Monday, 3 December 2018

Octavia Hill: Redoubtable

Born 180 years ago today was Octavia Hill, one of those redoubtable Victorian ladies who, despite labouring under the iron heel of the patriarchy, somehow managed to achieve great things in their lives and leave a precious legacy behind.
  Born into a well-off and well connected family, Octavia nevertheless had a taste of something very like poverty after her father suffered a mental breakdown and went bankrupt. At the age of 14, Octavia was at work, supervising a group of Ragged School children making toys for a co-operative guild. A talented painter, she was soon copying pictures in the Dulwich and National galleries for the great John Ruskin. This connection was later to prove very useful when, having seen for herself the terrible living conditions of the toy-making girls, Octavia became determined to do something to provide decent housing for the poor. When Ruskin came into his inheritance from his father, he bought the leases of three cottages in Marylebone for Miss Hill, and these became her first experiment in what we would today call 'social housing' (though it owed nothing to state or municipality, both of which she mistrusted as encouraging irresponsible dependency). The Octavia Hill model involved oversight of every aspect of tenants' lives and zero tolerance of any dereliction, but it was very successful, Miss Hill's 'little kingdom' grew rapidly, and she became famous as a housing pioneer.
 However, she did not stop there. Her other passionate interest was in ensuring that there was ample open space for the urban poor to benefit from 'pure earth, clean air and blue sky'. Miss Hill vigorously opposed building developments on remaining open land in London, and helped to ensure that Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields, among other areas, were saved. (She was actually the first person to use the phrase 'green belt'.) Her activities in this field expanded, culminating in 1893 in the forming of the National Trust, of which she was co-founder, along with Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter.
  This earnest, tireless, unstoppably determined little woman left a legacy of which we're still feeling the benefits today – though she surely never envisaged the National Trust as a provider of nice country houses, with tea shop and gift shop, for Mr and Mrs Middle England to visit of a weekend. Her vision was a little more radical than that.
 











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