Looking over the Hill

In 1887 when Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee, only three women were invited to the service at Westminster Abbey.

 Florence Nightingale and Josephine Butler were two, the other was Octavia Hill.  This month saw the centenary of Hill’s death, but 100 years on the majority of people have never heard of her and yet she may well have had an influence on their lives.

Hill was a pioneer in the social housing movement but also a founder of the National Trust and the Army Cadet Force and an instigator of social work.  She was, however, very much a woman of her time and some of her opinions jar badly with contemporary thinking.  As Jules Birch put it in his recent, helpful blog, “Octavia Hill retains an extraordinary ability to inspire and infuriate.”

From where we sit many of her views seem bewildering.  She was opposed to votes for women, free school meals, old age pensions and council housing.  Although these things frustrate us about her, some of Hill’s insights remain pertinent today.

Octavia Hill was born in 1838, the year afterVictoria came to the throne.  As a young woman she was influenced by social reformers such as Robert Owen, John Ruskin and F D Maurice and was inspired to spend her life working alongside the poor of her day.

Paradise Place

In 1865 and with the help of social critic John Ruskin, she established an early social housing scheme at, appropriately enough, Paradise Place in Marylebone (now Garbutt Place just off Marylebone High Street).

Her pattern of housing management seems quaint but was driven by her belief in both personal contact and self-reliance.  She and her volunteers collected the weekly rent and checked the properties in the mornings at the beginning of the week.  In the afternoons they balanced the tenants’ accounts and organised contractors to do repairs.  At the end of the week they paid contractors and dealt with arrears, allocated properties and arranged tenants’ moves.  This was labour intensive and paternalistic, and today would generate high costs.

At a time when we are systems oriented and encourage contact by a variety of means we are at risk of losing the personal touch.  Hill reminds us the value of dealing with each tenant as a person and getting to know them properly.

Interestingly Hill only had female housing managers because ‘ladies must do it, for it is detailed work; ladies must do it, for it is household work; it needs, moreover, persistent patience, gentleness, hope’.  Again her reasoning may be impossible to defend but interestingly, housing management today is an area where women are in the majority and often in leadership.

Self reliance

Hill stressed self-reliance at an individual level and her fear of encouraging idleness made her suspicious of free school meals and old age pensions.  One suspects that with hindsight she would now see the importance of both to reduce poverty amongst children and older people.  However she would have been very much on the side of encouraging people to take responsibility for their lives and to do whatever they could to provide for themselves and their families.  Today Hill would continue to emphasise mutual responsibility stressing the importance of everyone playing their part and resisting idleness and self-centredness.

In the late 19th century Octavia Hill had to run her schemes efficiently in order to create a surplus so that further provision could be made.  This echoes strongly with housing providers operating at a time when grant for development has been greatly reduced.  Whilst we may not share her view that subsidy was necessarily inefficient, organisations that want to continue to develop new schemes have had to start thinking like her and become largely self-reliant.  For example, Derwent Living’s mission is now “To provide a mix of quality affordable housing to diverse communities with reducing reliance on public funding.”

Development in 2012 would be a real juggling act for Hill.  She recognised the importance of open space for human living and did a great deal to ensure that poor people had access to it.  For example she was involved in the campaign to prevent development on Hampstead Heath, something that many people benefit from today, and was a co-founder of the National Trust.  She recognised the value of the environment for both itself and its value to people.  Like many of us she would be caught up with matching the importance of preserving good open space and meeting housing need.

History has shown her to have been largely right about soulless blocks of flats.  However much a necessary evil in some places we have found that people don’t favour them and that, as she feared, their common areas create all sorts of problems.  She would have been pleased to see such blocks being demolished and replaced with “cottage style homes” for affordable rent.

One suspects too that with both her suspicion of bureaucracy and her emphasis on co-operation by landlord and tenant she would welcome the emergence of co-regulation. Whilst she would no doubt despair with much of the bureaucracy now taken for granted she would welcome the move away from centralised inspection and regulation.

Hill also did much to ensure that children had access to play areas and that young people were able to take part in worthwhile activities.; This led to all sorts of organisations such as the Army Cadet Force.

The legacy

Octavia Hill has left quite a legacy despite being so much a woman of her day.  Many of the assumptions she made no longer apply.  As Jules Birch put it, we need “to remember why the welfare state and council housing were established in the first place – philanthropy was not enough on its own and Victorian Values had failed to alleviate poverty – at the same time as we remember her unique contribution and her determination to put people at the heart of what she did.”

We should, though, acknowledge her contribution and draw upon those insights that correct our own imbalances.

For more on Hill the recent collection of essays from Demos makes a good starting point.  It can be ordered or downloaded at www.demos.co.uk/publications/octaviahill