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date: 28 September 2023

Hill, Octaviafree


Hill, Octaviafree

  • Gillian Darley

Octavia Hill (1838–1912)

by John Singer Sargent, 1898

Hill, Octavia (1838–1912), housing and social reformer, was born on 3 December 1838 at 8 South Brink, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, the eighth daughter (and ninth child) of James Hill (c.1800–1871), corn merchant and Owenite social utopian. Her mother was James Hill's third wife, Caroline Southwood Hill (1809–1902), writer and educationist, daughter of Dr Thomas Southwood Smith. The smooth course of Octavia Hill's childhood was interrupted by her father's bankruptcy in 1840, and his subsequent nervous breakdown and virtual disappearance from the family. Her mother, by now with five small daughters, turned to her own father for moral and financial support and he became in many respects a surrogate father to her children. Dr Southwood Smith was a noted health reformer, campaigning on issues from child labour in the mines to the housing conditions of the urban poor. The influence of her mother's interest in progressive educational ideas, particularly those of Pestalozzi, and her grandfather's daily experience in his work at the London Hospital in the East End gave an early impetus to Octavia Hill's urge to help the very poorest strata of society in early Victorian London.

Octavia Hill and her sisters appear to have been educated entirely at home by their mother, as the family moved around the country for some years before settling down in a small cottage in Finchley, a village to the north of London. Her grandfather lived in Highgate and gave a home to Gertrude, the second daughter, helped by the two Miss Gillies, with whom he lived. That house was a second home to all the family: it 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.

In 1852 Caroline Southwood Hill moved into central London, to Russell Place, Holborn. She had been offered the job of manager and bookkeeper of the Ladies Guild, a co-operative crafts workshop nearby. Aged fourteen, Octavia Hill became her mother's de facto assistant, with responsibility for the ragged-school girls aged between eight and seventeen who were employed there. Work at the guild brought mother and daughter into contact with the Christian socialist circle and, in particular, with F. D. Maurice. It also showed Octavia Hill the shocking reality of poverty in that area of London; the toy-maker girls whom she supervised went home to desperate conditions. Occasionally she would visit a child at home and was horrified at what she found in the hideous and insanitary ‘rookeries’ of Holborn, where families lived eight or ten to a room. Even in her early teens her sense of a social purpose was phenomenal. She wrote to her younger sister Emily of an enjoyable evening with friends in Romford: 'gathered round the fire … we talk of the Guild, of Ruskin, of the poor, of education, of politics and history' (C. E. Maurice, 59). Brought up a Unitarian, her mother left Octavia's religious allegiances deliberately untouched. In 1857, as a result of her friendship with F. D. Maurice and his circle, she was baptized and then confirmed into the Church of England; but she remained notably undogmatic. She regarded faith as a personal matter and never intruded upon the religious observance of the tenants she was to acquire—many of whom were Irish Catholics.


John Ruskin came into Octavia Hill's life first through the pages of Modern Painters and then, in person, at the guild. She was fifteen and enthralled: 'to think that that was the man who was accused of being mad, presumptuous, conceited and prejudiced' (C. E. Maurice, 30). In 1855 he began to train her as a copyist and, as the guild began to fail, she turned to him for advice. To replace her work with the guild, in early 1856 F. D. Maurice, head of the Working Men's College, had offered her a job as secretary to the women's classes for a salary of £26 per year. Ruskin also taught there and before long she too began to teach the young women. The college, which was in Red Lion Square, Holborn, aimed to educate women 'for occupations wherein they could be helpful to the less fortunate members of their own sex', as Maurice put it. The work reflected Octavia Hill's interests in women's education and rights; in that year she helped Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon orchestrate a campaign for a married women's property act and collected 24,000 signatures.

By 1859 Hill's daily routine of copying in Dulwich Art Gallery or the National Gallery, followed by many more hours spent teaching, had become punishing. Even F. D. Maurice told her that trying to do without rest was very self-willed but she took no notice. A tiny woman (all the family were diminutive) with a heavy-browed head and great dark eyes, her indomitable personality was already fixed. Eventually her family forced her to go to Normandy on holiday, but a dangerous pattern of working until she collapsed was established which would periodically interrupt her work over the coming years.

The family was constantly pressed for money: repaying their father's debts and their grandfather's loans meant that the children were always shadowed by poverty. One by one, the sisters turned to teaching. Miranda Hill, the gentle eldest daughter, set up her own small establishment. In 1861 Dr Southwood Smith died, and the following year Caroline Hill and her daughters opened a school in their house in Nottingham Place. However, in 1864 John Ruskin's father died, leaving a substantial sum to his only son; Octavia Hill's long-held dream, to establish improved housing for 'my friends among the poor', was made possible by his decision to invest in her scheme, albeit for a 5 per cent return.

The Octavia Hill ‘method’

The first property was the unsuitably named Paradise Place, later Garbutt Place, just off Marylebone High Street, London, and a short walk from Regent's Park. A terrace of artisans' cottages, probably no more than thirty years old, it had been in the grasp of resident landlords who had packed family after family into the tiny, insanitary dwellings. Visiting the tenants, Octavia Hill found the women far beyond caring; she vowed to restore their self-respect and to help them take responsibility for the state of their lives and their homes. The new arrangement gave each family two rooms instead of one, and the premises were transformed by cleaning, ventilation, clearance of the drains, repairs, and redecoration. Bad tenants, habitual non-payers, were turned out, despite her deep misgivings. The key to her system was the weekly visit to collect rent. This allowed the ladies who performed this job—Hill herself, assisted by Emma Cons and one or two other trusted lieutenants—to check upon every detail of the premises and to broaden their contact with the tenants, especially the children. In effect they were model social workers, always available if there were personal problems to be resolved. In common with Josephine Butler and Florence Nightingale she believed that the model of the family and the ideal of the home should underlie all charitable work. Like Mary Carpenter, who argued against institutions and in favour of 'cottage homes', Hill was a passionate advocate of small-scale solutions.

Hill's tenants were people dependent on casual or seasonal work, rather than the artisan class for whom model industrial dwellings, where tenants required references from employers, were built. Often she tried to find employment for tenants in and around the houses. For the children, outings to the countryside were organized, a tenants' meeting room was established behind Nottingham Place, and each pupil at the Hills' school was assigned a child from the buildings. The space around the terrace was cleaned up as a playground. As soon as Paradise Place was transformed, she moved on; John Ruskin bought the freehold of Freshwater Place for her and the same process began again. Any surplus beyond the 5 per cent return was at the tenants' disposal (guided by the landlady); they could choose whether the money went towards a playground, sewing or singing classes, or another project.

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 to City financiers, from conscientious aristocrats to leading figures in the worlds of literature and the arts. Her support snowballed year by year. As Octavia Hill developed her essentially replicable ‘method’, she ensured that her work was widely known through a stream of published articles and her own annual reports, privately printed and distributed, the Letters to Fellow Workers. Soon interest came from overseas and from cities all over the country. She tirelessly addressed meetings and interested groups to spread the word; her speaking voice, naturally musical, was one of her greatest assets.

Beginning by overhauling the physical setting of her tenants' lives, ideally by rehabilitating their existing housing rather than building new blocks, Octavia Hill then turned to the improvement of other aspects of their daily life. Holidays and festivals, such as May day, were marked, and many of her projects included the erection of halls, decorated by artist friends, in which concerts and theatre performances could be held. She made playgrounds out of the rough open spaces around the alleys and terraces, leading to campaigns for the renewal of disused central London burial-grounds as public open space and for rights of access to common land. The latter interest brought her into some of the early campaigns of the Commons Preservation Society, through which she met Robert Hunter, honorary solicitor of that body. She fought against development on precious open ground as London pushed inexorably outwards, failing to save Swiss Cottage Fields but winning her battle for Parliament Hill Fields. Later she campaigned elsewhere in the country, including the Lake District, where she encountered the Revd Hardwicke Rawnsley, co-founder of the National Trust. The Kyrle Society, founded by Miranda Hill in 1876 as a Society for the Diffusion of Beauty, but bearing the stamp of her sister's concerns and with her support, was established to bring colour into poor lives. For a short period it expanded, setting up branches in many cities, and involved people such as William Morris and Walter Crane. Although it petered out, many of its principles were embodied in the founding articles of the National Trust, twenty years later.

Octavia Hill's firm ideas on self-respect, with their echoes of Samuel Smiles's Self Help, published in 1859, led to her involvement with the Charity Organization Society (COS), a contentious body which deplored dependence fostered by kindly but unrigorous philanthropy. For the COS, support to the poor had to be carefully targeted and efficiently supervised. Later in life, however, she began to think the COS line, as kept by its committee, was over-harsh.

In 1877, after eleven years of immersion in the world of housing and social reform, Hill collapsed and for many months was forced to withdraw from her work. This episode, the gravest yet, finally demonstrated that she had to delegate many of her daily tasks to allow her to continue to manage her projects. There had been a number of causes for her collapse: the death of Jane Nassau Senior, a stalwart friend and experienced social worker who became the first woman poor-law inspector (a position Hill had been offered, but had turned down, in November 1872); her short-lived engagement to another helper, the barrister and later MP Edward Bond; and finally, an extraordinary attack on her in the pages of Fors Clavigera by John Ruskin. This sprang from her unwillingness to let him make over the housing schemes in which he held a financial stake to the shaky St George's Company. His own mental condition was such that he could exercise no control over his vindictiveness and spite: it was a tragic falling-out. After some months abroad and a prolonged rest, she returned to work. Her family found a companion, the redoubtable Harriot Yorke, who remained at her side until her death, relieving her of much of the petty detail and stress which had contributed to her breakdown. In the early 1880s they built a vernacular-style cottage at Crockham Hill, outside Edenbridge on the Sussex Weald: Larksfield became another source of rest and relaxation, although weekend visitors might find themselves handed secateurs and sent out to keep the local rights of way open. Octavia Hill's own taste in architecture had always tended to the ornamental, even the Tyrolean, as was evident in the two small terraces of half-timbered cottages which she built in Southwark in the late 1880s, Red and White Cross Cottages, both designed by Elijah Hoole.

The wider picture

In 1884 Octavia Hill's work took on a new, and more appropriate, scale. She was asked by the ecclesiastical commissioners, embarrassed to find that the church had become a slum landlord, to take on the management of certain properties, initially in Deptford and Southwark. Gradually they handed over more and more housing to her management and, in particular, a large area of housing in Walworth, south London. Before long she was consulted on the rebuilding of the estate: she argued successfully for a domestic scale (compared to the existing model industrial dwellings) and for the involvement of the tenants in the process. The dimensions of the task meant that her women housing workers were, by the 1900s, trained and salaried. In 1889 she became actively involved with the Women's University Settlement in Nelson Square, Southwark, and addressed students at Newnham College, Cambridge, on the possibilities opening up for young working women. In housing management, as the profession became known, women soon took the lead; Hill was eager that girls should work outside the home, although she always emphasized the importance of the domestic virtues as applied to all areas of life.

Having always fought against the municipal solution to the crisis in housing, late in her life Hill had to face the setting up of the London county council and the increasing involvement of local authorities in the provision of housing for the working classes. By the 1880s she had become a key figure in policy making. In 1884 Sir Charles Dilke invited her to be a member of the royal commission on housing which he was to chair but the home secretary, Sir William Harcourt, vetoed her. There was a cabinet discussion in which Gladstone supported her candidacy 'on the principle' but not 'on the person'. She would have been the first woman member of a royal commission. In the event she was a key witness. However, in 1905 she joined the royal commission for the poor law, with Charles Booth, Beatrice Webb, and George Lansbury, as well as a number of COS stalwarts, and travelled the country for three years on commission business.

Despite the transformation of nineteenth-century philanthropy into twentieth-century social service which was taking place around her, Octavia Hill remained opposed to state or municipal action for welfare. She argued against old-age pensions; as she also opposed parliamentary votes for women, largely on the grounds that women were unfit to determine matters of international policy, defence, and national budgets. She was an enthusiastic supporter of women's involvement in politics at a local, suitably ‘domestic’, level. She was visionary in her attempt to bring self-respect to those who had long since lost it, and inspired in the choices and manner of campaigning to improve the lives of the impoverished. After her death from cancer on 13 August 1912 at her home, 190 Marylebone Road, London, a memorial service was held in Southwark Cathedral and the obsequies were impressive; she was buried at Crockham Hill, Kent. Her work and example lived on in a younger generation of professional housing managers and, ironically enough, in decent quality social housing largely provided in the inter-war years by local authorities. It is also at the root of the late twentieth-century change of emphasis towards smaller-scale, more personal housing management and tenant participation. Her other successful campaigns are marked by London's remarkable range of open spaces, from Hampstead Heath (incorporating Parliament Hill) to the dozens, if not hundreds, of tiny pocket parks formed from old burial-grounds, and in many of the first properties to be taken on in perpetuity by the National Trust—an organization with a membership, just over a century later, of more than 2 million.


  • G. Darley, Octavia Hill: a life (1990)
  • G. Darley, Octavia Hill: social reformer and founder of the National Trust (2010)
  • C. E. Maurice, ed., Life of Octavia Hill (1913)
  • E. S. Maurice, ed., Octavia Hill: early ideals (1928)
  • E. M. Bell, Octavia Hill (1942)
  • O. Hill, The homes of the London poor (1875)
  • O. Hill, Our common land (1877)
  • O. Hill, Letters to fellow workers (1864–1911)
  • F. K. Prochaska, Women and philanthropy in nineteenth-century England (1980)


  • Marylebone Reference Library, London
  • Women's Library, London, letters
  • BL, letters to Sidney Cockerell, Add. MS 52722
  • BLPES, letters to Canon and Mrs Barnett
  • BLPES, Courtney MSS
  • BLPES, Passfield MSS
  • City Westm. AC, letters to Sidney Cockerell and family
  • City Westm. AC, letters to Miss Schuster
  • Hove Central Library, Sussex, letters to Lady Wolseley
  • LPL, corresp. with Davidson
  • LUL, corresp. with Booth family
  • Parl. Arch., Barnett MSS


  • Barton, pencil drawing, 1864, NPG
  • E. Clifford, pencil, 1877, Ruskin Gallery, Sheffield
  • J. S. Sargent, oils, 1898, NPG [see illus.]
  • Miss Abbott, effigy, 1928, Crockham Hill church, Kent

Wealth at Death

£20,936 2s. 11d.: resworn probate, 31 Oct 1912, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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