ARAPHRASING Elijah's challenge, Mr. Spurgeon once exclaimed, "The God that answers by orphanages, let Him be Lord." None need fear to uphold the challenge, for by that test Christ is victor. It was He who taught the world the worth of children"of such is the kingdom of heaven."
For many years the church which now has its home in the tabernacle maintained almshouses. In previous chapters it has been noted how Mr. Spurgeon devoted large sums of money to their enlargement. But at one of the Monday evening prayer meetings, which in his day were phenomenal, he said, "We are a large church, and should be doing more for the Lord in this great city. I want us to ask Him to send us some new work; and if we need money to carry it on, let us pray that the means may also be sent." So the Stockwell Orphanage was really born in a prayer meeting.
Soon afterward Mrs. Hillyard, a clergyman's widow, at that time in fellowship with "Brethren," but afterward associated with the Tabernacle Church, determined to devote her money to the service of God. However, she was doubtful as to the right purpose and the best means. She was advised to place it in Mr. Spurgeon's hands, as he was a man of affairs, as well as a man of God. Soon afterward she saw an article in The Sword and Trowel for August, 1866 advocating the establishment of schools where "all that we believe and hold dear shall be taught to the children of our poorer adherents." Upon reading this she wrote to Mr. Spurgeon, telling him of her desire to establish an orphanage, and asking his assistance.
He looked upon it as a direct answer to the prayers of the people, and asked for further particulars. In reply, Mrs. Hillyard said that there was need of an orphan home requiring neither votes nor patronage, where boys would be trained in simple Gospel principles. Mr. Spurgeon and Mr. William Higgs made an appointment, and when they called at her modest home they feared that there had been some mistake. So they began the interview by saying that they had called about the £200 she had mentioned in her letter.
"Did I write £200?" exclaimed the lady. "I meant £20,000."
"Oh yes," said Mr. Spurgeon, "you did put down £20,000, but I thought perhaps there was a nought or two too many."
In the subsequent discussion Spurgeon was first of all careful to inquire whether there was some relative to whom the money ought to be given. When that point was settled in the negative, he then made the suggestion that the money should be sent to George Müller at Bristol, for whom he had always a great admiration. But Mrs. Hillyard insisted that Mr. Spurgeon himself should inaugurate a work for orphans, and as this found a response in his own heart, the matter was settled then and there. In the board room of the orphanage there is a stained glass window representing the interview. Mrs. Hillyard lived for some years to rejoice in the good work which she had so successfully initiated, and her last words as she died on January 13, 1880, were, "My boys! My boys!"
Some astute business brains (including Mr. Spurgeon's) were at once set to work to secure a site and to project plans for the orphan homes. The first condition was that they should be within easy reach of the tabernacle, and though this greatly increased the difficulty, a plot of ground sufficient for the purpose was found behind some houses in the Clapham Road. The negotiations almost broke down when the seller, presuming on Mr. Spurgeon's anxiety to establish the orphanage, tried to impose higher terms on him than those at first indicated. The committee was inclined to seek another site, but Spurgeon himself went to see the owner, pointed out to him the unsuitability of his property for any other purpose, and at length told him that he was inclined to fine him a thousand pounds because of his obstinacy. Upon this the original terms were confirmed, and though there was some delay in realising the securities that Mrs. Hillyard meant to put at Mr. Spurgeon's disposal, the buildings were at length completed, and a festival of praise was held on the grounds on September 9, 1869.
So much interest had by this time been aroused, that several friends were ready each to bear the cost of one of the housesan illustration of the wisdom of the word "He that believeth shall not make haste." The Silver Wedding House was raised by a gift which a lady had received from her husband on her silver wedding day. Later she willed £25,000 to the orphanage. The Merchant's House was the gift of a businessman. The Workmen's House was the combined gift of the contractors and the artisans at work on the building, the former giving the materials, the latter the work. Unity House commemorated a saintly lady. The Testimonial Houses were the gift of the Baptists of Great Britain. The Sunday School House came from the efforts of the Tabernacle Sunday School, and the College House from men educated in the college.
Help poured in, and if at times the stream appeared as if it would cease, the unfailing method was that the trustees themselves gave what they could and then betook themselves to prayer. Not once or twice, but dozens of times the answer came. At one time £10,000 was given. At another an unknown helper sent £1000 for the college and £1000 for the orphanage, saying, "The latter led me to contribute to the former; a specially grateful evidence that the new venture of faith was not likely to interfere with the older ones.
The coming as headmaster of the orphanage of the Rev. Vernon J. Charlesworth, who up to then had been assistant to Newman Hall at Surrey Chapel, was an event of first importance. His influence on the boys, his advocacy of the orphanage, and his guidance of affairs were a great asset for many years, until in 1914 he finished his course. Mr. Thomas Spurgeon was then appointed director and, on his resignation, Mr. Charles Spurgeon took up the work as president-director, which he carried forward with conspicuous success.
In 1879 the girls' wing of the orphanage was inaugurated, Mrs. Hillyard giving the first £50 and Mr. Spurgeon the second £50. Though the extension was undertaken with some hesitancy, similar experiences of God's goodness attended this enterprise, the necessary funds were forthcoming, the quadrangle was completed, with infirmary, gymnasium and dining hall, and there it stands today, a monument of philanthropy and faith.
In the main hall there is a memorial of the founder executed in terra-cotta by Mr. George Tinworth, and the fine collection of engravings of the Reformation collected by Mr. Spurgeon is exhibited on the walls of the same hall, where also are the two stained glass windows, one in memory of Mr. Charlesworth, one in memory of Thomas Spurgeon. Mr. F. G. Ladds, once himself a sharer in the benefits of the orphanage, has been for years Secretary of the Institution.
The president was always received with uproarious joy when he visited the orphanage. "As to the happiness of the orphans, there is no doubt about it. When Mr. Spurgeon opened the door, there was a shout of delight at the appearance of their friend. It was like a welcome to an old schoolfellow, and was repeated in every house we enterednot the kind of cheer which requires a lead but one that sprang up on the instant when it was known that Mr. Spurgeon was at the orphanage."
"Some time ago," he said, "a friend who often aids the orphanage gave us six dozen bunches of turnips, and he merrily added, 'I hope some one will send you the mutton,' and sure enough about an hour afterwards a farmer sent a whole sheep."
Three things are to be noted. The orphan homes are open to all denominationsindeed, among those who have been received, children of Anglican parents predominate over those of any other denomination. In the second place, need is the supreme plea; there are no votes necessary, and no canvasing is allowed. In the third place, there is no distinctive dress either for the girls or boys. They are clothed like other young people, with corresponding gain to their individuality and happiness. In the early days of the orphanage, when it was full, a woman with eight children, belonging to the Anglican Church, applied to have one of her boys accepted. There was no room, they said. "Never mind,"' said Spurgeon, "squeeze in the little boy. Squeeze him in." And they did.
I heartily believe, as I ventured to say at one of its June Festival meetings, that the orphanage is the greatest sermon Mr. Spurgeon ever preached.
With the outbreak of World War II and the evacuation of children from London, the London history of Spurgeon's Orphanage came to a close. At the end of the war the trustees decided to build at Birchington where they owned some forty acres of land. In 1953 the new buildings were ready for occupation. The orphanage has been named Spurgeon's Homes and still maintains links with the tabernacle.
Daily Telegraph, May 6, 1880.