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OCTAVIA HILL OF WISBECH

OCTAVIA HILL - LIFE FORMED HER INTO A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH FOR SOCIAL REFORM, WHO WANTED THE VERY BEST FOR THOSE WHO HAD THE LEAST. SOCIAL HOUSING IN PLEASANT SURROUNDINGS; PLEASANT SURROUNDINGS AVAILABLE TO ALL, RICH OR POOR. LIFE-ENHANCING HOUSING, THE NATIONAL TRUST, THE ARMY CADETS - WHAT A TREMENDOUS LEGACY!


South Brink, Wisbech, as Octavia Hill would have known it

Octavia Hill was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, in 1838, the eighth daughter of James Hill, corn-merchant and banker, who was known locally for his good work in municipal and educational reform. He combined business endeavours with repeated forays into radical politics. James was a follower of Robert Owen; he established the town’s first newspaper, “The Star in the East”, to propagate Owens’ ideas. It was dedicated to telling “The Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth”. It attacked corruption and self-interest groups.

7,South Brink, where Octavia was born.

James built an Infant School, run by Octavia’s mother, Caroline. According to Octavia, she was the first Englishwoman to teach using the methods of Johann Pestalozzi.


The school was open in the evenings as the “hall for the people”, a community centre for adult education and recreation.


Today it is part of the Angles Theatre, staging productions for local people to take part in or enjoy as spectators.


James' political adventurism meant that when his investments went sour he was left with few financial backers, sending the family into bankruptcy, giving the young Octavia a sense of the occasional precariousness of even middle-class life

James Hill fell into depression, but his wife Caroline carried on. She moved her daughters from Cambridgeshire to Finchley (once a bucolic village north of London) and then into the capital itself. With poverty at the door, she took a job and encouraged her daughters to do likewise. From her mother, Octavia learnt those quintessential Victorian precepts of ‘workfulness’, ‘character’ and ‘self-help’.


Octavia’s first job, in 1852, was at the Ladies Guild, a crafts workshop for unskilled women and girls, promoted by Christian Socialists (including F.D.Maurice, Charles Kingsley and William Ruskin). She managed a group of young toymakers from the local Ragged School. It was an early success, one that gave her a taste of “real” London life, even while she was mixing with the intellectual elite. A decisive influence in determining her future life and work was John Ruskin, whom she first met in 1853, and who helped in her artistic training. In 1856 Octavia Hill became the secretary of classes for women at the Working Men's College in Great Ormond Street, and a few years later she and her sisters started a school at 14 Nottingham Place, Marylebone. It was while living here and visiting her poorer neighbours that she became deeply aware of the housing problems in the area and succeeded in interesting Ruskin in her schemes for improving the dwellings of the poor. She bought three houses nearby with money from John Ruskin, and each week she personally collected the rent and discussed with the tenants the problems that were facing them.

She refused to acknowledge that significant government intervention was necessary to deal with major social problems. She was of the firm opinion that government initiatives should never replace voluntary action. Her 1883 publication The Homes of the London Poor helped spread her ideas globally.


The NATIONAL TRUST emerged from her fundamental conviction that the poor deserved equal cultural and aesthetic opportunities as the rich, but that people had also to put the effort in. She helped found the National Trust in 1894, with this ideal in her heart.

During her lifetime, Octavia Hill formed the Horace Street Trust, which became a model for many subsequent housing associations and developed into the present Trust that bears her name, Octavia Housing and Care.



Today it owns several of the homes, including Gable Cottages, designed by Elijah Hoole, who worked with Octavia for many years.


The Octavia Hill Association in Philadelphia is a small real estate company that was formerly devoted to provide affordable housing to low and middle- income city residents.



From the outset, Octavia Hill tried to provide community space, a community hall, and soundly maintained attractive houses.

In 1888, on the Red Cross site in Southwark, she anticipated the fundamental ingredients of town planning by some fifteen years.

The Settlement Movement (living in poorer communities) grew directly out of Octavia Hill’s work. Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, who founded Toynbee Hall (the first university settlement) were early collaborators. Both Toynbee Hall and the Women’s University Settlement (today called the Blackfriars Settlement) continue to serve local communities.


Social Casework The Charity Organisation Society, (today’s Family Welfare Association), was established in 1869 to target charitable aid efficiently to those in most need. It became an influential national body, but Octavia Hill distanced herself from it when its methods tended to become too dogmatic. She is, however, still seen as the founder of modern social casework.



She died on 13th August 1912. Her final resting place is Holy Trinity Church in Crockham Hill, Kent, where she chose to be buried here in preference to Westminster Abbey.  In addition to her grave under the yew tree near the church steps (pictured), inside the church set next to the altar is a recumbent marble effigy of Octavia Hill.  There is also a lovely memorial window commemorating her legacy (see above).


God our redeemer,

who inspired Octavia Hill to witness to your love

and to work for the coming of your kingdom:

may we be fired by your Spirit

to proclaim the gospel in our daily living

and never to rest content until your kingdom come,

on earth as it is in heaven;

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever.

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