Gillian Darley, author and broadcaster, gave the 2011 Sybil Campbell Collection Annual Lecture on ‘Octavia Hill and Opportunities for Women’ at the University Women’s Club on 27th October 2011.

Gillian Darley opened her talk by saying that she had found Octavia Hill  an increasingly fascinating figure as she revised her 1990 biography and worked on new material for her 2010 publication, ‘Octavia Hill: Social Reformer and Founder of the National Trust’.  In this talk, she would concentrate on how Octavia had become a campaigner.  Born in Wisbech in 1838, there were three principal threads in her background that had influenced the person she was: her father, grandfather and mother.

Her father, James Hill (c1800-1871), had been a prosperous corn merchant and banker.  He was a follower of Robert Owen and shared his utopian values.  However, within a few years of Octavia’s birth, his business had gone bankrupt.  He suffered a breakdown and virtually disappeared from his family’s life.  Octavia drew from his lack of success the lesson that idealism alone was not enough; it needed to be rooted in reality.

Her grandfather, Dr Thomas Southwood Smith (1788-1861), was a medical doctor and reformer, prominent in improving sanitary conditions and in drawing attention to the conditions of employment of children in the mines.  His idealism was based on observation and experience and his work ended successfully in producing practical results, unlike James Hill.  His philanthropic work   and the people, largely non-conformist intellectuals, she would have met in his house, would have given an early impetus to Octavia’s urge to help the poor.  

Caroline Southwood Smith (1809-1861), Octavia’s mother, joined James Hill’s household as a governess to his children. In 1835, she became his third wife; they had five daughters, Gertrude, Emily, Florence, Miranda and Octavia.  She was an educationalist and writer and had joined with her husband in establishing a school based on Pestalozzian principles in Wisbech and in initiating various co-operative ventures.  Her interest in progressive educational ideals would influence Octavia.  Following her husband’s bankruptcy, she brought up her five daughters on her own and taught to support the family.  They settled in Finchley and Octavia would learn her lifelong love of the countryside from these childhood days.

In 1851, Caroline moved to Holborn, having become manager of the Ladies’ Guild, a co-operative crafts workshop, employing women and girls to make toys.  It was a means by which women could escape poverty and overcrowding and of educating the children.  Octavia worked alongside her mother and looked after the children; if they did not turn up for work, she would go out looking for them in the back streets around Queen Square, where she saw the gross overcrowding and appalling living conditions for herself.

Ruskin visited the Ladies’ Guild one day, was impressed on meeting the fifteen year old Octavia and began to train and pay her to copy the Great Masters.   She travelled round London visiting the Dulwich Art Gallery and the National Gallery, all the while observing what the prevailing living conditions were like.  She also had a paid position teaching the women’s classes at the Working Men’s College and was teaching at the school which her mother had set up in their home in 1862.  Ruskin, aware of Octavia’s incredible dedication over the years, told her she must become, what he could not, a reformer.  

In 1864, Ruskin invested in Octavia’s scheme to improve housing for the poor, buying Paradise Place, in a run-down district just off Marylebone High Street.  He required a 5% return, but profits above that could be ploughed back into the properties.  Octavia would account for every penny spent. Her aim was to gradually improve the properties, so making the tenants proud of their homes and at the same time gain in self-respect.  The family was the focus of her endeavours.  She collected the rents from her tenants herself and in effect acted as a social worker.  Once Paradise Place was cleaned up, Ruskin bought Freshwater Place for her and the process began again.  In this way, the number of houses and tenants grew and fellow volunteers helped to collect rents and in turn acted as social workers; some, including Henrietta Barnett and Beatrice Webb,  moved on to continue with schemes of their own.

From the mid-1860s, Octavia branched out into other projects and recruited others.  By the 1870s, she was eliciting contributions from interlocking circles of interest, aristocrats, intellectuals, politicians and figures from the arts.  There was a snowball effect.    Having concentrated on housing conditions as her first objective, she was now considering the quality of life and the importance of open space for city dwellers; she had known as a child how important parks and open spaces on the edge of a city were.   Her first attempt in the mid-1870s to buy open fields at Swiss Cottage failed because, although she had almost raised the necessary money, the landowner moved the goal posts for the sale.  From then on, she would not try and raise money for anything where arrangements were not legally binding.  

The Swiss Cottage failure was a crisis moment. She had been working for more than a decade at a prodigious level; she was an individualist rather than a delegator.  The failure led to her collapse, the gravest episode yet, for she had had earlier problems.    She was sent abroad to recover.  It was clear that she had to delegate many of her daily tasks to allow her to continue to manage her projects.   Octavia set up a system and organised people to carry out instructions.  Schemes were becoming larger, but would not match the new municipal housing provision.   Her sister, Miranda, had founded the Kyle Society in 1876; it aimed, as an adjunct to housing programmes, to bring beauty into the lives of people and reflected Octavia’s concerns.

By the 1880s Octavia was becoming more of an establishment figure.  She gave evidence to the Royal Commission on housing and worked for the Church Commissioners in managing their properties, her methods having been accepted as a way of sorting out poverty.

The building of Red and White Cross Cottages in Southwark in the late 1880s in an ornamental style close to her heart, gave Octavia great pleasure.  She was now spending more time in the country, relaxing.  However, she was still campaigning and her love for the countryside and open spaces was fulfilled by the founding, together with Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, of the National Trust in 1895.   By the 1890s other institutions were beginning to grow and women were playing prominent roles; for example, Henrietta Barnett was behind the setting up of Toynbee Hall and Elizabeth Casson in founding the profession of occupational therapists.

Octavia Hill died in 1913 leaving a legacy of being one of the great social reformers of the Victorian era.  As a person she could be alarming, but had the self-realisation to know this.  She mixed with some extraordinary people and inspired a group of stalwarts, mainly women, who helped drive forward her social reforms and pass on the word.  Her memory is commemorated by a stone seat erected on a beauty spot on the North Downs.


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