December 3, 1838 – Octavia Hill:
“We all want quiet. We all want beauty… we all need space.“
From the mid-19th century, more and more educated women sought paid work as writers or in the professions of teaching, philanthropic social work, and nursing. This enabled many of them to remain unmarried and form their closest emotional ties with other women.
Their love could be expressed in very erotic terms, but not necessarily described as being sexual. Conventional notions of the era dictated that middle-class women emphasize female sexual innocence and asexuality.
Octavia Hill was one of Victorian Britain’s most important social reformers. In the early part of her career she used her skills as a manager of working-class housing to create healthier communities and trained other women to do the same. She established the idea of personal case work and the importance of maintaining good housing.
One of the three founders of the England National Trust, Hill was a pioneer social reformer. She worked to improve urban housing and to protect green spaces. Her belief in the importance of access to nature for human well being and the need to stop the destruction of the natural landscape remain relevant today.
She was the third daughter of merchant James Hill and his third wife, Caroline Southwood Smith.
Her grandfather, Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith was one of the leading public health reformers of early Victorian Britain and dedicated his life to campaigning for better housing conditions and for the urban working classes.
Both of her parents were also social reformers and followers of Robert Owen, a founder of Utopian Socialism. They opened a school for poor young lads and lasses and encouraged its use as a “Hall for the People” in the evenings, with lectures, dances and meetings of the Mental Improvement Society.
Her family lived in a comfortable 18th-century townhouse, but all that changed when her father declared bankruptcy after his investments failed. He fell into a deep depression and abandoned his wife and children.
Her mother took charge of the family, moving them to London. She took a job and encouraged her daughters to do likewise.
Hill started her first job at 14 years old, working for the Ladies Guild, a Christian Socialist co-operative in London managed by her mother, where the girls made toys and dollhouse furniture.
She organized midday meals for the workers, visited them when they were sick and took them on nature walks around the London commons. It was the first of many initiatives that Hill pioneered to improve the lives of those less fortunate than herself.
She became friendly with pioneering Christian Socialist minister Frederick Denison Maurice and radical thinker John Ruskin. She began her life’s work with a series of properties in London’s Paradise Place, which Ruskin purchased for her. Instead of the overcrowding and the high rent that most landlords expected, Hill only demanded a modest sum ensuring some of the money was used to keep the buildings in good repair and to improve the community.
She was firm in her management style, insisting that all the tenants pay their rent on time, but she also took a personal interest in their lives. Her methods were firm but compassionate: she patiently fostered a reciprocal respect between landlord and tenant.
The ideas were met with success and were expanded with new investors. By 1874, Octavia had over 3,000 tenants around London.
Hill connected cultural philanthropy to social reform. It wasn’t enough just to collect the rent and fix the gutters; her growing portfolio of houses became centers of creativity, with music lessons and cultural fieldtrips. In 1877, she formed the Kyrle Society, with the aim of bringing beauty, nature, the arts and music to everyone.
From her time in the bleak, treeless housing, Hill became convinced of the need for open spaces for the huddled masses. Hill wrote:
”…a few acres where the hill top enables the Londoner to rise above the smoke, to feel a refreshing air for a little time and to see the sun setting in colored glory which abounds so in the Earth God made. We all want quiet. We all want beauty … we all need space. Unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently. ”
She helped to start the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty in 1895 so that green spaces could ”be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment, and rest of those who have no country house”.
For the next 17 years, until her passing in 1912, Hill continued to fight for the preservation of the countryside. She helped the National Trust to buy and protect its first land and houses and campaigned for the preservation of footpaths to ensure everyone had right of access to the land.
She was a determined and strong-minded person and some of her views were not without controversy, even today. She was against the government giving out free school meals, and a universal old-age pension. She argued that private enterprise and charity could solve social inequality. Yet, her view of human needs and her willingness to act upon her beliefs sparked a real change that can still be felt today.
Octavia Housing continues to provide homes for thousands of people in inner-city London and in 2020 the National Trust celebrated its 125th anniversary. Thanks to Hill’s vision there are now over 600,000 acres of farmland, 780 miles of coastline and 500 historic properties, gardens, and nature preserves, open to everyone, forever.
Hill coined the term ”green belt” and worked to give Londoners access to the countryside. Her ideas paved the way for modern town planning. She was one the first people to encourage saving open space for recreation in the inner-city.
Hill had a passionate intimacy with Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the first woman doctors in Britain. Her partner was Dr. Margaret Todd, and they lived together following retirement until Jex-Blake passed away.
In her 20s, Jex-Blake had lived with Hill, and in a diary entry from 1860, she recalled how Hill:
”…sunk her head on my lap silently, raised it in tears, and then such a kiss! ”
Hill’s longtime partner was Harriot Yorke, who lived and worked with Hill for three decades. The couple travelled extensively to get away from London life. Hill was painted by John Singer Sargent in 1898. Yorke was not impressed. The two ladies lived together in London and are buried together in the churchyard in Kent.
When Hill left this world at 73 years old, many were surprised by and suspicious of her personal wealth. Yet her wealth was a result of her frugality. She left everything to York who died 18 years after Hill, at 87 years old.
The National Trust is the largest membership organization in the UK. We think about it in terms of its historic buildings, those grand crumbling piles, still occupied by aristocratic families, with lavishly preserved rooms bigger than most people’s homes cordoned off with red velvet ropes.
In the last few years, The Trust has made major steps towards addressing some of the previously obscured histories of Women, LGBTQ people, Black people, working class people, and the colonial stories of its properties.
A large reason why many independent Victorian women’s queerness is repudiated by too many historians is because many women of the era rejected, or showed little interest in marriage or men, and had particularly close relationships with other women, that the public considered purely platonic.