Octavia Hill was fiercely anti-theoretical in her approach to helping those whom she called ‘her friends amongst the poor’. That is not to suggest that she was not ideological. Driving her work was an abiding belief in the moral, social and spiritual values of ‘home’. And all her schemes — whether finding employment for her male tenants, supervising their wives’ sewing classes, rescuing small green spaces in London or arranging outings to blustery country landscapes — were driven by this need to save and, where that moment had already gone, repair the values of family life.
While at certain points in post-war Britain such an initiative might have seemed quaint, and indeed politically and morally suspect, it is interesting to note that Octavia Hill’s approach now seems more relevant than ever. In December 2011, four months after the rioting which tore through areas of London and other British cities, Prime Minister David Cameron announced an initiative to introduce a cohort of ‘case workers’ whose job it is to intervene in the lives of ‘chaotic families’. Those terrifying 48 hours of hand-to-hand fighting and looting had their roots, according to Cameron, in the muddled home lives of the perpetrators.
Octavia Hill was a miniaturist, committed to working on a small scale and a believer, above all, in the power of personal intervention in preference to large-scale bureaucratic arrangements. Her work in improving the homes of the London working class did not involve initiating new building work along the lines adopted by the Peabody or Guinness trusts. Instead, she took over existing dwellings and turned them into something better.
Her first project, Paradise Place in Marylebone, showed how this worked. In 1865 her friend and mentor John Ruskin bought a terrace of artisans’ cottages that the previous landlord had run as a slum. Families had been packed into accommodation that was far too small, and the results had been insanitary and depressing. During her visits to these tenants, Octavia Hill met women who were far beyond being able to help themselves; she embarked on a programme of what we might now call ‘mentoring’ designed to restore their confidence in their ability to take care of their lives and homes. Under the new regime, each family would be given sufficient room, and the premises as a whole were transformed through a vigorous programme of cleaning, ventilation and repairs.
In return, however, Octavia Hill insisted that her tenants organise their domestic life according to a strict template. Bad tenants — drunk or noisy — were turned out, and rent arrears were not tolerated. Once a week either Octavia Hill or one of her associates, or ‘lady volunteers’, called to collect the rent and check on the state of the premises and the occupying family. If there appeared to be a problem — an elderly parent, a neglected child — Octavia Hill and her ladies could intervene, much as a professional social worker might do today.
Since the tenants were mostly unskilled labourers they were often out of work. In these cases Octavia Hill found them employment in and around the buildings. In time, and as the number of buildings under her care multiplied, Octavia Hill arranged sewing and singing classes and Saturday gatherings. In the summer she organised trips to the countryside. By this simple act, Octavia Hill forged a crucial link between what would become the two main foci of her reforming life: the well-run home and the preserved wilderness.
This extract is taken from 'Octavia Hill and the values of the home', the seventh chapter in the Demos collection The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill.