Octavia Hill was an English social reformer whose main concern was the welfare of the inhabitants of Britain's cities, especially London. Born on December 3rd 1838 she would become one of the 19th centuries most active philanthropists, perhaps most importantly establishing a more enlightened approach to the provision and management of housing for working people, an approach on which most modern housing associations find their model.
Octavia was the daughter of James Hill, corn merchant, banker and follower of Owenism. The family's comfortably prosperous life was disrupted by James' financial problems and his subsequent mental collapse. In 1840 he was declared bankrupt.
The family settled in a small cottage in Finchley, now a north London suburb, but then a village. Octavia Hill was impressed and moved by Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, a book that portrayed the daily lives of slum dwellers. She was also strongly influenced by the theologian, Anglican priest and social reformer F. D. Maurice, who was a family friend.
A co-operative guild providing employment for 'distressed gentlewomen' accepted Hill for training in glass-painting when she was 13. When the work of the guild was expanded to provide work in toy-making for 'ragged school children', she was invited, at the age of 14, to take charge of the workroom. She was deeply aware of the dreadful living conditions of the children in her charge at the guild.
Since the early 1830s some members of Parliament and other social reformers had been attempting to improve the condition of housing for the working poor. From Hill's point of view most attempts had failed the poorest members of the working class, the unskilled labourers. She found that their landlords routinely ignored their obligations towards their tenants, and that the tenants were too ignorant and oppressed to better themselves. She tried to find new homes for her charges, but there was a severe shortage of available property, and Hill decided that her only solution was to become a landlord herself.
In 1853 Hill began working for John Ruskin as a copyist and being impressed with her work and drive, in 1865 he acquired for £750 the leases of three cottages of six rooms each in Paradise Place, Marylebone. Ruskin placed these houses, which were "in a dreadful state of dirt and neglect", under Hill's management. He told her that investors might be attracted to such schemes if a 5% annual return could be secured. In 1866 Ruskin acquired the freehold of five more houses for Hill to manage in Freshwater Place, Marylebone. Once the houses were repaired and improved they were let to those on intermittent and low incomes. The 5% annual was achieved and any excess was invested back into the properties. In consequence of her prudent management, Hill was able to attract new backers, and by 1874 she had 15 housing schemes with around 3,000 tenants.
In 1886 Hill founded the Horace Street Trust, which became the model for many subsequent housing associations, and has since developed into the present-day Octavia Housing association.
in 1889 Hill formed the first independent Cadet Battalion in London, a concept which rapidly spread, becoming the modern Army Cadets, with around 40,000 members today. She felt strongly that the military context would socialise urban youths struggling for direction.
Another of Hill's concerns was the availability of open spaces for poor people. She campaigned against development on existing suburban woodlands and helped to save London's Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on. In 1896 she was one of the three founders of the National Trust, set up to preserve places of historic interest or natural beauty for the enjoyment of the British public.
She died on August 13th 1912 in Marylebone.
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