News & Insights

A Stitch In Time

4th May 2018.

A turn of the century sampler, embroidered in simple red cotton on plain linen, has brought back to life the story of a family of orphans from the North East of England, and an extraordinary orphanage built on prayer.

The sampler was completed by Celia Bell in 1901, when she was 15 years old and living in the Orphan Houses at Ashley Down, Bristol, along with two of her sisters. Audrey, Celia and Hilda entered the orphanage on 3rd September 1896.

Ashley Down House was an extraordinary institution. At a time when there were very few orphanages and the only alternative was the work house, George Müller (b. Prussia 1805), a Christian preacher, built a vast orphanage that would care for over 10,000 children in his lifetime. Müller, a reformed ne’er-do-well, never asked any individuals or organisations for donations, instead he put his faith in the power of prayer, and donations flooded in. It is estimated that he received nearly £1.5m in donations (approximately £80m in today’s money) by the time he died in 1898. Müller put the money to good use, and gave his charges an education well beyond what was expected at the time; he kept the boys until they were 14 or 15, and the girls until they were 16 or 17, and made sure they had an apprenticeship, a trade or a good household position to go to before they left.

Sewing was a vital skill taught at Ashley Down, and the Bristol and District Teachers Association created the Needlework Scheme, a comprehensive education in the skills that would render the girls employable. Samplers were produced as examples of their abilities, to show potential employers. They followed a model sampler, with red cotton on linen, working the alphabet in different fonts at the top and personalising the bottom with motifs of their own. Celia’s sampler includes the names or initials of her siblings. Celia Bell left Ashley Down on the 22nd June 1903, having gained employment as a house parlour maid to Mrs Stancombe, at Rockville, Weston Super Mare.

The sampler is being offered for sale in Tennants Auctioneer’s Textiles, Costume & Fashion Sale on 25th May, with an estimate of £500-700 plus buyer’s premium.

A fully illustrated catalogue for the sale of Vintage Costume and Textiles will be available Tennants’ website leading up to the sale.

Illustrated: An Ashley Down Orphanage Sampler by Celia Bell. Estimate: £500-700

< Back to News