Octavia Hill is probably best remembered 100 years after her death as one of the founders of the National Trust. But her legacy as an enlightened landlord of working-class housing is perhaps more important. She was born in 1838 into a family of political activists. Her father founded a school in Wisbech run on principles established by Robert Owen in New Lanark. He famously rode 50 miles to secure the pardon of the last man sentenced to hang for stealing sheep. Her mother was manager of the Ladies’ Co-operative Guild. Octavia and her sisters were brought up as Christian Socialists. Once found sitting bolt upright in bed as a teenager and asked what she was doing, Octavia is said to have replied: ‘Praying for Poland.’
Unlike Beatrice Webb, with whom she later worked on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law, Hill wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty: she said the word ‘lady’ represented ‘all kinds of things I despise and hate’. When she was 27, John Ruskin asked her to help manage three houses he’d bought and named ‘Paradise Place’. Most landlords crammed their tenants into shared rooms and roofed over courtyards to create yet more lettable space. One landlord that Hill met was also an undertaker. When she asked him about difficulties in collecting rents, he said there were bad debts but ‘it’s not the rents I look to, but the deaths I get out of the houses.’
Hill, by contrast, had Paradise Place equipped with proper sewerage, clean water and a laundry. Male tenants helped do repairs and teenage girls scrubbed the hallways for sixpence a week. Profits were partly spent on improvements that tenants suggested. Thus began her mission to save the poor ‘huddled in their multitudes’ where ‘no one loves or raises them’. Her journal articles seep with moralistic fervour, but no one can deny the strength of her convictions or her drive to put them into practice.
Paradise Place established her reputation. She took over more and more houses and by 1884 was responsible for up to 4000 lettings. One scheme, Sarsden Buildings, off Oxford Street, which she started to manage in 1895, is still owned and let by the Octavia Hill Housing Trust.
She had a more lasting influence on practical housing management than on policy. She helped formulate the Artisans’ Dwellings Act 1875, but her evidence to a Royal Commission on Housing opposed giving responsibility to local authorities on the grounds that it would paralyse private initiative; she would have been dismayed by the growth of council housing in the 1920s and the early forms of housing benefit (‘rent rebates’) in the 1930s.
As her responsibilities grew she recruited other women whom she trained as housing managers. By the time of her death, the group had spread across London and its skills were well-known and in demand, if controversial. Their success in managing houses owned by the Ministry of Munitions led John Bull to splutter about the ministry’s ‘impudence’ in training more women on similar lines:
When qualified the women will become Superintendents, at £250 per year. This cold-blooded, pre-meditated throwing away of public money is the most outrageous so far. The whole project is so absolutely absurd, futile and unnecessary. First of all, if such jobs are to be created, men should have them.
Hill’s recruits formed the Association of Women Property Managers in 1916 and its eventual successor now has 22,000 members, more than half of them women.
Hill’s legacy was unquestioned by her early biographers, but since the 1970s her solutions have been described as variously ‘palliative’, ‘baneful’ and ‘moralistic’. Nevertheless the people-centred methods that she pioneered have continued in both housing management and social work. It’s true that her views on poverty might find an echo in those of Iain Duncan Smith, but unlike him she was a Victorian.