Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill, social reformer and one of the founders of the National Trust.

Octavia Hill was born in 1838 into a family of social reformers, her grandfather was Thomas Southwood Smith a public health reformer and her father was a friend of Jeremy Bentham so from an early age she was exposed to the need for personal responsibility and care and responsibility towards others. She was influenced by the Christian Socialism of Frederick Maurice and the art critic John Ruskin.

Her particular interest lay in the state of the housing in which people at the bottom of the social ladder had to endure. She worked with the poorest in society, people who found themselves trapped in poverty due to ill health or age or lack of opportunity. She believed in personal responsibility and that by reforming the tenant she could bring about a change in the housing. In 1864 she undertook the the management of slum properties owned by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and others and started her work in Marylebone.

Octavia Hill housing in Southwark
Houses, garden and hall in Southwark, developed by Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill believed that a well-maintained home, clean, light and airy would make all the difference to the tenants. This, along with neighbours who looked out for each other could change slum dwellings into socially responsible communities. She was a hands on reformer, with financial help from John Ruskin (although they had a later falling out), she bought a number of houses and rented them out to tenants. She visited the properties to collect the rent and to help with any problems they might be facing. She was tough and would not allow rent arrears and would turn out undesirable tenants who refused to except personal responsibility for the state and condition of their homes and their lives. She wanted to show that such properties could become a profitable investment and landlords could work with tenants to improve their lot. Olivia Hill saw that individual responsibility for self improvement with the support of good landlords was a far better solution to poor housing than some sort of ‘state’ assistance.

Octavia Hill plaque Southwark

Octavia Hill managed her housing stock carefully and when it began to show a return of about 5% then others took notice. She managed to garner support and investment from others and so was able to expand the scope of her work. She trained others to go out into the community and act as social support workers. She wanted people to feel empowered, giving them confidence to move away from the cycle of poverty and dependency that sapped their moral strength.

Housing was the foundation for her work, but also the starting point for other activities, the development of gardens, creating playgrounds for the children and organizing excursions for the poor. Octavia Hill decided to live in the Marylebone borough of London herself, and built a kind of club house behind her own house to host weekend and evening activities for children, women and older people. She built a similar arrangement in Southwark as shown in the photo above. In 1889, she formed London’s first independent Cadet Battalion, the Southwark Cadet Company. Octavia Hill felt strongly that the military context would socialise urban youths struggling for direction, and wrote;

“There is no organisation which I have found that influences the boys so powerfully for good as that of our cadets – and if such ideals can be brought before the young lad before he gets in with a gang of loafers it may make all the difference to his life.”

She believed in people helping themselves and was one of the founding members of the Charity Organisation Society set up in 1869 with the aim of modernising social work to eradicate poverty. This was new ground breaking work but her initiatives didn’t stop there. She wanted to create green spaces for children to play in, encouraged gardening and excursions and created places where people could meet and develop their own community activities.

Ocavis Hill was way ahead of her time in seeing that people needed green spaces to thrive and in 1875 she began to campaign to protect the natural environment in and around London, this at a time when urban development was expanding at an ever greater rate. In 1894 she went on to help found the National Trust in 1894. She wanted her ideas to spread far and wide and the thoughts and ideas in her 1883 publication ‘The Homes of the London Poor’ were adopted all over the world including America.

Inspired by Octavia Hill

Pro’s and con’s of Octavia Hill’s approach.

Octavia Hill truly believed that the individual had responsibilty to overcome social problems and that with guidance, direction and support of trained social workers that problems of poor housing, poverty and unemployment could be resolved. What she did not believe in was government intervention to solve these problems. At the turn of the century the state took on more responsibility for the welfare of its people, this was in opposition to the Octavia Hill approach of individual responsibility and small scale voluntary action. As far as she was concerned such an approach only kept people in the vortex of poverty.

Her approach could be seen as too interventionist. She believed that it was necessary to change moral attitudes to improve housing. People needed to help themselves which of course if you were old and frail or ill might be rather tricky to do. More and better houses wouldn’t erradicate slums only people could do that.

“The people’s homes are bad, partly because they are badly built and arranged, they are tenfold worse because the tenants’ habits and lives are what they are. Transplant them tomorrow to healthy and commodious homes and they would pollute and destroy them”

Octavia Hill 1875
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