Who was Octavia Hill?
Octavia Hill was the eighth daughter of James Hill, a Wisbech corn merchant, banker and brewer, but also an eager adherent of Robert Owen’s utopian socialism — a heady brew of radicalism and communal activism that flourished in the 1820s and 1830s. Octavia’s mother was Caroline Southwood Smith Hill, a teacher and writer. Her evident independence of mind, in promoting an education that relied on the child’s activity, powers of observation and self-motivation, had been the quality that caught Hill’s attention. Caroline’s own father was Dr Thomas Southwood Smith, the eminent public health reformer.
James Hill’s revolutionary social and political views, at a time of wide economic downturn, proved catastrophic for the family’s fortunes. He over-zealously promoted Owenite ideas through practical action and in print, and by 1840 he was bankrupt and on the verge of a mental breakdown.
When Octavia was only five years old, James Hill disappeared almost entirely from her life and his family. The shadow of this tragedy (her father lived another 30 years) gave Octavia the first of the several cast iron rules by which she lived and worked: idealism without pragmatic underpinning was little use. Practical help and charitable endeavours must be carefully targeted, hence her support, later, for the Charity Organisation Society.
Yet, as if to set the record straight, throughout her childhood Octavia had two inspiring exemplars. Caroline Hill, though now a lone mother with small children, retained her extraordinary resilience and independence, while Dr Southwood Smith, brought up short by the horror of the living conditions of the urban poor he encountered as a doctor in East London, became a tireless reformer.
The experience of being fatherless from early childhood gave Octavia Hill an exalted regard for the importance of the family. In the home the standards for society were set, examples given and morality developed. A microcosm of the wider world, it provided a template for the satisfactory conduct of life and a domestic ideal became the central tenet of Octavia’s housing reform.
Teaching was the most respectable work available for women and girls in reduced circumstances. Queen’s College, Harley Street, founded (in 1848) by the Christian Socialist theologian Frederick Denison Maurice, offered certification to women teachers while university education still remained behind closed doors. It was through Maurice that Octavia found her first employment, caring for the toy-making children of the Christian Socialist Ladies’ Guild. In 1855 John Ruskin, the art critic, offered her a job as a copyist. The ten years over which Ruskin employed Octavia gave him a growing respect for her determination and aptitude for social reform.
Now living in London, the various strands of Octavia’s life, and the influences on her, came together. She wrote of people for whom ‘the room is always full’ and asked her readers to ‘think of the ceaseless echo, the shout, the scream, the bustle in the narrow court’, evoking the experience of the poorest Londoners, trapped in foul, rancorous ‘rookeries’.
When Octavia began to visit absentee children from the Ladies Guild she saw for herself the shocking conditions in which they lived. She recognised that decent living conditions, education and work, with access to open space and beauty, were essentials, bringing self-esteem to any and every life. The fundamental links between these requirements, each one contributing to the wellbeing of her tenants came to be at the heart of Octavia’s work.
With Ruskin’s financial support, Octavia was able to take on the lease of slum housing in Paradise Place, Marylebone, in 1865. Whitewash, access to clean water, unbroken windows and prompt payment of rent were her first requirements in good housing management. Octavia Hill’s life-long mission had begun.
This extract is taken from ‘Octavia Hill’ by Gillian Darley, the first chapter in the Demos collection The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill.