The ‘ordinary’ Christian woman who left an extraordinary legacy of love

Sara Willcocks, head of marketing and communications, gives an account of how one ‘ordinary’ woman left an enduring mark on the world:

The story of Spurgeons Children’s Charity began in 1867; and was initially started as an orphanage for ‘fatherless’ boys in Victorian London.  Ten years later, a girls wing opened.  In 1979, the orphanages closed and gave way to the rise of a charity that continues to support vulnerable children and families across the country. 

Our story started when Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the greatest Christian preacher of the 19th century, felt called to respond to the plight of ‘fatherless’ children in Victorian London.  However, Spurgeon wasn’t alone in his quest to right the wrongs of social injustice.  To this end, I’d like to honour an ‘ordinary’ woman named Anne – a woman the world knows little about, but who became a catalyst of change for thousands of lives.  It’s thanks to Anne that we exist today.

Anne Hillyard (1803 1880), a devout Christian and widow of an Anglican preacher, is one of the great unknowns behind the remarkable story of our 150 year legacy. The charity exists today because of Anne’s devotion to Jesus Christ and the financial bequest she gave to renowned preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

Born as Anne Field in Warwickshire, she waited until she was 38 to marry. Her husband, Reverend John William Hillyard, was the Curate of an Anglican Church at Ingestre in Staffordshire.  He died just one year after their 1841 marriage.

It has long been a widely held misconception that the money Anne donated to the orphanage came from her husband’s estate. She had, however, inherited funds from her uncle prior to marrying, and was a self-sufficient woman in her own right. Though not rich, Anne was moderately wealthy - a wealth she happily gave to ease the burden of marginalised children.  It was some years after her husband’s death before she acted, but I think we can assume that Anne had considered for some time what to do with her money.  Through a series of providential events, she found an answer to her prayers in Charles Spurgeon.

In 1855, Spurgeon travelled to meet George Müller, the founder of a famous orphanage in Bristol.  At the conclusion of a worship service, Müller invited Spurgeon to say a few words, but he declined because he had “been crying all the while.”  Spurgeon later said of Muller’s orphanage, “I never heard such a sermon in my life as I saw there.”  Upon his return from Bristol, Spurgeon told his congregation, “I sometimes think we will try the power of faith here.  Then we may have a tabernacle of faith as well as an orphan-house of faith. God send us that.”

Anne Hillyard was God’s answer to Spurgeon’s prayer. 

Inspired by one of Spurgeon’s articles in his magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, Anne felt compelled to put her faith into action. She wrote a letter requesting a meeting that would set them on a united path to right some of the wrongs felt keenly through the social injustices prevalent in London’s slums.

With the sum of £20,000 (donated through railroad bonds, stocks and shares, and worth around £2.5 million today), Anne joined Spurgeon and a group of friends to found the Stockwell Orphanage.  Before its construction, she sold some of her household belongings, even the family silverware, to provide sanctuary to the first four orphan boys. 

At the opening ceremony of the Orphanage, Spurgeon said of Anne:When Mrs. Hillyard’s munificent contributions was first announced in the newspapers, people said it had been given by a duchess, but I say no, it is given by a princess—one of the blood imperial—a daughter of the King of kings. She has given it in the most unostentatious manner, desiring that her name should not be known, and I and my friends have dragged her into the light today contract to her wishes. She is a simple, earnest, Christian woman, who has devoted by far the largest portion of her property to God without asking honour from anyone. She only asks help to this great work. I hope to see not 200, but 2,000 boys in the Orphanage, and I ask all those who now hear to break through their Christian rule and give three cheers for Mrs. Hillyard.

But the story doesn’t end at that opening ceremony; it has continued for more than a century and a half. And it continues still to this day.  Thanks to the life’s work of Spurgeon, and the generosity of an almost anonymous Christian woman, we have a long lasting legacy that benefits vulnerable children today.  The Christian faith that motivated and inspired Anne is still very much alive in all we do.

The face of our work may have changed, but the heartbeat remains the same: to rescue “the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them” (Job 29:12). Our work is needed in the 21st century just as much as it was in the 19th. With the increasing gap between the rich and poor, and with the enormous pressure on our welfare state, the space for charities like ours will only increase.  

Anne died in January 1880 surrounded by the children whose lives she changed forever.  Her last words, reported in a telegram announcing her death, were “My boys! My boys!”  The memory of these children, as Spurgeon said, stands as “living monuments.”   

Women like Anne who are modest, unassuming and—though I use the word reluctantly, ‘ordinary’—have the potential for greatness.  In my mind, Anne embodied everything worth celebrating in women, or in anyone.   Her enduring legacy, despite being a well-kept secret, lives on through the countless generations of families who have benefited from her act of selfless giving.  One of things I take away from the story of Anne is that you don’t have to be rich, famous or boasting an army of Twitter followers to make an impact.  Anyone can change the world.

To find out more about Anne Hillyard, Charles Spurgeon and the legacy they created, email: swillcocks@spurgeons.org or visit our website: www.spurgeons.org

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