Remember Octavia Hill

A painting of Octavia Hill by John Singer Sargent

A painting of Octavia Hill by John Singer Sargent

The majority of National Trust areas in Essex are open green spaces: ancient forests, marshes, woodland, remote islands, ponds and commons. Green spaces are good for many things, including biodiversity, slowing climate change and providing habitats for wildlife where there would otherwise be none. They are also good for our mental health – and one woman who knew this was Octavia Hill.

Octavia Hill was born in 1838 into a family that were committed to alleviating the struggles of the poor. The family themselves were not exempt from financial problems: Octavia’s father James Hill was bankrupted when she was just two years old, and subsequently fell into depression. Yet this only strengthened the young Octavia’s resolve, and by the time she was just 14 she was already working for the welfare of the poor.

Throughout her life Octavia became a force for social change, devoting herself to improving social welfare, creating her own social housing system helping her tenants become self-reliant. A belief that she held unwaveringly was that all people, especially the poor, should have access to open spaces.

To breathe fresh air, to see a sunset in all its glory, to feel free, if only for an hour or two, from the oppression of the city’s high buildings and cramped, dank rooms – these were, Octavia believed, every human’s rights. She campaigned against the disappearance of London’s green spaces, and against the closure of common spaces to the people; and then she did something that would ensure the protection of hundreds of thousands of acres of open spaces for ever, for everyone: she became a founding member of the National Trust.

Octavia, Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley set up the National Trust in 1895, after working together to raise awareness about railway developments that threatened the Lake District. Their intention was to preserve beautiful land and historic buildings “For ever, for everyone”: a mission statement in which Octavia’s philanthropic beliefs are clear to behold.

Today the National Trust protects over 300 buildings, 700 miles of coastline and 617,500 acres of open space, much of which can be found in Essex. Without Octavia Hill, the future of Copt Hall Marshes, Blake’s Wood, Hatfield Forest, Danbury Common, Rayleigh Mount and Northey Island would be uncertain; because of her, these open green spaces belong to the people of Essex, whatever their social standing, to use and enjoy for ever.