Chris Yeo: Sewn Up

Words by Chris Yeo | Valuer at Clevedon Salerooms and regular expert on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow

George Müller was born in 1805 in Prussia (now Germany) but his life’s work was in Bristol. Müller was a godly man who worked tirelessly to save, educate, and provide purpose for Bristol’s unwanted orphaned children. His life, however, did not start out in such a pious way. By his own admission he was a liar, drunkard and thief who stole from his family and friends. His wayward ways eventually caught up with him and he spent time in prison, then, at the age of twenty he was converted to the Christian faith and his life took a completely new course.

In 1829 he arrived in Bristol and started his extraordinary work amongst the orphaned children of the city. In Victorian England orphans were an unwelcome problem. Some – if they were lucky – were sent to orphan asylums where conditions were notoriously harsh, the rest had to suffer in the workhouse. Müller and his wife Mary sought to change that.

In 1836 they opened their home on Wilson Street to thirty orphan girls. A decade later, with more children arriving and the neighbours complaining about the noise, the Müllers looked for an alternative location and in 1849 opened the first orphan house on Ashley Down. 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.

All Müller children were smartly dressed, well fed and educated. The children received instruction in a range of subjects including reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history and singing. Skill with a needle was a key part of the syllabus with the boys being taught the same subjects as the girls, including learning how to knit their own socks. When they left the orphanage all children were found employment, and given clothing and a Bible.

As part of her education, every Müller girl would stitch a fabric sampler to demonstrate her needlework skills. These followed a set pattern, with alphabets and motifs, and were worked in red thread on cream linen, making them instantly recognisable. Intended as keepsakes, they were also useful when showing potential employers their abilities.

Today Müller samplers have a worldwide following and regularly sell for over £1,000 | | @chrisyeo_antiques