Octavia Hill: her life and legacy

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

One of the three founders of the National Trust, Octavia Hill was a pioneering thinker and social reformer. She worked tirelessly to improve urban housing and to protect green spaces and the impact of her life and work is still being felt. Her belief in the importance of access to nature for human wellbeing and the need to stop the destruction of the natural landscape are all the more relevant today.

She was born on 3 December 1838 at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, the third daughter of merchant James Hill and his third wife, Caroline Southwood Smith.

Early influences

Her grandfather, Dr Thomas Southwood Smith, would have been a big influence on the young Octavia. He was one of the leading public health reformers of early Victorian Britain and dedicated his life to campaigning for better housing conditions and for the urban working classes.

Both of her parents were also keen social reformers and followers of Robert Owen, a founder of utopian socialism. They opened the Wishbech Infant School as ‘a service to the wretched poor’ and encouraged its use as a ‘Hall for the People’ in the evenings, with lectures, dances and meetings of the Mental Improvement Society held there.

A change of fortune

Octavia’s father was a corn merchant and initially they lived in a comfortable 18th-century townhouse at Wisbech. However, all this changed when he was declared bankrupt after his investments failed. James fell into depression and subsequently abandoned his wife and children.

A view of Wisbech taken from North Brink. Octavia Hill's Birthplace House can be seen on the right
Wisbech taken from North Brink. Octavia Hill's Birthplace House can be seen on the right
A view of Wisbech taken from North Brink. Octavia Hill's Birthplace House can be seen on the right

Showing the determination and hard work that her daughter would later demonstrate, Octavia’s mother took charge of the family, moving them to Finchley on the edge of London, and then to the capital itself. She took a job and encouraged her daughters to do likewise. 

Octavia started her first job at the age of 14, taking charge of a workroom at the Ladies Guild, a Christian socialist co-operative in London managed by her mother, where the Ragged School girls made toys and dolls'-house furniture. Seeing the poverty of the girls at the school had a profound effect on the young Octavia.

Practical by nature, she organised midday meals for her workers, visited them when they were sick and also took them on nature-study walks around the London commons. It was the first of many initiatives that Octavia pioneered to improve the lives of those less fortunate than herself.

Social reform in 19th-century London

Through her mother’s connections, Octavia came to know the pioneering Christian Socialist minister Frederick Denison Maurice, radical thinker John Ruskin and the anti-capitalist critic and author Charles Kingsley. Inspired by their ideas, Octavia set out to improve working-class living conditions.

She began with a series of properties in London’s Paradise Place, which Ruskin purchased for her. Instead of the overcrowding and 12 per cent return on the investment that many landlords expected, Octavia settled for a more modest 5 per cent return, ensuring some of the money was used to keep the buildings in good repair and to improve the community.

Pastel drawing of Octavia Hill dated 1882
Pastel drawing of Octavia Hill dated 1882
Pastel drawing of Octavia Hill dated 1882

She was firm in her style of management, insisting that all the tenants paid their rent on time, but she also took a personal interest in their lives. As her biographer Peter Clayton puts it, ‘She became the friendly face of "landlordism" … Her methods were firm but compassionate: she patiently fostered a reciprocal respect between landlord and tenant.’

The scheme was a success and rapidly expanded with new investors. By 1874 Octavia had over 3,000 tenancies around London.

" She became the friendly face of ‘landlordism’ … Her methods were firm but compassionate."
- Peter Clayton, biographer of Octavia Hill

Connecting culture with reform

Octavia closely connected cultural philanthropy to social reform. It wasn’t enough to collect the rent and fix the gutters and her growing portfolio of houses became hubs of creativity, with music lessons, cultural outings and Gilbert & Sullivan performances. In 1877, along wither her sister Miranda, she formed the Kyrle Society, with the aim of bringing beauty, nature, arts and music to everyone.

Founding the National Trust in 1895

From her time in the bleak, treeless housing estates 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’. She firmly believed that, ‘We all want quiet. We all want beauty … we all need space. Unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently.’

" ‘We all want quiet. We all want beauty … we all need space.’"

 

She joined a campaign to save Swiss Cottage Fields from development and although the campaign eventually failed, it was through it that she met Robert Hunter, solicitor for the Commons Preservation Society.

They successfully campaigned together to resist development on Parliament Hill Fields, Vauxhall Park and Hilly Fields in London and ultimately, along with Hardwicke Rawnsley, went on to found the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty in 1895 so that green spaces could ‘be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment, and rest of those who have no country house’.

With the help of Octavia Hill, Alfriston Clergy House was the first house the National Trust saved
Front of Alfriston clergy house
With the help of Octavia Hill, Alfriston Clergy House was the first house the National Trust saved

For the next 17 years until her death in 1912 Octavia continued to fight for the preservation of the countryside. She helped the National Trust to buy and protect its first land and houses and campaigned for the preservation of footpaths to ensure everyone had right of access to the land.

Octavia's legacy

Octavia was a determined and strong-minded person and some of her views are not without controversy today. She was, for example, against a welfare state giving out free school meals, council housing and a universal old-age pension. She argued instead that private enterprise and charity could solve social inequality. 

However, her holistic view of human needs and her willingness to act upon her beliefs sparked a real change that can still be felt today.

Octavia Housing continues to provide homes for thousands of people in inner-city London and in 2020 the National Trust is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Thanks to Octavia’s vision and the generous donations of supporters, we now care for over 250,000 hectares of farmland, 780 miles of coastline and 500 historic properties, gardens and nature reserves, for everyone, for ever.

Three founders book

Three Founders of the National Trust book 

Find out more about Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley in our new publication. Discover how they came around to preserving lands of natural beauty and sites of and houses of historic interest for the nation’s use and enjoyment.