Octavia Hill - her life and legacy

Octavia Hill (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA

Politician and historian Tristram Hunt has written a profile of National Trust founder Octavia Hill for our magazine. Here's what he had to say about her:

Today, as the National Trust commemorates the centenary of her death, an appreciation of Octavia’s ‘intensity and greatness’ would serve us all well. For in addition to founding the Trust, she was one of the greatest social entrepreneurs in British history. From housing to philanthropy, arts policy to feminism, welfare reform to conservation, her legacy is all around us and, what is more, in current times, it is coming back into fashion.
Her story begins in Cambridgeshire where on 3 December 1838 she was born, the third daughter of merchant James Hill and his third wife, Caroline Southwood Smith.
Today Octavia Hill’s Birthplace House at Wisbech proudly celebrates its connection with its most illustrious daughter, but we would do better to look in other directions for her early influences, most notably her grandfather, Thomas Southwood Smith, who was one of the leading public health reformers of early Victorian Britain. At great cost to his personal health he showed how poor housing conditions and bad sanitation were the greatest threats to life in the industrial city. Driven by his Nonconformist conscience, Southwood Smith was relentless in his campaigns, knew how to mobilise elite opinion and was devoted to improving the lives of urban England’s least fortunate – all attributes his granddaughter would inherit.
Octavia’s father, James Hill, was another inspiration. He combined business endeavours with repeated forays into radical politics, going so far as to support various socialist communes. Such political adventurism meant that when his investments went sour he was left with few financial backers, sending the family into bankruptcy and giving the young Octavia a sense of the occasional precariousness of middle-class life.

A change of fortune

James Hill fell into depression, but his wife Caroline carried on. She moved her daughters from Cambridgeshire to Finchley (once a bucolic village north of London) and then into the capital itself. With poverty at the door, she took a job and encouraged her daughters to do likewise. From her mother, Octavia learnt those quintessential Victorian precepts of ‘workfulness’, ‘character’ and ‘self-help’.
Octavia’s first job, in 1852, was at the Ladies Guild (a crafts workshop for unskilled women and girls) managing a gaggle of young toymakers from the local Ragged School. It was an early success, one that gave her a taste of plebeian London life even while she was mixing with the intellectual elite.

Social housing

Through her mother’s connections, Octavia came to know the pioneering Christian socialist minister F.D. Maurice, the aesthete and radical John Ruskin and the anti-capitalist critic and author Charles Kingsley. Indeed, according to her biographer Gillian Darley, it was at a lecture by Kingsley on the role women should play in improving the lives of the poor that Octavia realised that her vocation was to be social housing. She began with a series of properties off London’s Marylebone Road, which Ruskin purchased for her. Immediately, she established her pioneering system of 5 per cent philanthropy: that the wealthy who invested in her housing projects would see a 5 per cent return on their capital, which meant tenants had to pay their way.
There was to be no indiscriminate charity on her estates. No rights without responsibilities. ‘We have made many mistakes with our alms,’ she wrote, ‘eaten out the heart of the independent, bolstered up the drunkard in his indulgence, subsidised wages, discouraged thrift, assumed that many of the most ordinary wants of a working man’s family must be met by our wretched and intermittent doles.’
The poor had to be helped to help themselves.

Helping the poor help themselves

Just as governments today seek to involve voluntary societies in tackling worklessness, so Octavia’s team of housing managers (or ‘visitors’) sought to transform the work-shy, drunken habits of the poor through personal contact, tenement by tenement. ‘Each block is placed by me under a separate volunteer worker, who has the duty of collecting rents, advising as to repairs, and choice of tenants, and who renders all personal help that can be given to the tenants without destroying their independence, such as helping them to find work, telling them of good trades to which to bring up their children...’ And she was adamant that such work demanded a feminine perspective. ‘Ladies must do it, for it is detailed work; ladies must do it, for it is household work; it needs, moreover, persistent patience, gentleness, hope.’

Connecting culture with reform

Yet Octavia always had an admirably broad conception of the lives of the inner-city poor and closely connected cultural philanthropy to social reform. It wasn’t enough to collect the rent and fix the gutters. Her growing acreage of housing estates in Lambeth, Walworth, Deptford and Notting Hill (some 3,000 tenants by the mid-1870s) were hubs of creativity, with panels by the artist Walter Crane, music lessons, cultural outings and Gilbert & Sullivan performances. She even thought a bit of military training would not go amiss. ‘We are hoping to organise a cadet corps of volunteers, composed of the boys under 18,’ she wrote in 1888. ‘In Whitechapel such a corps has been the making of many a lad, and I heard Mr [Samuel] Barnett say, the other day, that he thought there was nothing which would so gather in some of the most difficult, rough boys, and do them so much good, as such a corps.’
She was adamant that a distant, Whitehall-run welfare state could never provide such intimacy and personal care. Octavia was dead against free school meals, council housing and a universal old-age pension, with its nefarious attempt ‘to equalise income, and to get rid of charity, and to substitute a rate distributed as of right’. So it was perhaps its independent, voluntary nature that led her to join with Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Robert Hunter of the Commons Preservation Society in founding a National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty.

Recognising the importance of open spaces

It was from her time in the bleak, treeless housing estates that Octavia became convinced of the need for open spaces for the urban masses, ‘a few acres where the hill top enables the Londoner to rise above the smoke, to feel a refreshing air for a little time and to see the sun setting in coloured glory which abounds so in the Earth God made’. The result was a campaign for the opening-up of graveyards for the people, the saving of Parliament Hill from developers and then the creation of the Trust itself, so that London’s fast-disappearing green spaces could ‘be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment, and rest of those who have no country house’.
The radicalism of James Hill flowed through Octavia’s veins as she fought repeatedly any attempt to cordon off the common land from the people. The Trust emerged from her fundamental conviction that the poor deserved equal cultural and aesthetic opportunities as the rich, but that people had also to put the effort in.
Behind Octavia’s myriad endeavours was an extraordinary sense of drive and duty. Hers was a brooding, often morbid, but utterly determined mindset. ‘My work becomes less home-like, more struggling; there is in it necessarily more of opposition… I accept the responsibilities of the position, it has been clearly sent me, I never sought it.’ For so much of the 20th century, that call went unheeded. In an era of large welfare states and Fordist bureaucracies, Octavia’s ‘power of bestowing concentration on small details’ was ignored. But today it is embraced by a new generation of social entrepreneurs and civic activists, often operating outside the state.

Still relevant today

Take the words of a social housing manager in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent, putting into practice Octavia’s philosophy of personal intervention, not needs-based form filling: ‘Her insights are timeless, her methods proven and her approach deserves rehabilitation.’ The National Trust must heed those words too. In the post-Second World War period, it appeared to abandon Octavia’s radical vision as it cordoned off stately piles with velvet rope and looked after the decaying aristocracy.
Today, some of Octavia’s sense of mission has returned - buying up green belt to prevent sprawl, taking on the Government’s planning reforms, focusing on the value of time, place and beauty. But as the summer riots of 2011 showed, there is more, much more to be done.
So, I wonder, why not commemorate the centenary of her death in 1912 with an Octavia Hill Endowment dedicated to allowing young men and women from inner-city estates to experience the Trust’s finest bequests? As Octavia herself once put it: ‘It may not be given to us to make our offering by contributing to the purchase of land or building, but in some form, tangible or invisible, let us resolve that some sacrifice shall be made, some lasting gift devoted, by us,for our own dear England.