Octavia Hill

1838 – 1912

Simon Kershaw tells the story of the English pioneer in housing reform, Octavia Hill, another local person with links in this diocese.

Octavia Hill was born in Wisbech in 1838 - a few years before the death of that other Wisbech notable, the anti-slave campaigner Thomas Clarkson.

A family friend, F D Maurice, who later became Professor of Moral Theology at Cambridge, had a strong influence on her early life. He ‘showed me a life in the Creeds, the services and the Bible’ and ‘interpreted for me much that was dark and puzzling in life,’ she wrote.

The artist John Ruskin suggested she might enter a religious community, but she declined and instead he asked her to manage some derelict houses. Appalled at the conditions in which the people lived, she determined to improve the properties.

Working with families, befriending them, and seeing them as individuals, Octavia Hill gradually encouraged them to help maintain their homes and pay their rents; by doing so she gained their respect. She changed the method of housing management, helping tenants to budget and providing playgrounds for the children, so they could play and dance in the open.

She had scant faith in government policy for the poor. She believed getting involved at grassroots level was the only way to raise housing standards.

In 1884, her vision was recognised by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who turned to her to manage and reform their slum properties in South London, notorious for poverty, alcohol abuse, petty crime and prostitution. She turned these estates into model properties, which still paid a return on investment. These estates have been in the news recently as the Church Commissioners have decided to turn them largely over to commercial rents.

Pursuing her goal of providing better living conditions for people, Octavia Hill also campaigned for the preservation of public open space, and she was one of the three founders of the National Trust, and was influential in the creation of Green Belts around built-up areas.

Despite her growing fame, she lived a life of faith and of personal humility. Rejecting any suggestion of a funeral in Westminster Abbey, she continued her work until her death in 1912.

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Octavia Hill. Portrait by Barton, National Portrait Gallery

Octavia Hill Museum which commemorates Octavia Hill’s life and work