Octavia Hill

3 Dec 1838
13 Aug 1912
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Octavia Hill (3 December 1838 – 13 August 1912) was an English social reformer, whose main concern was the welfare of the inhabitants of cities, especially London, in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Born into a family with a strong commitment to alleviating poverty, she herself grew up in straitened circumstances owing to the financial failure of her father. With no formal schooling, she worked from the age of 14 for the welfare of working people.

Hill was a moving force behind the development of social housing, and her early friendship with John Ruskin enabled her to put her theories into practice with the aid of his initial investment.

She believed in self-reliance, and made it a key part of her housing system that she and her assistants knew their tenants personally and encouraged them to better themselves. She was opposed to municipal provision of housing, believing it to be bureaucratic and impersonal.

Another of Hill’s concerns was the availability of open spaces for poor people. She campaigned against development on existing suburban woodlands, and helped to save London’s Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on. She was one of the three founders of the National Trust, set up to preserve places of historic interest or natural beauty for the enjoyment of the British public.

She was a founder member of the Charity Organisation Society (now the charity Family Action) which organised charitable grants and pioneered a home-visiting service that formed the basis for modern social work. She was a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws in 1905.

Hill’s legacy includes the large holdings of the modern National Trust, several housing projects still run on her lines, a tradition of training for housing managers, and the museum established by the Octavia Hill Society at her birthplace.

Octavia Hill was the daughter of James Hill, corn merchant, follower of Owenism and banker, and his third wife, Caroline Southwood Smith. He had been widowed twice, and had six children (five daughters and a son) from his previous marriages.

He had been impressed by the writings on education of Caroline Southwood Smith, the daughter of Dr Thomas Southwood Smith, a pioneer of sanitary reform. He had engaged Caroline as a governess for his children in 1832, and they were married in 1835, three years before Octavia was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, her father’s eighth daughter and ninth child.

The family’s comfortably prosperous life was disrupted by James Hill’s financial problems and his mental collapse. In 1840 he was declared bankrupt. Caroline Hill’s father gave the family financial support, and took on some of Hill’s paternal role. Southwood Smith was a health and welfare reformer concerned with a range of social issues including child labour in mines and the housing of the urban poor.

Caroline Hill held similar views on social reform, and her interest in progressive education, influenced by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and Southwood Smith’s daily experience in his work at the London Hospital in the East End inspired Octavia Hill’s concern for the poorest in early Victorian London. She received no formal schooling: her mother educated the family at home.

The family settled in a small cottage in Finchley, now a north London suburb, but then a village. Octavia Hill was impressed and moved by Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, a book that portrayed the daily lives of slum dwellers.

She was also strongly influenced by the theologian, Anglican priest and social reformer F. D. Maurice, who was a family friend. She began her work on behalf of London’s poor by helping to make toys for Ragged school children, and serving as secretary of the women’s classes at the Working Men’s College in Bloomsbury in central London.

A co-operative guild providing employment for “distressed gentlewomen” accepted Hill for training in glass-painting when she was 13. When the work of the guild was expanded to provide work in toy-making for Ragged school children, she was invited, at the age of 14, to take charge of the workroom. The following year she began working in her spare time from the guild as a copyist for John Ruskin in Dulwich Art Gallery and the National Gallery.

She was deeply aware of the dreadful living conditions of the children in her charge at the guild. Her views on encouraging self-reliance led to her association with the Charity Organisation Society (COS), described by Hill’s biographer Gillian Darley as “a contentious body which deplored dependence fostered by kindly but unrigorous philanthropy … support to the poor had to be carefully targeted and efficiently supervised. Later in life, however, she began to think the COS line … was over-harsh.”

Hill was short, like all her family, and indifferent to fashion. Her friend Henrietta Barnett wrote: “She was small in stature with long body and short legs. She did not dress, she only wore clothes, which were often unnecessarily unbecoming; she had soft and abundant hair and regular features, but the beauty of her face lay in brown and very luminous eyes, which quite unconsciously she lifted upwards as she spoke on any matter for which she cared. Her mouth was large and mobile, but not improved by laughter.

Indeed, Miss Octavia was nicest when she was made passionate by her earnestness.” Barnett also spoke of Hill’s streak of ruthlessness. Gertrude Bell called Hill despotic. Later in Hill’s life, the Bishop of London, Frederick Temple, encountered her at a meeting of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and wrote, “She spoke for half an hour … I never had such a beating in all my life.”

Parliament and many concerned reformers had been attempting to improve the housing of the working classes since the early 1830s. When Hill began her work, the model dwelling movement had been in existence for twenty years, royal and select committees had sat to examine the problems of urban well-being, and the first of many tranches of legislation aimed at improving working class housing had been passed.

From Hill’s point of view these had all failed the poorest members of the working class, the unskilled labourers. She found that their landlords routinely ignored their obligations towards their tenants, and that the tenants were too ignorant and oppressed to better themselves.

She tried to find new homes for her charges, but there was a severe shortage of available property, and Hill decided that her only solution was to become a landlord herself. John Ruskin, who was interested in the co-operative guild, knew Hill from her work as his copyist and was impressed by her. As an aesthete and a humanitarian he was affronted by the brutal ugliness of the slums. In 1865, having inherited a substantial sum of money from his father, he acquired for £750 the leases of three cottages of six rooms each in Paradise Place, Marylebone.

Ruskin placed these houses, which were “in a dreadful state of dirt and neglect”, under Hill’s management. He told her that investors might be attracted to such schemes if a five per cent annual return could be secured.In 1866 Ruskin acquired the freehold of five more houses for Hill to manage in Freshwater Place, Marylebone.

The Times recorded, “The houses faced a bit of desolate ground occupied by dilapidated cowsheds and manure heaps. The needful repairs and cleaning were carried out, the waste land was turned into a playground where Mr. Ruskin had some trees planted.”

After being improved the properties were let to those on intermittent and low incomes. A return of five per cent on capital was obtained as promised to Ruskin; any excess over the five per cent was reinvested within the properties for the benefit of the tenants.

Rent arrears were not tolerated, and bad debts were minimal. As Hill said, “Extreme punctuality, and diligence in collecting rents, and a strict determination that they shall be paid regularly, have accomplished this.” In consequence of her prudent management, Hill was able to attract new backers, and by 1874 she had 15 housing schemes with around 3,000 tenants.

Hill’s system was based on closely managing not only the buildings but the tenants; she insisted, “you cannot deal with the people and their houses separately.” She maintained close personal contact with all her tenants, and was strongly opposed to impersonal bureaucratic organisations and to governmental intervention in housing. In her view, “municipal socialism and subsidized housing” led to indiscriminate demolition, re-housing schemes, and the destruction of communities.

The number of homes managed by Hill continued to grow. Although Ruskin had turned against her in a bout of mental instability, she found a new supporter, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who handed over to her the management of their housing estates in several poor areas of south London.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Hill’s women workers were no longer unpaid volunteers but trained professionals. Hill’s influence spread beyond the properties under her own control. Her ideas were taken up and copied, with her enthusiastic support, in continental Europe and the United States of America.

Beatrice Webb said that she “first became aware of the meaning of the poverty of the poor,” while staying with her sister, who was a rent collector for Octavia Hill in the East End. Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt, was taken incognito on a tour of some of Hill’s properties, and she translated Hill’s Homes of the London Poor into German.

Among those whom Hill trained was her assistant and secretary, Maud Jeffery, who was later engaged by the Commissioners of Crown Lands to run new housing estates in London on Octavia Hill’s lines. Even some local authorities, despite Hill’s distrust, followed her model: some of the earliest examples of municipal council housing, at Kensington and Camberwell, were run on her lines, with the acquisition of working class houses, and their gradual improvement, without evictions or demolitions.

Despite her opposition to interference by national or local government in the provision of housing, Hill had to cope with the newly created London County Council and the involvement of the council and other local authorities in providing housing for the poor. In 1884 a royal commission on the housing of the working classes was set up, but the prime minister, W.E. Gladstone, and his ministerial colleagues vetoed a proposal to include Hill among the members of the commission.

The municipal authorities quickly surpassed her in the number of properties under their management. A.S. Wohl notes that in the 1880s Hill had about £70,000 worth of property under her management, and at the end of her career she was managing the dwellings of “perhaps three or four thousand people at the most.” The London County Council, by contrast, had a budget of £1,500,000 for its programme of rehousing London’s poor in 1901–02.

Hill was opposed to other reforms that came about in the early part of the twentieth century. She was against female suffrage on the grounds that “men and women help one another because they are different, have different gifts and different spheres”.

She also believed that provision of social services and old-age pensions by the government did more harm than good, sapping people’s self-reliance.

Hill died from cancer on 13 August 1912 at her home in Marylebone, at the age of 73.

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