Octavia Hill, the Great Social Reformer

Octavia Hill, the Great Social Reformer

As the UK faces its worst housing crisis to date, we look at the work of social reformer and housing pioneer Octavia Hill.

Unscrupulous landlords, astronomical prices, poorly built properties and a massive shortage of homes are reasons why the UK is suffering from a crisis that has seen homelessness rise by 169% since 2010 . Unbelievably this overall figure downplays how badly some regions have been affected – Camden council in north London reported an increase of 647% in the space of one year, between 2016 and 2017.

New research by Heriot-Watt University has found that in England alone there is a shortage of almost four million homes, which can only be solved if 340,000 new homes are built each year, 40% of which must be cheaper than the average market rate, a “discount” which in itself is a hotly debated issue.

This all adds up to the biggest housing crisis the UK has ever faced, a fact that is all the more staggering given the progress once made for adequate living conditions to be available.



The Industrial Revolution was a glorious period in British history – some of the greatest advances in technology hailed from Britain, and the boom in production created unprecedented growth in the economy. But the population grew too, faster than decent housing did. Octavia Hill, the daughter of a merchant and a teacher, was shocked by London’s slum accomodation when she moved there from her native Wisbech, a peaceful market town near Peterborough.

Born in 1838, Hill was precocious from a young age. At 14 she worked at a crafts guild for unskilled girls, teaching them needlework and printing as well as supervising kids from a local school for destitute children while they made toy furniture. Her ideals were influenced by her family; her maternal grandfather, Thomas Southwood Smith, was a health reformer who campaigned to prove that unsanitary housing caused ill health, her father James Hill was a socialist, and her mother, Caroline Southwood Smith, was a teacher. Unfortunately her father’s ill-advised investments bankrupted the family, an event that plunged him into deep depression. Hill’s mother was left to provide for them all, something that instilled a strong work ethic in the three girls.

Hill met art critic John Ruskin through her mother in 1854 and soon began working for him as a copyist, spending hours at a time in the National Gallery replicating the works on display. It was Ruskin who gave Hill a start in social housing – purchasing three properties in a street called Paradise Place, ironically better known as “Little Hell” because of its slum conditions.

Hill became their landlady and developed a formula for social housing. One of her key beliefs was personal responsibility, that individuals should not rely on assistance from the government to take care of themselves, however she also believed they needed to be equipped for this. “Each block is placed by me under a separate volunteer worker, who has the duty of collecting rents, advising as to repairs, and choice of tenants, and who renders all personal help that can be given to the tenants without destroying their independence, such as helping them to find work, telling them of good trades to which to bring up their children” she said.

The volunteers who collected the rent were female, as Hill thought tenants would find women less intimidating, in later years they would be paid.

By 1874 Hill managed 15 housing projects which accommodated 3,000 people. She frequently wrote about her projects in the press, which helped her gain high profile support from the likes of Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria.

As well as ensuring residents had decent living quarters, she invested money from rents in education and culture, such as putting on Gilbert & Sullivan recitals and music lessons on the estates she managed.

london, slums, housing crisis
Presumably London, UK, late 1800s. British Library

Providing community facilities was high on her agenda, in particular the need for public parks as she stated many times that the average Londoner, unable to afford a second home in the country, needed to have access to a green space near their home. In the 1883 article ‘Space for the People’ she wrote: “I think we want four things. Places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend a day in. As to the last named, I will not dwell on it here. The preservation of Wimbledon and Epping shows that the need is increasingly recognised. But a visit to Wimbledon, Epping, or Windsor means for the workman not only the cost of the journey but the loss of a whole day’s wages; we want, besides, places where the long summer evenings or the Saturday afternoon may be enjoyed without effort or expense.”

Thanks to her tireless campaigning cemeteries were opened to the general public, and spaces like today’s beloved Hampstead Heath were saved from developers. In fact it was Hill who coined the term “green belt” referring to areas of land close to the city that should not be urbanised. Parliament Hill, Brockwell Park, and many other green spots would not exist without her.

Her passion meant she was prone to overworking, and in 1877 she collapsed due to an unhealthy combination of exhaustion, the death of a close friend, the end of a relationship, and being attacked by Ruskin. The two had become locked in a dispute over the properties he had a stake in, and by then he was prone to violent outbursts.

That same year she started the Kyrle Society with her sister Miranda, the precursor to historical conservation charity the National Trust. Their mission was to improve the conditions of hospitals, schools and other public buildings with the use of art and literature. In 1889 Hill added yet another string to her bow by forming the Army Cadets, with the intention of uniting 12 to 18 year old boys that had been left out of the educational system.

Hill died of cancer at the age of 73 in 1912. One can only imagine what she would have made of today’s dire housing situation. Would she have a novel solution, or would she rage at how the rights of tenants have been gradually eroded over the years? Her legacy remains with the Octavia Housing & Care’s 4,000 homes all over London, and the Octavia Hill Association as far afield as Philadelphia.


Leila Hawkins


This is an updated version of the feature originally published on All In London

Featured image: Stockwell, London, 2007 under CC BY 2.0

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

One thought on “Octavia Hill, the Great Social Reformer

Tell us what you think