Life of Octavia Hill, edited by C. Edmund MauriceThe theory is that if you are a pregnant woman, there seem to be nothing but other pregnant women in the street: your heightened awareness of your own condition makes you more aware of other people in a similar state.  Or you come across a reference to a place you’ve never heard of before – say, Heinola in Finland – and the next morning it gets mentioned on the Today programme, and the person next to you in the coffee queue actually went there on holiday last year. Working on CLC produces this effect in spades.

In the last few days I’ve read a review in the TLS which refers to the travel writing of Maria Graham (Lady Callcott), who we’ve already reissued, and James Baillie Fraser, who will be coming up later in the year; in the LRB there’s a long review of a new book about Houdini (the anniversary of whose birth was noted by Google on 24 March, which led us to a website we didn’t know about, but which (gratifyingly) knew about us). On 11 April, both Sir Joseph Banks (!!) and Mr Samuel Holmes got mentioned in Material World on Radio 4. And on 7 April, the subject of In Our Time on Radio 4 was Octavia Hill.

If Octavia Hill is remembered today, it is mostly as one of the Victorian trinity who founded the National Trust. But she deserves to be celebrated for much more than this, as a visit to the splendid Octavia Hill Birthplace in Wisbech makes clear. (2012 is the centenary of her death, and the Birthplace Trust has many exciting plans both to commemorate her and to perpetuate her legacy.)

Octavia (Ockey to her family) was born in 1838, one of nine children – her mother Caroline was the third wife of James Hill, an ‘Owenite socialist Utopian’ whose business went bankrupt in 1840. James apparently dropped out of the family after this, but Caroline was made of sterner stuff (she was a teacher and published author on educational matters before her marriage) and raised her children to be likewise. When she was made manager of the workshop of the philanthropic Ladies’ Guild, which provided work for the children of the poor in toy-making and other crafts (and also provided the only meal they might get in the day), she used the fourteen-year-old Octavia as her assistant/secretary/factotum.

Soon after this, Octavia met Ruskin and F.D. Maurice, and her path in life – to do active, practical, hands-on and if necessary dirty work to help the poor – was set. It is startling to read of Ockey, in her early teens, kneeling by her bed at night ‘praying for Poland’, and saddening to think of the burden of responsibility she took upon herself in caring for the children of the workshop – some of them older than herself – teaching them, taking them for walks in the country on Sundays, scrubbing the workshop floor. Two of her sisters, also involved in the work, had to drop out because of ill-health, ‘which threw more of the burden upon Octavia’. The Ladies’ Guild failed – not because of any lack of effort on the Hill family’s part but because of a (with hindsight) ludicrous doctrinal wrangle among the Ladies when Maurice, that firebrand revolutionary, offer to teach a Bible class.

Maurice gave Octavia a job in the Working Men’s College, where Ruskin lectured; she also earned money as a copyist of artworks for Ruskin’s books. She assisted in the pressure campaign organized by Barbara Bodichon for a married women’s property act, and during this time she made plans of her own for a scheme to provide better housing for the poor than the appalling, insanitary and crowded slums that her young workers at the Guild called home.

In 1864, Ruskin inherited the considerable wealth of his father, and decided to invest some of it in Octavia’s plan – to buy properties, clean, repair and modernise them (especially the drainage) and rent them to families – one family to two rooms rather than three or more families to one room. She was ruthless about collecting rent and demanding high standards of cleanliness, as she believed that the poor could best be helped by giving them responsibility, from which came self-respect, rather than just doling out money to salve the middle-class conscience. She (with much soul-searching) evicted tenants who did not live up to her expectations – and she knew when they didn’t, because she herself, or one of her lady helpers (prominent among whom was her friend Emma Cons – stained-glass artist, temperance and suffrage campaigner, and transformer of the seedy Old Vic theatre into the Royal Victoria Coffee Music Hall), visited every home weekly to collect the rent and inspect the premises. And it worked – Ruskin got the 5% return he had required from his investment, and any surplus after that was returned to the community, and invested (under Hill’s guidance) for its benefit: a playground, or classes for children and adults.

Ruskin, and others, invested more, the numbers of properties in the scheme grew, and Octavia began to consider the wider issues of living conditions for the poor. They needed open spaces, clean air, places for recreation and exercise, and the opportunity to experience beauty, both in nature and in art. She began by campaigning against the development of open spaces in London: Swiss Cottage Fields vanished under brick – the £50-odd she raised was not enough to buy the land – but Parliament Hill Fields were saved. Though the Commons Preservation Society, of which she was treasurer, she met Robert Hunter, its legal adviser, and, through the Ruskinian connection, the Revd Hardwicke Rawnsley, who from his parish of Wray near Hawkshead was instrumental in restricting industrial development in the Lake District. These three founded the National Trust as the effective successor of the Commons Preservation Society in 1893, and meanwhile Octavia’s own projects continued – the Kyrle Society, a ‘Society for the Diffusion of Beauty’ founded with her sister Miranda in 1876; the reform of slum properties owned by the Church of England in Deptford, Southwark and Walworth (on which see Tenants Friends in Old Deptford, by one of her lady inspectors, to be reissued later this year); campaigning for the creation of small parks (such as Postman’s Park, perhaps one of the oddest open spaces in London) from former London churchyards and graveyards; lecturing to those scary individuals, the Cambridge female students, and encouraging them to use their education to improve the lot of the poor; being secretary or treasurer of numerous philanthropic societies; writing letters, pamphlets and books. (It is not surprising that she had several serious health breakdowns in the course of her career, the most severe of which was precipitated in part by a nightmare disavowal of her by Ruskin (himself by now mentally unstable), which he made public in vol. VIII of Fors Clavigera in 1878.)

Her two most important books – Homes of the London Poor (1875) and Our Common Land (1877) – consist of essays which distil both her ‘method’ and her life’s experience: essay titles include ‘The Work of Volunteers in the Organisation of Charity’, ‘Space for the People’ and ‘A Word on Good Citizenship’. So we should remember Octavia Hill not only when we visit a National Trust property, or a National Park, or any part of the British coastline, but also when we hear about the work of a small local charity, such as the one the Press is supporting this year, and especially when we hear a politician talking about the ‘Big Society’. Octavia Hill exemplified the Big Society in action 150 years before the catch-phase was invented.


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