beds, with the bed-clothes folded down with the utmost nicety and precision — "Ah, they would never have slept in such beds if their parents had lived!" Great indeed was the admiration which this comfortable apartment elicited from our party. But it is impossible to describe the effect with pen and ink; it must be seen to be understood. At the end of the room there is a small window, opening into a bed-room occupied by one of the teachers, who is thus enabled to overlook the movements of the children. We afterwards saw the Dormitories for boys — which it is unnecessary to describe, as they correspond exactly with the one just mentioned, except that only forty children sleep in each. Besides these, there is a smaller Dormitory with eight beds in it for the elder girls — usually called "house girls," as they are engaged in housework, and are on the point of being sent out to service. Each of these has the privilege of a good strong box to hold her clothes in. These girls daily assist the servants in the general work of the House.

After we had seen the Infants' Wardrobes, we were invited to inspect two other Wardrobe rooms. The first we came to was the Boys'. The arrangement of this room exactly agreed with that containing the Infants' clothes. Each boy has a square compartment, in which to keep his clothes, with his number marked, in one of the large deal presses that line the room. Six boys, we were told, are draughted out to take charge of the wardrobes, and see that everything is kept in proper order. When their term of service is expired, their place is supplied by six others, until each boy in the House, of a fit age, has taken his turn. The boys have each three suits of clothes. The Girls' Wardrobe room corresponded with that for the Boys, except that it is much larger. There were the same lofty painted deal presses, subdivided into innumerable little pigeon-holes. The girls have five changes of dress. Three blue print frocks for ordinary wear in the house, a lilac pattern dress for Sundays during the summer months, and a brown merino dress for winter wear. The girls make and mend all their own clothes. Six girls in rotation take charge of all the female wardrobes of the house; just as in the case of the boys.

The Dining-room where all the Orphans take their meals is a spacious apartment filled with long narrow tables and forms, all as white almost as the paper on which the reader's eye is now fixed. While we were inspecting this room, we noticed some of the elder girls employed in spreading the snow-white table-cloths for the evening meal. Others at the same time entered the room with trays loaded with bread-and-butter. Soon afterwards, some hundreds of cups filled with milk-and-water were placed upon the tables; but the Orphans were not called to tea until after the visitors had left.

It may be interesting here to add a few particulars respecting the other meals of the children, which we obtained from our conductor. The food of the Orphans at breakfast is always oatmeal porridge: they use milk with it. No doubt this wholesome food is one cause of the healthy, ruddy appearance of the Orphans generally; for notwithstanding a strong prejudice against it in this country, a more wholesome, nutritious article of diet certainly does not exist. The dinner provided for the children varies almost every day. Monday there is boiled beef; Tuesday, soup, with a good proportion of meat in it; Wednesday, rice-milk with treacle; Thursday they have boiled leg of mutton; the following day they have soup again, and on Saturday bacon; on Sundays they always dine on rice with treacle in order that as few as possible may be kept from attending public worship. The Orphans breakfast at eight o'clock, dine at one, and take tea at six.

Boys' dumb-bell drill at New Orphan House No. 1, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

The Kitchen of the Establishment should by no means be overlooked. Here we saw the cooking apparatus, one of the most improved description, in which one small fire performed a variety of offices even at distant parts of the room. We were particularly struck with three huge upright copper cylinders which we found were used to boil the porridge in. A long pipe connects them with the fireplace; they consist of two vessels, the one inside the other. The steam is admitted through the pipe into the space between the outer and inner vessels; and a short time is sufficient to make the porridge boil. The cooking apparatus altogether is probably the most complete and efficient anywhere known.

We went into the Store-rooms also. One was full of shoes, caps, haberdashery, &c. Another contained a large abundance of sheeting, blankets, calicoes, and such-like articles. A third was crowded with provisions of various descriptions — Scotch oatmeal in barrels, good wheaten flour in sacks, large quantities of meat, bread, sugar, &c. &c. We saw the Bakehouse too, and the Washhouse. In the latter was an American Washing machine, where wooden balls do the work of human knuckles. There was also a singular machine for wringing the clothes, called a Centrifugal Drying Machine.

Another apartment is called the "Shoes and Cloak Room." Every child in the house has three pairs of shoes. The girls all wear cloaks of a green plaid in winter, and shawls in summer. Then there are the "Washing places." They are furnished with baths; and all around the walls were hung bags containing the brush and comb belonging to each child, and the number of the said child painted over each. The greatest care seemed to be taken to insure thorough cleanliness in the children, and to guard against the spread of infectious complaints, should they at anytime exist.

It may be added that the children all rise about six o'clock in the morning. They retire to rest — the elder children about eight or nine, the younger an hour earlier. The Teachers conduct religious worship every day, at half-past eight in the morning, and just before tea in the afternoon. They have two holidays in the year — at Whitsuntide and Christmas. But the Orphans never leave the house on these occasions, except, as stated before, in company with their Teachers. The beautiful manner in which the girls decorate their rooms at these holidays with their own work — festoons of artificial flowers, &c. — is one of many significant indications of the healthful, free, and cheerful spirit pervading the entire Establishment.

Girls with balloons at New Orphan Houses, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

Girls' Hall, New Orphan House No. 5, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan Houses' Outing, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan Houses' Picnic on Purdown, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

Orphan girls with swings on Purdown, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

Orphan girls on Purdown, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

We add a few remarks on the subject of the Education of the children, and the effects of the system of training adopted by Mr Müller on the health and bearing of the Orphans.

As regards the Education of the children, the Girls are instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, English history, a little of general history, and in all kinds of useful needlework and household work. They make their clothes, and keep them in repair; and Mr Müller well observes in one of his Reports, "If any of them do not do well, temporally or spiritually, and do not turn out useful members of society, it shall, at least, not be our fault." The Boys go through the same course of instruction as the girls, and they learn to knit and mend their own stockings. They also make their beds, clean their shoes, scrub their rooms, and work a little in the garden ground around the Orphan Establishment, in the way of digging, planting, weeding, &c.

Manual training class at New Orphan House No. 4, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

Gymnasium at New Orphan House No. 4, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

Coronation celebrations at New Orphan Houses, Bristol, 1911. © Peter Higginbotham

Later Developments

Müller's wife, Mary, died in 1870 and the following year he married Susannah Grace Sanger. In 1875, the couple began what was to be a 17-year period of missionary travel ranging as far as the USA, India and Australia. With Müller's departure, his son-in-law James Wright took on the position of Director of the homes. In the final years of his life, Müller lived in No. 3 House and died there on March 10th, 1898. James Wright continued as Director until his own demise in 1905 and was succeeded in the post by Fred Bergin (1905-12), William Bergin (1912-30), Alfred Green (1930-40), Thomas Tilsley (1940-52), and John McCready (1952-57).

In 1901, following a decline in numbers applying to the orphanage, admission was widened to include 'partial' orphans — those who had lost only one parent.

Gradual improvements to the houses were made over the years, such as the asphalting of the playgrounds and improvements to the water supply, drainage and laundry facilities. In June 1910, a swimming bath was erected in the space between Houses 4 and 5. The bath was closed in 1914, however, after the attendant joined the armed forces, and did not re-open until 1922. The installation of electric lighting in some of the buildings began in 1925.

New Orphan House swimming bath block from the south, Bristol, c.1910. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House swimming bath block from the south, Bristol, c.1910. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House swimming bath block from the south, Bristol, 2013. © Peter Higginbotham

Gymnasium at New Orphan Houses, Bristol, c.1905. © Peter Higginbotham

The occupancy of the houses underwent several changes. At the end of the First World War, part of House No. 1 was converted to a nursery. By the early 1930s, all the boys were living in House No. 4 and a new nursery was opened in No. 3 House.

Unlike many other children's homes, Müller's made little use of emigration as a way of finding children new homes. In the early 1920s, however, difficulties in finding employment for the boys led to a small number being sent to work on farms in Canada.

In 1935, the site was renamed Ashley Down Orphanage, changing again in 1941 to Müller's Orphan Homes.

The Second World War

In the spring of 1939, No. 2 House, then standing empty, was taken over by the City of Bristol as a 'centre of salvage work'. Soon afterwards, House No. 4 was requisitioned by the Royal Navy, becoming the training establishment HMS Bristol. The boys were now all moved to No. 3 House and the girls to No. 5. Towards the end of 1940, No. 5 House was requisitioned to accommodate American troops and 80 of the younger children were moved to a rented property at 16 Cotham Park where they remained until May 1944.

The buildings escaped serious harm in the war although on December 2nd 1940, No. 3 House had a lucky escape when German bombs fell in the area. One exploded at the front of the house and another at the rear but the only damage was the breaking of some 400 windows.

No. 5 House was handed back in August 1945 but needed a major refurbishment to make it suitable for use by the children again.

The End of the Orphanage

By 1947, the falling number of applicants to the orphanage and the encroachment of the city onto its once semi-rural location had begun to raise doubts about the future of the Ashley Down site. In May of that year, the restriction of the intake to orphans to the homes was removed. At around the same time, a 400-acre estate was purchased at Backwell Hill, in North Somerset, where a new generation of homes was planned to be established. Although some of the younger children did make the move to Backwell Hill, the spiralling costs of the scheme led to the estate being sold off in 1957. Instead, it was decided to distribute the children and staff in family-group-style scattered homes in properties purchased in and around Bristol.

By 1954, the charity — now renamed The Müller Homes for Children — had reduced its use of the Ashley Down premises to just No. 3 House and part of No. 5, and was trying to sell the whole site to Bristol Corporation. It also purchased numbers 7 Cotham Park as a new administrative base and 16 Cotham Park (previously used as a wartime home) for children's accommodation. After the necessary work was finally completed on the two Cotham Park houses, Ashley Down was finally vacated in the spring of 1958. During its 109 years of operation, it had been home to a total of 11,603 'full' orphans and 5,686 'partial' orphans.

The site was subsequently taken over by Bristol Technical College, now the City of Bristol College, who currently occupy Houses 2, 4 and 5. House 3 was converted to flats in 2007, with the same happening to House 1 in 2013.

New Orphan House No. 1 from the north-east, Bristol, 2013. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 1 from the south, Bristol, 2013. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 2 from the west, Bristol, 2013. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 2 from the south, Bristol, 2013. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 3 from the south-west, Bristol, 2013. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 3 from the west, Bristol, 2013. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 4 from the east, Bristol, 2013. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 5 from the south, Bristol, 2013. © Peter Higginbotham

New Orphan House No. 5 from the south-east, Bristol, 2013. © Peter Higginbotham

The work begun by George Müller is continued today by the George Müller Charitable Trust which provides help for those with spiritual and social needs.

The story of of the homes is now told in the George Müller Museum, which is housed in one of the original children's buildings.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.

  • The George Müller Charitable Trust holds all the archives of the original homes and all the children's records at the Müller House Museum, 7 Cotham Park, Bristol BS6 6DA. Family members wishing to see the recotds of an ancestor should contact the Trust office (email, tel. 0117-924-5001) — at least two weeks notice is required. A small charge is levied for viewing records and copies may be purchased. There is also a small museum at the site, dedicated to the work of George Müller.