George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans

“Yes, Lydia,” George told his daughter. “We must pray that God will show us if we are to have this property.”

That evening, after George had finished answering his daily correspondence, he decided it was the right time to visit Mr. Hazelwood, the owner of the Ashley Down property. He walked to Mr. Hazelwood’s home, only to be told that Mr. Hazelwood was still at work. George got the work address and strolled to the workplace, but when he arrived, the owner was not there either. So George decided to go home and try to contact Mr. Hazelwood the next day. On the way home, he prayed and asked God to cause the owner to accept a reasonable price for the land.

The next morning, February 5, 1846, George returned to Mr. Hazelwood’s house. This time Mr. Hazelwood was in, and the butler invited George into the drawing room.

“Hello. Mr. Müller, I presume?” said a short, round man with a dark mustache a few moments later. The man strolled over and shook George’s hand.

“Glad to meet you, Mr. Hazelwood,” George said.

Mr. Hazelwood sat down in a brown leather chair opposite George. He looked as if he’d hardly slept the night before—his eyes were bloodshot and glazed. “Well, let’s get down to business, shall we, Mr. Müller,” he said. “As I understand from what my butler told me last night, you want to buy my property on Ashley Down for your orphans.”

George nodded. “That’s correct, sir.”

Mr. Hazelwood leaned toward George and lowered his voice. “Well, let me tell you the strangest thing. Last night, when I heard you had been to visit, I decided to tell you the price was two hundred pounds an acre. A fair price by anyone’s reckoning.”

George nodded and waited for what Mr. Hazelwood would say next.

“Well, I went to bed, and about three this morning I woke up. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get back to sleep. Nor could I escape the feeling as I lay awake that I was to offer you the land for one hundred and twenty pounds per acre. By breakfast time, I was convinced that’s what I should do. I won’t make the profit I intended to on the property, but I hope I will get a better night’s sleep tonight!”

George was delighted. He was certain this was God’s answer to his prayer for land on which to build the new orphanage. A deal to buy the land was quickly struck, and right there and then all the paperwork was filled out. By evening, George Müller was the owner of seven acres of beautiful land on Ashley Down. And he had paid a total of eight hundred forty pounds for it, less than the price of a single acre of the other property. At once he wrote to the architect in London, asking him whether he was still interested in helping to design and supervise the building of the orphanage.

Chapter 13
Ashley Down

On the morning of February 12, 1849, a visitor handed George two thousand pounds to complete the huge square brick orphanage on Ashley Down. With the donation, George estimated that after all the expenses were paid, there would probably be several hundred pounds left over. He noted in his journal, “The Lord not only gives as much as is absolutely necessary for His work, but He gives abundantly.”

It had been a difficult three years since the purchase of the property on Ashley Down. The whole of England had fallen into economic turmoil. Bread and rice had doubled in price, oatmeal had tripled, and potatoes had become so expensive they disappeared from the menu altogether. More children than ever were in need of help, especially Irish children whose parents had crossed the Irish Sea to England to flee the potato famine. If the parents died in England, often there was not a single relative or friend to care for the orphans, many of whom were sent to George Müller’s orphanage.

As George oversaw the completion of the new orphanage on Ashley Down, he was glad it was large enough to house three hundred children. Not only would it comfortably hold the one hundred twenty children currently in the Wilson Street orphan homes, but also it would allow George to take in the many other orphan children who came to him for help.

Finally, Monday, June 18, 1849, arrived. It was a day that many in Bristol would not soon forget. The children marched in two orderly lines from Wilson Street up Ashley Down hill to their new home. George and Mary were there to greet them when they arrived and listen to their gasps of delight as they ran their hands over the smooth, beautifully polished banisters and peeked into the well-equipped kitchen.

“Is this all for us?” asked one little boy, his eyes wide with wonder.

“It’s ever so grand,” responded one of the newest orphan girls.

George smiled at her. “Everything you see here is a reflection of God’s love for you,” he said. “Now run along and find out where your bedroom is.”

People had said George was crazy, that he should be content with helping a few children, that there was a limit to how much money people, even Christian people, would be willing to give to the orphanage. And while George agreed with them, he smiled to himself. There were limits to how much people would give, but, as long as he obeyed God, there were no limits to the amount of money God could provide to take care of the orphans.

Of course, moving one family is a large and complicated task, but moving one hundred twenty children, twenty adults, and the furniture and belongings from four houses took some planning and four full days of labor to complete. The first orphanage at number six Wilson Street had been open for thirteen years, and in that time, it had managed to collect a wide variety of items.

At the new orphanage everything was unpacked in an orderly manner. The house was divided into large rooms for the various age groupings of children. The babies and toddlers were housed in a room with a row of small cribs along one side. On the other side of the room were a number of cubbyholes filled with toys for the children to play with. The southern end of the room was set up as a diaper-changing area. With up to sixty children in diapers at any one time, the laundry was kept very busy!

The older children’s rooms were set up with places to practice the practical skills they learned in school. All of the older children, both boys and girls, were taught to knit, and they made all of the stockings and the socks for the orphanage. The older children were also taught to mend their own clothes and darn their own socks.

George accepted between five and eight new orphans a week. Because many of the children came from dreadful conditions, they brought with them a constant threat of deadly diseases like typhoid and cholera. Special care was taken to ensure that everything was kept clean. The children each had a little bag with their toiletries in it, and the bags hung in neat rows in the bathroom.

Every Wednesday afternoon visitors were welcomed and shown through the orphan house and surrounding gardens and playgrounds. Visitors were impressed with the orderliness of everything and with the happy, well cared for children. On some occasions, the visitors were well-known or famous. Not long after the new orphanage opened on Ashley Down, Charles Dickens arrived unannounced. The author explained to George that he had heard some horrible rumors about the place and had come to investigate. These rumors suggested that the children were treated like slaves, that there was not enough food for them to eat, and that the rooms were rat infested. George had heard them all before. And while they frustrated and disappointed him, he dismissed them by telling himself that when a person tried to do something different, there were those who attempted to spoil it any way they could. When he learned that Charles Dickens had heard these rumors, he called one of his assistants and gave him a set of keys. “Take Mr. Dickens anywhere on the property he desires to go,” he instructed the assistant. “Open any door he asks to see behind, and do not bring him back until he is completely satisfied he’s seen everything he wants to.”

“Where would you like to start, Mr. Dickens?” asked the assistant.

The two men walked out of George’s office and did not return for three hours. And when they did, Charles Dickens was full of praise for all he had seen. He promised to write an article squelching the rumors once and for all.

George was pleased with the way things were progressing, except for one thing. News of the opening of the new orphanage had been reported in many newspapers around the British Isles. These reports heralded the orphanage as a bold new experiment where any orphan child who applied was given a safe and comfortable place to live, grow, and attend school. Although this reporting had some positive effects (people learned how the orphanage was funded, and some, like one of Queen Victoria’s chaplains, sent money to support the work), it also had a downside. People from all over the British Isles began to send orphan children. It was not unusual for a child to walk up to the orphanage on Ashley Down with nothing more than a note that read, “To the orphan man in Bristol” or “The free orphanage.” And of course, George took the children in. What else could he do when the only alternative was to send them to the poorhouse? But before the orphanage was a year old, it was filled to capacity with three hundred orphans. Soon it had a waiting list with over one hundred children’s names on it. Once again, George Müller felt something more had to be done.

George started off 1851 by praying and asking God to show him the next step to take. Within a few days, he received a donation of three thousand pounds, the single largest donation he had so far received. George took the money as a sign he should expand the orphanage. He estimated it would cost about thirty-five thousand pounds to build a new building to accommodate seven hundred more orphans. As before, he got busy praying and asking God to provide the money he needed. Many people might have felt burdened having to believe God for such a large sum of money, but not George Müller. George wrote in his journal, “The greatness of the sum required affords me a kind of secret joy; for the greater the difficulty to be overcome, the more will it be seen to the glory of God how much can be done by prayer and faith.”

As had happened before, the orphans themselves gave the little money they had, and George recorded their halfpennies and pennies in his ledger along with the large donations.

At the same time that George was trusting God for money to construct another building, the orphanage suffered through times of financial stress. There were times when there wasn’t a shilling left to run the place. But every time George prayed, just enough money would arrive to meet the daily operating costs. As in times like these before, George would not take money that had been given for one purpose and use it on another, no matter how desperate the need. Not one pound of the three thousand pounds given for the new building was ever used for the day-to-day expenses of the orphanage. George kept track of every penny. Not a single coin went somewhere the giver had not intended for it to go.

Sometimes, people on the other side of the world who had heard about the orphanage or read George’s book sent money. A little girl who lived on a farm in New Zealand sent George a shilling that she had earned by selling hens’ eggs. A shepherd in Australia sent a banknote after someone had given him a copy of George’s book to read while herding his sheep. Some people did not give money but instead gave valuable items. It was quite common for a package to arrive at the orphanage filled with rings, pearl necklaces, and broaches to be sold and the money used for the orphanage. George often smiled to himself when he received these packages. It reminded him of the time after he and Mary were first married and he had asked her to sell her family’s silverware. Now it appeared that many other people were giving up or selling their possessions for the orphans. Someone even donated three autographs from the late king, William IV, one from Sir Robert Peel, and two from Lord Melbourne. Someone else donated a rare antique Coverdale English Bible. One of the secretaries at the orphanage had the job of selling these items, some of which fetched a substantial amount of money.