Who was Octavia Hill?
A social reformer, public figure, artist and activist, Octavia Hill was also a key figure in the foundation of the National Trust. Strongly influenced by the belief that good environments make better people, she built improved housing and campaigned to give ordinary people access to the countryside. In her lifetime, she was a pioneer. Her legacy is perhaps even more important still.
One of nine children, Octavia Hill was born in 1838 to two progressive and socially-concerned parents.
Her childhood was dominated by her father’s bankruptcy, nervous breakdown, and desertion of his family. She was brought up by her mother – a resourceful educational reformer – and grandfather, the health reformer Dr Southwood Smith.
These early experiences inspired Hill to dedicate her life to those still worse off.
Her encounters with prominent thinkers, like radical clergyman F. D. Maurice, campaigning author Charles Kingsley, and unorthodox intellectual John Ruskin, supported her ideals. Ruskin, in particular, taught her that people did not simply have economic needs. For him – and for her – anyone lacking access to art, beauty, and nature was impoverished.
In 1864, money from Ruskin enabled Hill to put her ideas into practice. She began buying neglected and decaying properties in London: overhauling them and transforming their tenants’ lives. She also campaigned to preserve open spaces.
Despite ill-health, personal unhappiness, and a nervous collapse, her empire grew, taking in buildings across the capital. She trained and paid a group of women housing workers and became a major public figure and policy maker.
Octavia Hill’s legacy lives on. Octavia Housing continues to provide homes for thousands of people in inner-city London.
The National Trust, founded in 1895, grew out of her campaign to preserve the countryside and to protect ancient and beautiful buildings.
Through her efforts and generosity the Trust acquired some of its earliest properties and land in the Kentish Weald.
An ambiguous legacy
By the time she died in 1912, Octavia Hill’s attitudes and ideals had begun to seem old-fashioned.
Her belief that private enterprise was preferable to government action was challenged by a nascent welfare state. Furthermore, her conviction that moral degeneracy was the real cause of poverty was attacked by living-wage campaigners.
More recently, however, Hill’s holistic view of human needs, her determination that everyone should have access to art and nature, and her role as a pioneering woman have attracted widespread admiration.