Octavia Hill

A painting of Octavia Hill by John Singer Sargent

A painting of Octavia Hill by John Singer Sargent

Octavia Hill, 1838-1912
Founder of the National Trust

Octavia Hill was instrumental in the saving of Alfriston Clergy House in East Sussex. Describing the house as 'rich in memories of England as our ancestors knew' she launched the first National Trust appeal for funds to restore the house. 

Born in Wisbech on 3 December 1838, Octavia was the eighth daughter among 11 children. Octavia was working from about the age of 14, and although she had no formal education except at home, she became involved in teaching some of the poorest children in the East End of London in what was termed 'the raggedy school'.

Although only just over five feet tall, unmarried, poor and having no vote, she accomplished the impossible by her dedication and tenacity in all things. She was responsible for the acquisition of Parliament Hill Fields in London as an open space for all.

She saw the terrible conditions that the poor lived under and strove to get this remedied. Her first backer was Ruskin who gave her the money to buy three run-down houses, renovate them and let them to poor families. These tenants were from the dregs of society and she was at first met with abuse and reluctance to pay, but she persevered and they came to value what she offered them – a clean place to live at a reasonable rent. Soon she had some 500 properties under her control at one time. Two of Queen Victoria's daughters sometimes joined her, incognito, in the collection of rents.

Along with Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Rawnsley, Octavia took on the mantle of saviour in preserving ancient buildings threatened with demolition by forming the National Trust.

Before her death, Octavia was offered burial in Westminster Abbey, but this she declined, preferring the familiar churchyard in Crockham in Kent. Octavia was a legend in her own lifetime and proof that whatever your status, age or gender, where there is a will, there is a way.