A Short History of Bristol Samplers

The Müller New Orphan Homes of Bristol, England

'The great object of the institution, in receiving so many hundreds of destitute children, is...
to fit them for future life - to educate and train their youthful minds for time and for eternity....'

Quoted in W. Elfe Taylor, The Bristol Orphan Houses (London: Morgan and Scott, 1871).

George Müller was born in Germany but his life’s work began in Bristol, England. Mr. Müller was a minister who worked to save, educate, and provide purpose for unwanted orphaned children. Orphan children in Victorian England were an unwelcome problem. Before the Müller Homes, only 3500 children in England were being housed in orphan asylums. Homeless children ended up in the workhouses where living conditions were harsh for adults and children. In 1836 George and his wife Mary opened their home on Wilson Street in Bristol to 30 orphan girls. As the need for space to house additional children grew, they rented more houses on Wilson street and filled them with children. By 1845 the neighbors started complaining about the noise levels and the number of children living in the area. Influenced by the large orphan houses he had seen in his native Germany, Mr. Müller planned to build a similar style of orphanage to accommodate 300+ children. The site at Ashley Down in Bristol was chosen as the location to build. The first orphan house on Ashley Down opened in 1849. By the time the fifth house had been completed in 1870, thousands of children had been taken off the streets and placed in the care and protection of the Müller orphanage. Each building housed 300 - 400 children plus staff. He called these buildings the New Orphan Homes to distinguish them from the orphan asylums. There was something else new about this endeavor: Mr. Müller did not request money from individuals or organizations. He preferred to rely on the power of prayer and on his belief that God would provide for them. Many people watched and waited to see if the Orphan Homes would fail. The orphanage did not fail, and over 10,000 children were fed, clothed, educated, and returned to live productive lives in a society who thought them not worth the effort.

George Müller’s five large orphan homes were designed to accommodate boys and girls born in wedlock, who had lost both parents through death and had no relatives able to take care of them. The purpose of the Orphan Houses was to provide quality of life: to train boys for a trade and girls for domestic service. In the homes the children received instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, singing, Swedish drill, knitting, needlework, and other household work. The boys were taught the same subjects as the girls, including learning how to knit their own socks. (Each boy had to knit themselves three pairs of socks as part of their leaving outfit.) While the girls learned domestic work, the boys were taught outside activities such as garden work. Older boys were given opportunity to choose a trade based on their abilities. Children could enter the orphanage as babies. Girls could stay until they were 17 or 18, but boys were only permitted to stay until they reached 14 or 15 years old. Girls at the age of 14 moved from the classroom to spend their final three years in what was, effectively, a domestic training school. They helped with the cleaning, cooking, laundering, dressmaking, and parlor-maid duties, while others helped in the nursery and infirmary. When the day came to leave, each child was given a complete outfit, a tin trunk, two changes of clothing, an umbrella, a Bible, their train ticket, and some money - half a crown for the boys, and the accumulated savings that the girls had earned from the domestic school.

The schedule for a typical day at the Orphan Homes was rigorous, with time for school, chapel, free time, and time for needlework for the girls and reading for the boys.

Skill with a needle was taught early to the girls under Mrs. Müller’s care. In addition to learning how to sew and knit, the younger girls also made perforated paper accessories such as holders for stamps, pin cushions, needle cases, and bookmarks. These small stitched pieces were sold to raise money for the care of the orphans.

The fabric samplers stitched by the girls in the Orphan Houses are the most familiar examples of Bristol needlework. These Bristol samplers all have shared alphabets, motifs, and sometimes a similar format. The girls copied elements from the samplers of other girls and from the samplers of their teachers. Most of the girls were 15-16 years of age when they stitched their Bristol sampler. Their skill with a needle was really a resume to help them in their life beyond the orphanage. Each intricate fabric sampler remained the property of the girl who stitched it. Some of them held and displayed their samplers as a cherished possession. Some girls, not wanting to remember that they were orphans, hid their samplers or picked out the words New Orphan House that they had so carefully stitched. Whether these pieces were hidden or displayed, many were stitched and many samplers remain to this day. We are grateful to see the intricate stitch work they did and, if they signed their sampler, fortunate to learn something about the girls who lived in the New Orphan Homes.