As a social reformer, Octavia Hill is famous for her pioneering work in housing the London poor of the late 19th century. Her ideas on the provision of quality social housing would prove influential in the 20th century. Octavia, who was born in 1838, believed strongly in the positive benefits of fresh air and open spaces, especially for those living in the city. In her housing schemes she provided children’s playgrounds and, as the great Victorian city of London grew, she fought against the development of open ground.


She once wrote: “The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and … the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs, common to all”.

Today she is celebrated, with Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, for setting up the National Trust (NT). Their aim was to protect the British countryside and open spaces, and they had the support of many illustrious Victorians from the worlds of art, science and politics, ranging from designer William Morris to suffragist Millicent Fawcett and scientist Thomas Henry Huxley.
Around one of her committee tables, Octavia Hill might have glimpsed the young writer HG Wells. In 1895, the year the NT was set up, Wells published his great science fiction novel The Time Machine. Imagine Octavia had access to such a device and, 100 years after her death, returned to survey the world.

A century of change

Octavia would no doubt be pleased to see the growth of the NT. Set up in 1895 with 100 members, it now has the support of 3.5 million. It acquired its first building, the 14th-century Alfriston Clergy House, in 1896 – it now has more than 200 buildings and gardens of outstanding interest. In 1899 it acquired two acres of land in Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire – a century later, it cares for over 612,000 acres of countryside, plus more than 700 miles of coastline. All of this is held in perpetuity ‘for ever, for everyone’.

Octavia might note the number of times since she and others had lobbied to stop a railway development despoiling the Lake District that the NT has since stepped in to save a precious site. She would see Finchley, the village where she lived as a girl, transformed into a suburb – yet London contained by the ‘green belt’ she had conjectured. What would she, an opponent of parliamentary votes for women (but a supporter of women’s involvement in politics at a local level), make of the fact Finchley had been represented in parliament by a woman who had risen to become prime minister?
She would see the Chartered Institute of Housing, a descendant of the association of housing managers set up by her new breed of rent collectors, who had offered friendship and support to impoverished tenants.

But in one particular respect, I am sure she would register delight. She would see today’s voluntary sector and note that the social reformers who worked with her had been wrong when they feared charity might disappear when Christianity declined (something which they could see beginning to happen).
Another young social reformer she might have met was economist William Beveridge. He was founder of the London School of Economics and would later be famous for a 1942 report reflecting on social welfare and what changes could be made for the better in Britain. He too had been pessimistic about non-Christian Britain. Although he was right in predicting that the supply of individual social entrepreneurs would not dry up, he was worried about the supporting framework in which they might act.

“Time will bring to us endless successors in spirit to the Victorian pioneers of social advance – men and women with the conscience and industry of Shaftesbury, the strength of purpose of Elizabeth Fry, the untutored fervour of William Booth, the passion to understand of Charles Booth,” he stated. “But who will restore the conditions in which these men and women did their work? When and how shall we replace the lost power of widespread religious belief, the material resources which must support the Philanthropic Motive as the body clothes the soul, and the sense of brotherhood in the human race?”

The new philanthropy

A century on, the energy in today’s voluntary spheres disproves Beveridge. But with a twist: volunteering doesn’t require religion but it does take a new kind of philanthropy – the patronage of the state. Octavia was suspicious of politics: she thought the model of the family should underlie charitable work and believed in small-scale solutions. So, while marvelling at the proliferation of conservation and amenity societies today, she might puzzle at their often close relationship with government.

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A random example, from east London, echoes Octavia’s own struggles to recycle burial grounds as public open spaces. A volunteer group runs London’s Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park as a sliver of peaceful green oasis. But this 33-acre site is a partnership: it is owned by the council, which created the adjacent Mile End Park, with its ingenious garden on a bridge, above a busy highway.
The great Victorian reformers identified social needs, especially in big cities, and in the 20th century the state mobilised to meet them. To be effective, a charity and social enterprise now have to work with government. Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and local amenity groups know that in collaboration with MPs, ministers and councillors they can accomplish much.

Once Octavia would equip guests at her cottage with secateurs so they could cut down the brambles covering footpaths. Now, it’s just as important to lobby councillors to keep rights-of-way maps up to date.

If social enterprise has to be ‘political’, we need its energy, activism and imagination as much as ever, at all levels of society – individual and collective. An example is Sharrow Vale Community Association in Sheffield, working with charity Groundwork, using a £50,000 donation from Marks & Spencer to turn overgrown land into a biodiverse place that ‘delights the eye’ in the spirit of Octavia’s mentor, John Ruskin.

Perhaps Octavia would dismiss the tired distinction between heroic start-up entrepreneurs and staid leaders of established organisations. It takes vision and flair to start a group or project, but it also takes skill and determination to keep it going. A good example is the Woodland Trust, started in 1972 by Kenneth Watkins, a man of huge vision and determination. From its beginnings on his Devon farm, the Trust has expanded to own more than 1,000 woodland sites, covering 20,000 hectares and recruited 300,000 members. Keeping that business going, mounting campaigns to persuade people to donate and join is often just as enterprising. And so is the work of lobbying and press releases and petitions.

The Big Society (the flagship policy of the 2010 Conservative election manifesto) has been large for a long time. Britain’s remarkable tradition of non-profit activity disproved not just William Beveridge but the dogmatists who said the welfare state would kill off charity. In fact, public policy and social enterprise tend to move in the same direction. One example is the expansion of environmental charities that began strongly in the 1960s and has continued since.

What we call ‘social enterprise’ was for Octavia Hill the practical expression of a desire to see improvement – in people’s characters, in their ways of living and, above all, their access to green space. One thing she would surely dislike in the modern world is the sneer that often accompanies the phrase ‘do-gooder’. Today she would look around and see countless examples of people seeking to do good, meaning to help their fellow citizens live better lives in what Beveridge called “the brotherhood of the human race”.

Key moments in the life of Octavia Hill

Born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, Octavia grows up influenced by her mother’s progressive educational ideas, and her grandfather’s work in a hospital in London’s East End.

Octavia sets up the first of many housing schemes for the poor.
A row of London cottages are restored and her rent collectors help tenants rebuild their lives.

Advised by Robert Hunter of the Commons Preservation Society, Octavia begins protecting open spaces, big and small.

Conservationist Rev Hardwicke Rawnsley, with the support of John Ruskin, Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter, succeeds in preventing slate railways being built in the unspoilt valleys of Newlands and Ennerdale. It is the first of his many successes
to protect the Lake District.

In the rebuilding of a large estate in Walworth, south London, Octavia argues successfully for a small-scale development and for tenant involvement – key elements in her legacy of quality social housing in the 20th century. By the 1880s she is a key figure in policymaking, also ensuring women workers are trained and salaried.

Octavia dies after a lifetime improving the lives of the poor. Her campaigns created a wide range of public open spaces that we enjoy today.


Polly Toynbee is a columnist for the Guardian and was formerly BBC social affairs editor.