Hill, Octavia (1838–1912)

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Hill, Octavia (1838–1912)

British reformer and social worker who pioneered in housing for the poor and helped found the Commons Preservation Society, a precursor of the National Trust. Name variations: (nickname) Ockey. Born Octavia Hill on December 3, 1838, at Wisbech near Peterborough, England; died on August 13, 1912, in London, England; third daughter of James Hill (a banker and corn merchant) and Caroline Southwood (Smith) Hill (a teacher); given no formal education; never married; no children.

Potato famine in Ireland and massive influx of refugees to England (1846); Crimean War (1854–56); Indian Mutiny (1857); introduction of compulsory elementary education in England (1880); Boer War (1899–1902); death of Queen Victoria and accession of Edward VII (1901); outbreak of First World War (1914).

Selected writings:

Letters to my Fellow-Workers (1864–1911); The Importance of Aiding the Poor without Almsgiving (1872); Homes of the London Poor (1875); Our Common Land and other Short Essays (1877); contributed various articles to The Nineteenth Century (1883–99).

Octavia Hill was born on December 3, 1838, at Wisbech, a small village located near the then thriving market town of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England. Her father James Hill, descended from a long and successful line of country bankers, was an able businessman who consistently impressed his colleagues with his enthusiasm for hard work. Unfortunately, his talents were not enough to prevent him from losing the family bank in the great financial crisis of 1825. James then turned his hand to a variety of business ventures but, in the ongoing climate of economic uncertainty, met with only sporadic success. Despite this, he consistently maintained an active and vigorous interest in a wide assortment of social, cultural, and political issues, such as local government reform, public works, the theater and journalism. Moreover, James sustained a deep concern with the question of children's education and was responsible (during one of his periods of fiscal solvency) for erecting one of the first infants' schools in England.

In 1832, James' first wife died leaving him a widower to raise six young children. Shortly thereafter, he met Caroline Southwood Smith whom he hired as the children's governess. Caroline had already established a modest reputation as author of a number of short articles on the principles of children's education. Like James, she was deeply religious and shared many of his social interests and concerns. James and Caroline married in 1835 and, over the course of the next few years, became the parents of five daughters. Octavia was their third.

As a result of the severe economic depression which swept England in 1840, James eventually became completely bankrupt. This development created severe strains on the entire family; James' children from his previous marriage were sent to live with their maternal grandparents while his new wife and daughters were forced to give up their home and seek cheaper lodgings. To make matters worse, James' health began to break down. By 1843, he was no longer physically capable of financially supporting Caroline and the children.

Fortunately at this juncture, Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, Caroline's father, stepped in and assumed full responsibility for the family by settling them at Finchley then just outside London. Thomas Smith was a well-known public figure, who had gained renown for his work to improve factory conditions and for his connection with the campaign to regulate the employment of children in industry. Later, he fought to bring about wide-ranging sanitary reforms, and his report on this issue formed the principal basis of the first Public Health Act published in Britain in 1848.

Although the Hill children received no formal education, they contrived, with Caroline's assistance, to embrace the rudiments of a range of scholarly subjects. By the age of five, Octavia could read and write fluently and, shortly afterward, was assisting her grandfather by preparing copies of his reports and correspondence on sanitary reform. This early exposure to social questions soon filled her with a deep and genuine sympathy for the plight of working people and their families. She would maintain this concern and compassion for the rest of her life.

In 1851, Caroline was appointed manager of the Ladies Co-operative Guild (an association dedicated to finding employment for, what was termed, "distressed gentlewomen"), and the family moved to a new home in central London. The force behind this enterprise was a man named Vansittart Neale, a leading Christian Socialist. In mid-19th-century England, Christian Socialism was a significant socio-political movement which sought to combine Biblical precepts with, what can now be regarded as, rather mild proposals for socialist reform.

The extreme poverty and misery that stalked the streets of central London came as a great shock to the 13-year-old Octavia. In response, she threw herself into a determined study of the texts published by the Christian Socialist movement in an attempt to understand the origins and causes of this situation. Hill also began to attend some of the movement's many public lectures, and it was at one of these events that she first met Frederick Denison Maurice. Maurice subsequently exerted an important influence on Hill by acting as a kind of intellectual mentor and interpreting, what she later described as, "much that was dark and puzzling in life."

It was Neale, however, who first engaged Hill in practical work among the poor. Not long after they met, he asked her to assume charge of a new toy manufacturing enterprise that he had organized to provide employment for destitute children. Octavia rapidly established herself as an efficient and enthusiastic supervisor in the

day-to-day running of the business. More important, she endeavored to initiate a number of wider beneficial changes in the lives of the 11 children in her charge. She organized regular, nutritious meals, took them on trips to the countryside, and visited each child's home in order to better understand the reality of their social and economic circumstances. It was this latter activity, in particular, which fully revealed to her the extent of the poverty then existing among the working class.

It is on defeats that victories are built.

—Octavia Hill

This enterprise did not prosper for long. By March 1856, it had begun to suffer severe financial difficulties. Though Hill struggled to keep it open for another 15 months, she was forced to supplement her income through other means. Fortunately, her friend Maurice was able to offer her a part-time position as secretary at the Working Men's College, a small educational institute he had recently established. Despite her lack of formal education, Hill was soon given the added responsibility of teaching classes at the institute in basic arithmetic and art (a subject in which she had a lifelong interest). These duties allowed her not only to provide for the immediate needs of her family but, moreover, to satisfy her father's many creditors. Not surprisingly, this considerable responsibility placed an increasingly severe strain on Hill. In April 1857, her health broke down, and it was several months before she fully recovered.

Late in 1862, Octavia and her sisters opened a small school in their new home in Nottingham Place, London. Initially, the school accommodated 14 female pupils who were aged between 12 and 18. None of the co-founders seem to have been particularly concerned about establishing and maintaining a high level of academic excellence. Rather, in Hill's words, their principal aim was to instruct the pupils in "habits of neatness, punctuality, self-reliance and such practical power and forethought as will make them useful in their homes." In this, Hill and her sisters were successful. By 1865, the school was flourishing thanks to the reputation it had established as a training ground for "womanly virtues."

Despite this achievement, Octavia's interests were beginning to turn in new directions. Many of the pupils at Nottingham Place came from poor families, and she was shocked at the miserable conditions of the housing in which they lived. Much of this problem stemmed from landlords who were only interested in receiving their rents on time and who were completely indifferent to the circumstances of their tenants. The tenants responded by making no effort to keep their dwellings in a fit and habitable state. In this situation, it occurred to Hill to become a landlord herself and to institute and encourage new principles of responsibility among her tenants. The most immediate obstacle in the face of this scheme was a lack of money. Fortunately, her friend, the famous art critic John Ruskin, was able to subsidize her project.

In 1865 and 1866, Ruskin purchased a number of properties and turned them over to Hill's direction. The first of these, a row of three houses in the misnamed street of Paradise Place, was typical of further purchases. Each house had six rooms and each room was inhabited by one family. They were in a dreadful condition: the roofs leaked, there was no plaster on the walls, they had no running water, and they lacked any decent sanitary arrangements. Hill immediately set about repairing and cleaning these dwellings, a task she had to repeat many times thanks to the initially hostile reaction of her frequently unemployed and habitually drunk tenants.

From the beginning, she made it quite clear that she was not engaged in an act of charity. Charity, in her opinion, only served to render the poor even more dependent by relying on the goodwill of others. Rather, Hill set out to nurture what she called, the "spiritual growth" of the poor, so that they would eventually come to take responsibility for their own circumstances and a pride in their own achievements. To this end, she insisted on prompt payment of rent (she had no compunction about evicting those who were late) and would only carry out more substantial repairs on condition that wanton damage to the property by the tenants ceased. She insisted on a "perfect strictness" between herself and her tenants that was tempered by a "perfect respectfulness" in their reciprocal duties. Once this was established, however, Hill introduced further improvements that were far in advance of anything offered by any other landlord of the time. She organized an informal bank that encouraged her tenants to save, did what she could to find work for the unemployed, initiated sewing and dressmaking classes (with the help of the pupils from Nottingham Place), and even established a garden and playground to encourage healthy exercise.

Once again, the strain of overwork took its toll on her health, and in October 1867 she left for an extended convalescence in Italy. When she returned 18 months later, Hill was immediately struck by the visible increase in poverty that had been caused by the latest economic slump. The social conditions of the working class were now worse than ever, and she was invited to join the recently formed London Association for the Prevention of Pauperization and Crime (more popularly known as the Charity Organization Society, or COS). Hill's work in Paradise Place was widely admired, and she was asked to take over the management of several properties which the COS had acquired in the London borough of Marylebone. Again in the face of considerable hostility from the sitting tenants (this time because of her policy of withholding free meals and monetary assistance from the incurably indigent), she set about restoring each individual's sense of dignity and self-reliance.

Thanks to many generous donations to the COS, Octavia was allowed to gradually expand her work throughout Marylebone and the surrounding boroughs. At the same time, she initiated a program to train other women in the principles of house management and social work which she had developed. Many of these principles, along with accounts of her current activities and progress of the properties being managed (not to mention frank confessions of her fears and anxieties), were contained in Letters to my Fellow-Workers, an annual report prepared by Hill and first published in 1871. Though she was not without her detractors, these Letters had a significant impact on public opinion and largely facilitated a further extension of her work to the slums of other major English cities (such as Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester). They even received notice in parts of Germany and North America.

While Hill's principal interest in these years was centered firmly on the question of housing for the poor, she did not neglect her other main concern, the provision of open spaces. She was elected to the executive committee of the Commons Preservation Society (founded in 1865) which was established to safeguard open lands from industrial and commercial development. In a pamphlet written in 1875, Hill described the aims of the society which was to maintain "places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and space and place to spend a day in." She worked hard to secure public support for these aims and was happy when she and her co-workers were able to extend their work throughout the United Kingdom. The Commons Preservation Society later formed the basis of the National Trust which continues to seek to preserve the countryside and historic buildings for public enjoyment.

Although she never married, Hill did become briefly engaged in July 1877 to Edward Bond, one of her co-workers in the COS. Bond's mother, however, apparently objected to the proposed union, and in these circumstances Octavia herself called off the engagement. This experience had a negative impact on her health, and, shortly afterwards, her doctor recommended that she take a complete rest. In January 1878, Hill set out for a tour of the Continent with her close friend Harriot Yorke . The two companions traveled extensively throughout Europe and only finally returned home in the summer of 1880.

Hill was now widely recognized as one of the country's leading authorities on the housing question. At the end of 1884, the Church of England's Ecclesiastical Commissioners placed a large number of properties under her guidance. These properties, in the London suburbs of Deptford and Southwark, were extremely rundown and were populated by unruly and difficult tenants. Though this was a time of high unemployment and wages were depressed, Hill, as before, rejected the idea of giving charity and sought instead to foster individual well-being and spiritual growth. Her new tenants (particularly in Deptford) were, however, reluctant to adopt her principles and standards. Sensing this change in attitude, Hill wrote that, "the temper of the poor is difficult, the old submissive patience is passing away, and no sense of duty has taken its place." Indeed, she found her experiences in Deptford to be the most difficult and challenging of her entire career. She had more success in Southwark where, in 1888, she managed to open a community center complete with classrooms, entertainment facilities, a library, and a cadet corps for the children.

The last phase of her life was devoted to developing and extending her previous work. She was overwhelmed by volunteers (some of whom came from as far afield as Holland and Sweden) who came to her wishing to learn the principles of house management. Many were turned away, however, as Hill had a strict policy of limiting her trainees to those women that she felt could be trusted to follow her principles to the letter. She had no place for enthusiasts who believed in trying out their own methods of administration. Nevertheless, in response to the repeated calls of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to take on ever more properties on their behalf, Octavia was forced to gradually expand and enlarge her training program.

By the turn of the century, the type of work pioneered by Hill was beginning to become redundant. More and more local government authorities (especially in the large cities) were taking it upon themselves to build houses for the working class. Octavia was deeply disappointed by this development which she believed undermined the proper relation between landlord and tenant and thwarted any possibility for tenants to attain a position of self-sufficiency and independence. Subsidized housing, of the type proposed by the local authorities, was, in her opinion, little more than disguised charity. It was outside their realm of competence which should properly be confined to providing such things as proper sanitation.

In 1905, Hill was appointed to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law which was established by the British government to investigate reforms to the subsidies then currently paid to the poor. As a member of the commission, she was required to travel around the country collecting evidence from a large number of witnesses. Octavia, then aged 67, found this a tiring and onerous task, but she persevered in what she believed was work of national importance. Shortly after the commission reported early in 1908, she became seriously ill and did not recover for several months. Her last public intervention came in July 1910 in a letter to the London Times. There she argued that the tactics of the suffragists (the women's movement demanding the right to vote) was a danger to democracy. Rather, women should recognize that they have "different powers and qualities" from men and that these powers should be used by women in those areas of society (such as house management) where they are most effective.

Around Easter 1912, Hill discovered that the breathlessness from which she had been suffering for some time was due to an incurable lung condition. She then calmly settled her own affairs and ensured that the management of the houses currently in her charge were placed in the hands of trusted colleagues. A few months later, on August 12, she died at home in London. In recognition of her public service, the government offered a funeral at Westminster Abbey, but her family declined the honor. Instead, she was buried at Crockham Hill, a small village outside London where she had spent many happy hours and which had given her, in her own words, "such a delicious sense of space."


Bell, C. Moberly. Octavia Hill. London: Constable, 1942.

Boyd, Nancy. Three Victorian Women Who Changed their World. NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Hill, Octavia. Extracts from Octavia Hill's Letters to Fellow-Workers, 1864–1911. Edited by Elinor Southwood Ouvry. London: The Adelphi Bookshop, 1933.

——. Homes of the London Poor. London: Macmillan, 1875.

——. Life of Octavia Hill as Told in Her Letters. Edited by C. Edmund Maurice. London: Macmillan, 1913.

——. Octavia Hill: Early Ideals. Edited by Emily S. Maurice. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1928.

Hill, William Thomson. Octavia Hill: Pioneer of the National Trust and Housing Reformer. London: Hutchinson, 1956.

suggested reading:

Gauldie, Enid. Cruel Habitations: A History of Working-Class Housing, 1780–1918. London: Allen & Unwin, 1974.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. London: Griffin, Bohn, 1861.

Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

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Hill, Octavia (1838–1912)

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