Octavia Hill (1838–1912) founds English National Trust

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Octavia Hill (1838–1912) founds English National Trust


By: Augustin Rischgitz

Date: 1892

Source: Rischgitz, Augustin. "Octavia Hill (1838–1912) founds English National Trust." Getty Images, 1892.

About the Photographer: A collection of Augustin Rischgitz's photography is located in the Hulton Archive at Getty Images. Getty is one of the leading global providers of visual content materials to such communications groups as advertisers, broadcasters, designers, magazines, new media organizations, newspapers, and producers.


Social reformer and housing renovation activist Octavia Hill (1838–1912) was influenced to improve living conditions of the English urban poor by her family upbringing and her belief in Christian Socialism (a movement dedicated to theological thoughts and Christian service within politics). Hill began working in London in 1852 at the Ladies' Guild, where she taught poor school children how to make toys. In this position, Hill saw firsthand the dreadful conditions in which these children lived. In 1856, Hill became a secretary at the Working Men's College and, along with her sisters, started a school in a poor section of the city several years later. While at these two jobs, Hill realized the need to reduce the housing problems of the very poor. Often financed by art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), Hill frequently purchased small blocks of rundown properties in order to make sure the apartments were suitable to live in and to help the poor living within them.

Later, with additional financial backing, Hill built two housing developments in London. Upon the success of these two projects, Hill built many more housing developments, most with funding from wealthy individuals. At the zenith of her work, she was managing around 6,000 dwellings—always insisting that each building provide simple lodging with outside access to open space and requiring that her tenants promptly pay their rent and maintain clean properties.

Hill became a crusading pioneer when she started in 1864 a movement for housing reform and improvement for the poor. Building upon the success of her housing activities, Hill expanded her reach when she began to protect open spaces for the enjoyment of the public. She became a leader in the English open-space movement in the middle part of the nineteenth century—becoming a member of committees and commissions that dealt with housing, and aggressively promoting her ideals. Due to her successful reputation in reforming housing projects, Hill was often appointed to manage housing property for other organizations.

Hill dedicated her life to social causes, constantly supervising the careful construction and proper management of buildings and the use and preservation of parks and open spaces. Her successful management methods for housing projects were used in England, Ireland, on the continent of Europe, and in the United States. Hill also was involved in charitable activities such as the Charity Organization Society and the Kyrle Society.

One of Hill's most noteworthy accomplishments was as one of the three founders in 1895 of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, now commonly shortened to the National Trust or NT.

Twenty years earlier, in 1875, Hill visited the Commons Preservation Society where she met Robert Hunter (1844–1913). They realized that they had similar beliefs in improving living conditions for the poor and preserving open spaces. Worried about negative impacts to the environment and degradations of society in general, Hill and Hunter, along with Hardwicke Rawnsley (1851–1920), began to discuss what could be done to protect threatened land and historic buildings throughout England.

In the early part of 1884, Robert Hunter sent off a letter in which he proposed establishing a land company with a purpose of protecting open spaces for the public interest. Hill wrote back, suggesting The Commons and Gardens Trust as the name for the company. Hunter supposedly penciled in at the top of the letter the two words: National Trust.

The nongovernmental, nonprofit National Trust was founded at the London home (Grosvenor House) of the Duke of Westminster on January 12, 1895. The first acquisitions by the National Trust were of the 4.5 acres (1.8 hectares) of Dinas Oleu in 1895, a part of the Welsh cliffs overlooking Cardigan Bay, and the Clergy House in 1896, a fourteenth-century timber-framed house located at Alfriston in East Sussex.



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Many social and environmental problems occurred in England during the Industrial Revolution that began in the late eighteenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century, three major problems had already appeared: the destruction of areas of natural beauty by encroaching urban development; the deterioration of living conditions in large cities due to massive numbers of people moving from rural areas looking for jobs; and the development of previously undeveloped land in urban areas and surrounding rural areas to alleviate food shortages and the lack of housing facilities.

With the inspiration and tireless work of Hill, along with others with whom she worked throughout her life, the people of England today possess many historic buildings, open spaces, and areas of natural beauty that would have undoubtedly succumbed to the urbanization of England through the almost uncontrolled technological progress of the Industrial Revolution. The significant work of Hill in the area of housing reform also became a model for improving private housing construction and management projects, along with influencing the way that the English government made major reforms in housing, conservation, and urban development.

When Hill died in 1912, the amount of property acquired by the National Trust had exceeded the modest expectations of its three founders. Due to the success of Hill at creating and developing the National Trust and her other important endeavors at conserving natural resources, reforming urban housing, and curing society's ills, many conservationists in the United States and other countries based their own actions on the management methods used by Hill.

Because of the early work of Hill and other founding members of the National Trust, the organization, today, not only preserves properties of historic interest and natural beauty, but is also granted by parliamentary procedure the ability to declare land inalienable; that is, incapable of being sold, mortgaged, or purchased against the wishes of the Trust. Such power by the National Trust gives most of its properties a protection in perpetuity so their future protection is secure. In effect, the National Trust acts as the guardian of Great Britain—preserving its history, conserving its natural resources, and providing for the benefit of its people.

Over one hundred years after the National Trust was first established by Hill, Robert Hunter, and Hardwicke Rawnsley, it protects over 600,000 acres (242,820 hectares) of countryside in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales; nearly 600 miles (965 kilometers) of coastline; and over 200 historic buildings and gardens. Other countries have established similar national trusts.

Because Hill worried about the detrimental effects on society due to uncontrolled industrialization from England's businesses, the National Trust today is able to emphasize the importance of history, valuing historic places not just for their own sake but for the opportunities they provide in supporting education, promoting health and well-being, stimulating creativity and innovation, and involving people and communities. The National Trust has become one of the largest environmental preservation organizations in the world and the largest private society in England devoted to heritage preservation. As the country's largest private landowner, the National Trust protects gardens, villages and hamlets, farms and woodlands, islands, archaeological remains and antiquities, nature reserves, fens, moorlands, windmills and watermills, nature reserves, and important objects of England's industrial past.



Newby, Howard, ed. The National Trust: The Next Hundred Years. London: National Trust, 1995.

Web sites

Fitzgerald, Penelope. "Earth Mother: Octavia Hill, Queen of Open Spaces." New York Times Magazine, 1999. 〈http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/millennium/m1/fitzgerald.html〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

The National Trust. 〈http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

The Octavia Hill Birthplace Museum. 〈http://www.octaviahillmuseum.org〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).