Famous People from the Isle of Ely

Hill, Octavia (1838-1912)

Housing reformer. With help from friends, notably John Ruskin, in 1865 she began to acquire dilapidated houses in London for rehabilitation and letting to the poor. Her work expanded until utlimately she was managing some 6,000 dwellings.

Octavia Hill was born at Wisbech 3 December 1838, the eighth daughter of James Hill, corn-merchant and banker, who was noted locally for his good work in municipal and educational reform. Her mother was Caroline Southwood Smith, daughter of Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith [q.v.], well known as an authority on fever epidemics and sanitation. Octavia came under the influence of this grandfather early in life, and from him heard much about the condition of the homes of the poor. The younger sisters of the family were educated by their mother, a woman of much character and charm, with a view to earning their living as soon as possible. Octavia, who was an energetic, determined, and affectionate child with much artistic talent, began work in London about 1852 at the Ladies' Guild, a co-operative association promoted by the Christian Socialists, of which her mother became manager. She was soon put in charge of a branch engaged in teaching ragged school-children to make toys, and thus gained her first experience of the lives of the very poor. At this time she naturally came under the influence of the Christian Socialists, and more especially of Frederick Denison Maurice [q. v.]. Another decisive influence in determining her future life and work was that of John Ruskin, whom she first met in 1853, and by whom she was greatly helped in her artistic training. For some years she employed much of her spare time in copying pictures for his Modern Painters, for the Society of Antiquaries, and for the National Portrait Gallery.


In 1856 Octavia Hill became secretary to the classes for women at the Working Men's College in Great Ormond Street, and a few years later she and her sisters started a school at 14 Nottingham Place. It was while living here and visiting her poorer neighbours that Miss Hill first became deeply impressed with the urgency of the housing problem, and succeeded (1864) in interesting Ruskin in her schemes for improving the dwellings of the poor. In after years she maintained that it was his generosity in providing the money for the purchase of the first houses which saved her undertaking from remaining 'a mere vision'; and though their friendship was at one time interrupted, she never wavered in her allegiance and gratitude to him. In 1865 she wrote to a friend: 'One great event of the term has been the actual purchase for fifty-six years of three houses in a court close to us, which Ruskin has really achieved for us. We buy them full of tenants, but there is in each house at present a landlord, who comes between us and the weekly lodgers, and of whom we cannot get rid till Midsummer. All we can do, therefore, is to throw our classes open to the tenants, and to do much small personal work among them, so that we may get to know them. But all repairing, and preventing of overcrowding, and authority to exclude thoroughly disreputable lodgers, must wait till Midsummer. At that time we are to begin the alteration of our stables into one large room, which will enable us to get the tenants together for all sorts of purposes, much more easily than at present.'

It was Ruskin also who advised Miss Hill that if she could place the work upon a business footing, paying 5 per cent. upon capital invested in it, it would be taken up and extended by other people. This advice proved to be fully justified, and her successful management led to a steadily increasing number of houses being placed under her charge. Not only did owners of house property turn to her for help, but many who came to know and believe in her work placed large sums of money in her hands for the purchase or building of houses for the very poor. So freely was this assistance forthcoming that in 1899 she was able to write: 'There has never been a time when the extension of our work has been delayed for want of money. We have always had ample at our disposal.' Perhaps the most important accession to her responsibilities was her appointment in 1884 by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to manage a great part of their property in Southwark. Subsequently the Commissioners placed much other property in her hands as leases fell in, and frequently sought her advice in such matters as rebuilding.

Meanwhile the increase of work and responsibility left little time for teaching or for art, and in 1874 a group of friends raised a fund which freed Miss Hill for the future from the necessity of earning money, and left her at liberty to devote herself to housing reform. But, even with this assistance, the burden upon her was so great that more than once her health gave way and she was compelled to take a complete holiday. Especially was this so in 1877, when she was taken for a prolonged tour on the Continent by her friend, Miss Yorke, who from this time was closely associated with her life and work. Her long absence from England made necessary the devolution of responsibility upon the many workers whom she had trained in her methods, more especially upon her sisters. But it was characteristic of her method and temper throughout that she always endeavoured to develop responsibility and initiative in those who assisted her. There is no doubt that the rapid extension of the work was largely due to this spirit of true co-operation. Persons desiring to be trained under Miss Hill were attracted from far and near; with the result that her system of house management was introduced into other towns not only in Great Britain and Ireland, but also in America and on the continent of Europe, as for instance, in the 'Octavia Hill-Verein' in Berlin.

Octavia Hill's influence, though centred in housing reform, was far from being limited to it. Few efforts which were wisely directed towards the raising of the very poor failed to attract her interest. She was an active supporter of the work of the Charity Organization Society from its first beginnings, and frequently spoke and wrote on behalf of its principles. But perhaps her warmest sympathies were reserved for all efforts towards preserving and securing open spaces for the use of the people. She was closely associated with the Kyrle Society (founded by her sister Miranda in 1877), was a member of the Commons Preservation Society, and, in conjunction with Canon H. D. Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter [q. v.], founded the National Trust for places of historic interest or natural beauty (1895). It was largely due to her efforts that Parliament Hill and many other large and small open spaces were secured for public use and enjoyment.

Again, Octavia Hill's help and advice were often sought in connexion with the promotion of social reform by legislation. But her faith lay much more in the value of voluntary work, and it was with reluctance that she took part in political measures. It was an exception to this when, in 1873, she co-operated with the Charity Organization Society in active propaganda which resulted in Mr. (afterwards Viscount) Cross's Artisans' Dwellings Act (1875). But she refused to join the royal commission on housing (1889), and though she was induced to become a member of the royal commission on the poor laws (1905), she had little expectation of useful results. Nevertheless she threw herself loyally into the arduous work, and was remarkable for the steadiness and wisdom with which she maintained her principles. She also gave valuable evidence before the royal commission on the aged poor (1893).

No account of Octavia Hill would be complete without reference to the constant co-operation and assistance of her sisters. Of these Miranda, who lived with her, died in 1910; and Octavia did not long survive her. She died in her house, 190 Marylebone Road, 13 August 1912, having made very complete arrangements for her work to be carried on. She was buried, according to her own instructions, at Crockhain Hill, Kent, a memorial service being held in Southwark Cathedral.

In order to estimate the value of Octavia Hill's achievement it is necessary to recall something of the conditions which she sought to improve, and of the methods which she employed. Writing in 1899 she said: 'In Marylebone, where I began work, nearly every family rented but one room: now there are hundreds of two- and three-roomed tenements.... The knowledge of sanitary matters had penetrated hardly at all, gross ignorance prevailed.... The Building Acts took cognisance of very few of the requirements for health and hardly any sanitary measures were enforced, or even were enforceable.... From these and many other causes a London court in 1864 was a far more degraded and desolate place than it can be now, even in the remotest and forlornest region, and in taking charge of it one had to do a variety of things oneself where now one finds the intelligent and willing co-operation of many other agencies.' Among the duties of good management she enumerates: 'Repairs promptly and efficiently attended to, references completely taken up, cleaning sedulously supervised, overcrowding put an end to, the blessing of ready-money payments enforced, accounts strictly kept, and, above all, tenants so sorted as to be helpful to one another.' She held that an efficient manager required a thorough knowledge of finance and accounts, of the complicated system of rates and taxes in London, and of legal matters relating to leases and yearly tenancies. A further requisite, and quite as important, she considered to be the power of dealing with people at once wisely and kindly; throughout all the work, however strictly carried out, should run the golden thread of sympathy and helpfulness--jobs must be found for those who are out of work, help given in illness and misfortune, days in the country organized for all the tenants in turn. In these ways, and by the pressure of constant and consistent influence, the people are brought to treat their homes with respect, and to prefer living orderly lives. If some of these things now appear to be commonplaces, it must be remembered that this is largely, if not mainly, due to the teaching and influence of Octavia Hill.

The National Trust was founded in 1895 by three Victorian philanthropists - Miss Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. Concerned about the impact of uncontrolled development and industrialisation, they set up the Trust to act as a guardian for the nation in the acquisition and protection of threatened coastline, countryside and buildings. - further reading 'Octavia Hill 1838-1912' by Peter Clayton, published by Wisbech Society & Presevation Trust Ltd., ISBN 0 9519220 1 7.

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