One hundred years ago on the 13th August 1912 Octavia Hill one of the most influential women of her generation died. Scorned by the liberal left which is probably the reason the Guardian or the BBC will not be recording this century of her death.
In her life she was a founder member in the formation of the National Trust, started the concept of London’s Green Belt, pioneered female activism and was the first to see the benefits of refurbishing Victorian slums to provide social housing for rent.
[M]any of her beliefs have fallen from favour; although never marrying herself she believed that a woman’s primary duty was with her family and a woman’s role should not encroach the nale sphere – this meant she did not speak publicly and performed much of her philanthropy ‘behind the scenes’.
In 1864 with a loan from John Ruskin she redevelopeda handful of run sown properties in Marlebone Place renting thrm to the poor at low rates.
So successful was this and other subsequent projects the Ecclesiastical Commission asked her to take over the management of a few properties in Southwark, which she did on the condition she could acquire a plot of land to turn into a garden dor local people.
This ‘Red Cross’ garden soon became a village in south London providing open-air festivals, a flower show, indoor entertainment, education and a library club.
More redevelopments followed in Lambeth and Walworth.
Tenants had to pay their rent on time or be evicted, this she argued fostered responsibility and respect for work turning the tenants into good citizens. To ensure they didn’t lose their home Octavia Hill organised employment opportunities.
Recognising her expertise the government of the day appointed her to the Roal Commission on the Poor Law.
In a refreshing change to today’s attitudes she became a founder member of the Charity Organisation Society which aimed to promote a rational approach to giving by distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving poor, and by stressing the significance of individual responsibility. Charity was to be a vehicle for encouraging self-help which would be given to the deserving poor only. For example, the COS would not endorse just giving out money but would give a sewing machine to enable someone to earn a living. Octavia stridently opposed relief to the able-bodied; she argued that giving money in this way would be of no long term benefit and, worse, would discourage the habit of thrift and saving for a ‘rainy day’. The poor needed to be taught self-control and foresight, not come to rely on handouts.
Octavia’s vision and work helped to open up a professional role for women at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuies. She recruited middle-class women as volunteer rent collectors, although they had a much wider role than that title suggests. Octavia trained them to assess the way tenants were living and to inspect their homes; in addition to this rent collecters were expected to set an example, these women were in effect prototype social workers who, through the act of rent collecting, gained access to the lives of the poor whom they met twice a week.
Although Octavia Hill was overweight and didn’t suffer fools gladly she was a pioneer of ‘cultural philanthropy’ and was convinced that exposure to art and beauty could improve the life of the poor. She founded the Kyrle Society in 1875 which planted trees and flowers in urban areas and promoted aesthetics in the decoration and building of houses. This led to the formation of the Green Belt after the Second World War.
Octavia Hill argued strongly against government involvement in rectifying social problems: she resisted any participation of the State in providing welfare services and objected to council housing, school dinners and free health care.
But probably her biggest achievement was the National Trust which in addition to saving 350 houses from the Nation has preserved woodland and open spaces and over recent years acquired 720 miles of coastline protecting it from development.