Left to right: (a) Caroline Southwood Hill, Octavia's mother, from a photograph by Andrew Whelpdale. Source: Hill, Life, facing p.326. (b) Wisbech in 1840: Octavia was born in the house to the right of the bridge, now the Octavia Hill Birthplace House. Source: Hill, Life, facing p.3. (c) Young Octavia, from an oil painting by Margaret Gillies, an artist friend of her mother's. Source: Hill, Life, facing p. 12. [Click on these and the following images to enlarge them.]
orn in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, on 3 December 1838, Octavia Hill was the eighth daughter and ninth child of James Hill, a corn-merchant and Owenite — that is, a follower of the social reformer Robert Owen. Twice-widowed, and with six children already, James had taken Caroline Southwood Smith, an educationist and writer, as his third wife. It was an ideal meeting of minds: in 1837 the couple opened an infants' school together, which Caroline ran on the advanced methods of the Swiss education reformer, Johann Pestalozzi. The building still exists in Wisbech today, as part of a local theatre complex. Five more children would be born into the Hill family, including Octavia. But James was bankrupted in the financial crash of 1840, and took it very badly, leaving his wife to cope with the newly enlarged clan.
Caroline was much helped by her father, Dr Southwood Smith, who worked in the London Hospital in the East End. After a while he settled the family in Finchley, near his Highgate home, taking one of the girls (Octavia's next elder sister, Gertrude) into his own home, and providing a second home for them all. He had a great influence on Octavia when she was growing up. An advocate for public health reform, and daily exposed to the problems of urban poverty, her made her aware of the major social problems of the day, including child labour and the lack of proper housing provision for the lower classes. He also introduced her to many of the thinkers of the day, since his house was "filled with the independently minded, usually nonconformist intellectuals who were their friends, including the Leigh Smiths, the Howitts, and the Foxes, as well as interesting visitors such as Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens. Gertrude later married Charles Lee Lewes, George Eliot's stepson" (Darley, "Hill, Octavia").
Little wonder that, educated by her capable and public-spirited mother and with this further stimulus, Octavia developed a strong social conscience. When her mother took over the management of the Ladies' Guild, a co-operative crafts workshop in Holborn, the family moved to Bloomsbury and fourteen-year-old Octavia pitched in, taking responsibility for the ragged-school girls who were employed at the workshop, and coming into contact with F. D. Maurice and the Christian socialists. Their influence on her, too, cannot be overestimated. Although she would avoid bringing religious ideas into her work, there is no doubt that "a quiet evangelical fervour" underpinned it (Wohl 184). In 1853 she also came into contact with Ruskin, whom she already knew from his writings, and who played an even larger part in her future. She was only fifteen then. Well over twenty years later, she would ask him passionately, when they had had a difference of opinion, "has there been thought or deed of mine uncoloured by the influence of the early, the abiding, and the continuous teaching you gave me? Have I not striven to carry out what you have taught in the place where I have been called to live? Was there a moment when I would not have served you joyfully at any cost?" (qtd. in Ruskin 252).
At this early stage, when Octavia was still in her teens, Ruskin trained her as a copyist, and, after the failure of the Ladies' Guild enterprise in 1856, she accepted Maurice's offer of a salaried post as secretary to the women's classes at the Working Men's College. She herself began to teach there too. In these years it would be fair to see her as a first-wave feminist. For example, she helped Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon in her campaign for a married women's property act.
Octavia Hill, from a drawing by Edward Clifford, 1877. Source: Hill, Life, facing p.367.
After Dr Southwood Smith's death in 1861, Caroline and her daughters set up a school in their home, but when Ruskin's father died not long afterwards, in 1864, leaving his son a handsome legacy, he agreed to invest some of it in Octavia's housing scheme for the urban poor. This again would prove a momentous decision. She was soon busy with the project, transforming properties in Marylebone from their originally squalid conditions into pleasant accommodation for suitable tenants. "It should be observed," she wrote, in Homes of the London Poor,
that well-built houses were chosen, but they were in a dreadful state of dirt and neglect. The repairs required were mainly of a superficial and slight character: slight in regard to expense — vital as to health and comfort. The place swarmed with vermin; the papers, black with dirt, hung in long strips from the walls; the drains were stopped, the water supply out of order. All these things were put in order, but no new appliances of any kind were added, as we had determined that our tenants should wait for these until they had proved themselves capable of taking care of them. 
Her idea was not simply to provide accommodation: "She brought to Housing an insight that saw more than the walls that were erected and the roof that covered them," says Harry Barnes. "She saw that the people for whom she lived need light and air, well-drained and ventilated houses. These she was out to give them but she saw they needed more, and it was this more and the giving of it that distinguished her work (148). The "more" consisted of the provision of cultural amenities such as halls for concerts and other events, libraries, and facilities for healthy exercise in the open air — in other words, gardens and recreation areas. It also consisted in what Lord William Compton called "active supervision" of the tenants, perhaps the most demanding part of all (Evans 4).
A start was made in Paradise Place (now called Garbutt Place) in Marylebone, in 1865. Octavia was still engaged in teaching, though, and by now it was apparent that she was one of those driven personalities who took no time out for rest and relaxation. When Jeanie Nassau Senior, another strong-minded woman engaged in social reform, first met her in 1866, she had taken a post as a holiday tutor to Thomas Hughes's children, and looked "sadly ill and tired" (qtd. in Oldfield 76), a small woman exhausted by all the work she had undertaken to do.
Nevertheless, the housing project was off to a good start, and the original scheme was repeated nearby. Gillian Darley writes:
The number of tenants and houses grew, as, exponentially, did the "fellow-workers" — those who volunteered for rent collection or put money or property into the scheme. In the former category, some such as Henrietta Barnett, Beatrice Webb, Catherine Courtney, and Emma Cons moved on to continue their own work elsewhere. Those who provided funds or practical support ranged from royalty [Princesses Alice and Louise] to City financiers, from conscientious aristocrats to leading figures in the worlds of literature and the arts. ["Hill, Octavia"]
As Roger Ellis points out, "The marshalling of private wealth in support of her causes was crucial in an age of low public expenditure" (418).
Much as Octavia was influenced by some of the great minds of the age, she herself had a huge influence on others. Her success in raising awareness and engaging sympathy was due not only to her own passionate commitment and her circle of well-placed and like-minded friends, but to her efforts as a publicist. As more people read her articles and reports, and came to hear her talks, interest spread all over the country and even beyond it: in 1875, for instance, five of her magazine articles were collected and brought out in America, in a book entitled Homes of the London Poor — which was later published at home, and then translated into German by no less a personage as Princess Alice (see Hill, Life, 265; the American edition of the book is cited in this essay and listed in the bibliography at the end). Remarkably, "Octavia Housing" continues to do sterling work today, as "a not-for-profit organisation that provides thousands of people with affordable homes in inner London ("About Octavia Housing").
Miranda Hill, from a photograph by Maull and Fox. Source: Hill, Life, facing p.340.
Concern for housing and quality of life led naturally to an interest in the environment, and this is another of Octavia's important and enduring legacies. As noted above, her tenants were provided with shared spaces, both indoors and outdoors. Unused areas such as commons were converted to provide the latter. Her campaigns were not always successful, but among her important victories was the protection from development of Parliament Hill Fields, and the saving of Vauxhall Park. Such activities would lead eventually to the founding of the National Trust in 1895, with co-founders Sir Robert Hunter (1844–1913), solicitor of the Commons Preservation Society, and Canon Rawnsley (1851–1920), a courageous clergyman from Keswick who had been active in the defence of footpaths in the Lake District, and who was introduced to her by Ruskin (see Hill, Life, 381, 481). The National Trust also owed much to the Kyrle Society, an organisation for "bringing beauty home to the people" (Report), founded by Octavia’s sister Miranda. This followed Octavia's lead in aiming to provide even the poorest sections of the community with access to nature.
Octavia was enlightened in many ways. She was not in favour of simply dispensing charity. As Gillian Darley points out in her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on her, she had "firm ideas on self-respect," along the lines of Samuel Smiles's Self Help (1859). People were expected to pay their rents on time, and almost invariably did: "It has given them a dignity and glad feeling of honorable behavior which has much more than compensated for the apparent harshness of the rule," she felt (Homes, 7). And they were encouraged to play their own part in their self-improvement, by making the most of the opportunities given to them. As suggested above, this system was, in fact, more demanding for Octavia than simply being a Lady Bountiful, and by 1877 she was worn out to the extent of collapse.
Besides hard work, several other factors were involved. She and Jeanie Nassau Senior had become close friends, and Jeanie's death in 1877 upset her terribly. So did the failure of her relationship with a fellow-worker, and an unfortunate falling out with Ruskin, who in that same year wanted to "make over the Marylebone property entirely to the St. George's Company, under Miss Hill's superintendence always." He explained that he had had "the value of it back in interest," and did not wish to keep it any longer (20), and was deeply affronted when she objected. For her part, she confessed that she was worried about him trusting "the wrong people" (254) and this only made matters worse between them. This was the "difference of opinion" mentioned above; hurtfully, peevish in his own poor state of health, Ruskin printed the whole of their painful correspondence at this time in his Fors Clavigera, Book IV (see Ruskin 251-57).
Southwark Red Cross Cottages, with hall and gardens, opened June 1887, then and now. Left: then. Source: Hill, Life, facing p.454. Right: now. Source: © Octavia Housing. Click on the images to enlarge them, and to find out more about this project.
Nevertheless, she recovered from these various blows, and the years following her recovery were fruitful. Living with a companion in Larksfield, a cottage in the Sussex Weald, she continued to be involved in her housing schemes, especially at the request of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in Southwark in south London, where she was able to have her say in the actual design of buildings like the Red Cross Cottages shown above. She was also much involved with a new scheme, the Women's University Settlement in Nelson Square, Southwark. This brought in fresh blood: the participants were "very young," she noted in a letter to her mother of 28 April 1889, "I feel quite a veteran among them; and they are so sweet and humble and keen to learn about the things out of their old line of experience. I much delight in thinking one may link their young life with the houses, and hall, and garden in Southwark" (501).
Blue plaque for Octavia in Southwark, for establishing not only the housing but the army cadets. Source: Octavia Housing. There is a plaque at Garbutt Place, where her work in housing reform began, as well.
Then came another new venture: in 1905 Octavia agreed to be appointed to the Royal Commission for the Poor Law, alongside such like-minded people as Charles Booth, Beatrice Webb, and George Lansbury. This entailed a good deal of travelling. Her experiences did nothing to persuade her that the state should become responsible for welfare, or that women should have more to do with central government: she was never a suffragette, although she was as keen as ever to promote women's participation in local affairs, and is often regarded as paving the way for their entry into the profession of paid social work.
Reputation: Then and Now
The day after Octavia Hill's death from cancer on 13 August 1912, there was a long obituary in The Times, followed by an "Appreciation" which praised her for her "[u]nflinching sincerity, earnestness, and concentration," her keen sense of responsibility, and many other good qualities. Her memorial service in Southwark Cathedral brought together representatives of many of the organisations she had had a hand in, and of the model communities she had set up. It was the occasion for another tribute to her, this time by Canon Rawnsley, who described her as a "woman of foresight and just judgment; a woman with a tender heart ... and a man's courage, practical wisdom, and business capacity" ("Deaths"), a remark that might seem sexist now but was evidently intended to be highly complimentary then.
In more recent times, Octavia Hill's work has been much admired — and also criticised. As for the former, the turning of her birthplace house into a museum, and the blue plaques in Marylebone and Southwark to commemorate her, show how well and warmly she is remembered by the general public. What is more, as noted above, her work is supported to this day, and managed by the capable people at Octavia Housing. Her ideals are still very appealing and inspiring. As Anthony Wohl says, "her philosophy of house management contained much that was commendable, and her attitudes towards space, beauty, and play areas, and the improvement of people along with their homes supplied a much needed humane touch to housing reform" (199). We respond to those attitudes even more now, as the inner city population becomes ever larger and more difficult to cater for.
Nevertheless, Anthony Wohl himself goes on to argue that Octavia's efforts also had some negative effects, in that while "her efforts touched only a handful," they were widely known, and therefore "did much to lull her contemporaries into a false sense of competence to deal with the housing question" and "tended to push into the background the real crises which had to be met — caused by widespread poverty and overcrowding and the inconsistency of wages and rents" (199). In other words, he says, her efforts served to hold back rather than promote housing reform.
It is true that, in the end, state and local government measures were needed to deal with such problems. But perhaps the present situation is Octavia's best vindication, as it is clear that those measures are still not enough. Both public and charitable sectors have to pull together. Indeed, we might feel that an organisation with a personal touch is all the more necessary now, in the face of what is still an enormous challenge — providing decent accommodation, and the opportunity for a better way of life, for all who need them.
Note: Many thanks to Rachel Harris of Octavia Housing for providing the last two photographs.
"About Octavia Housing." Octavia Housing. Web. 28 July 2018.
Darley, Gillian. "Hill, Octavia (1838–1912), housing and social reformer." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 28 July 2018.
_____. Octavia Hill: A Life. London: Francis Boutle, 2010.
"Death Of Miss Octavia Hill" with an "Appreciation" by a correspondent. Times. 15 August 1912: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 30 July 2018.
"Deaths." Times. 22 August 1912: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 30 July 2018.
Ellis, Robert. Who's Who in Victorian Britain. London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1997. 416-18.
Evans, Howard. The doom of the leasehold system pronounced by the Royal Commission [microform]; a summary of the evidence.... London, 1885 (microfilm). Internet Archive. Contributed by Columbia University Libraries. Web. 28 July 2018.
Hill, Octavia. Homes of the London Poor. New York: State Charities Aid Association, 1875. Hathi Trust. Contributed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Web. 28 July 2018.
_____. The Life of Octavia Hill as Told in Her Letters. Ed. Charles Edmund Maurice [F. D. Maurice's son]. London: Macmillan, 1913. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 28 July 2018.
Kyrle Society. Report. London, 1893. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Web. 28 July 2018.
"Octavia's Legacy." Octavia Hill's Birthplace House. Web. 28 July 2018.
Oldfield, Sybil. Jeanie, an "Army of One": Mrs Nassau Senior, 1828-1877, The First Woman in Whitehall. Brighton and Portland: Sussex University Press, 2008.
Ruskin, John. Fors Clavigera: letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain Book IV. Philadelphia : Reuwee, Wattley & Walsh, 1891. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 28 July 2018.
"Social Housing." Octavia Hill's Birthplace House. Web. 28 July 2018.
Wohl, Anthony. The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London. New Brunswick and London: Transactions, 2002.
Created 28 July 2018