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For houses and green space

10 August 2010

by Adrian Leak

Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was the ninth child of a wealthy East Anglian corn merchant, whose bankruptcy and mental breakdown cast a deep shadow over her childhood. Educated at home by her mother and imbued from an early age with the progressive principles of her grandfather, Southwood Smith, the social campaigner, she devoted her life to the urban poor, and in particular to housing reform. The Church commemorates her on 13 August, the date of her death.

Octavia Hill was described by some as a kindly soul, but those who worked with her saw a more steely side. Henrietta Barnett spoke of ruth­lessness. Gertrude Bell called her despotic. The Bishop of London, Frederick Temple, had a bruising encounter with her at a meeting of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. “She spoke for half an hour. . . I never had such a beating in all my life.”

Charles Kingsley and F. D. Maurice gave a Christian focus to her socialism. She was 14 when she and her sister began to attend daily morning prayer at Lincoln’s Inn, where Maurice was chaplain. Until then, there had been no formal religion in her upbringing. “It was Mr Maurice who showed me a life in the Creeds, the services and the Bible; who interpreted for me much that was dark and puzzling in life.”

Ruskin met her at the Ladies Co-operative Guild in Russell Place, where her mother was manager. The Guild provided training and employment for the poor. “Ocky” studied glass painting in the Guild workshop. Later, Ruskin employed her in copying works of art to illustrate his Modern Painters.

Octavia had a commanding presence. At the age of 13, alone in the house one Sunday, she surprised a burglar emerging from a cupboard upstairs. “How did you come up here?” she asked. “I came up the stairs,” he said. “Then you will please to walk down again.” And he did, down two flights and out into the street with her close behind.

Despite her assertiveness, her letters reveal how submissive she was to her mentor. For ten years, Ruskin made use of her skill at copying. She persuaded herself that this drudgery was a necessary development of her art. It was, ironically, Ruskin himself who provided an escape, by using his inheritance to pay for her first housing scheme.

To help tenants of her houses, she set up saving schemes, and employed defaulters on maintenance work. She, and later the housing managers whom she trained, made a weekly round to collect the rent and listen to the tenants. The scheme was direct and personal. She insisted on paying Ruskin a five-per-cent return on  his investment. The scheme, like the tenants, had to pay its way.

The Ecclesiastical Commissioners asked her to manage much of their property in Southwark, Walworth, and Deptford. She insisted that the rebuilt housing should be predom­inantly two-storey cottages with public space for gardens.

She believed that people in town, especially the poor, must have access to green space. She campaigned for the protection of London’s parks — what she called the people’s “open air sitting rooms”.

She was a founder member of the National Trust, and a champion of public rights of way. In old age, she could be met clearing country foot­paths, swishing her stick at the nettles with the same vigour she had once used to face down a bishop and expel a burglar.

The Revd Adrian Leak is Priest-in-Charge of Withyham in the diocese of Chichester.

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