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Octavia Hill and The Homes of the London Poor

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 January 2014

Extract

It has been Octavia Hill's fate to survive, rather like some great “classic,” well-known by name, but neglected and unread – of the major Victorian social reformers perhaps the most misunderstood and inadequately handled. Geoffrey Best in his study of the Church of England Ecclesiastical Commissioners has drawn attention to her profound respect for the principle of self-help and comments, “She was on one of history's losing sides, and, as is the way with losers who are in no way romantic, she has rather dropped below the horizon of modern knowledge.” Octavia Hill has, unfortunately, been the victim of partisan history. Abruptly dismissed, on one hand, as an absurd anachronism, a devout believer in individualistic solutions in an age of creeping state and municipal socialism, she has been too uncritically praised, on the other, by those who were related to her or closely associated with her work. Her life (1838-1912) encompassed many vital reforms. She was co-founder of the National Trust and a great Victorian conservationist, whose devotion to the preservation of commons and parks, and concept of a “green belt” enabled London and other large towns to pass into the twentieth century, civilized and relaxing places in which to live. Her successful efforts to save Parliament Hill and Hampstead Heath from the encroachments of late Victorian speculative builders deserve the closest examination, from all those interested in urban development and the preservation, in and around our cities, of the natural environment.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © North American Conference of British Studies 1971

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References

1. Best, G., Temporal Pillars (Cambridge, 1964), p. 488Google Scholar. Miss Hill is perhaps too often associated with her ultra-conservatism while serving as a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress (1905). See Mowat, C. L., The Charity Organisation Society, 1869–1913 (London, 1961), p. 165Google Scholar.

2. The most recent biography is by her descendant, Hill, WilliamOctavia Hill; Pioneer of the National Trust and Housing Reformer (London, 1956)Google Scholar. A most useful work is that of her brother-in-law, Maurice, C. Edmund, Life of Octavia Hill as told in Her Letters (London, 1914)Google Scholar. The Dictionary of National Biography article is by Henrietta Barnett, who was associated with her work, and her intimate friend. See also Bell, E., Octavia Hill (London, 1942)Google Scholar. For a brief but severe criticism of her contribution see, Tarn, J., “Housing in Urban Areas, 1840–1914” (Ph.D. dissertation, Cambridge University, 1961)Google Scholar. Both Best, Temporal Pillars, and Owen, D., English Philanthropy, 1660–1960 (Cambridge, Mass., 1964)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, have revealing essays on Octavia Hill. For an excellent brief study of her work, and influence in America, see Bremner, R. H., “An Iron Scepter Twined with Roses: The Octavia Hill System of Housing Management,” Social Service Review, II (1965)Google Scholar.

3. Owen, , English Philanthropy, p. 387Google Scholar.

4. For Southwood Smith see the biography by his daughter, Mrs.Lewes, C. L., Southwood Smith: A Retrospect (London, 1898)Google Scholar.

5. Hill, O., Homes of the London Poor (London, 1875)Google Scholar, preface, and Hill, O., “Cottage Property in London,” Fortnightly Review, VI (1866), 682Google Scholar and Maurice, , Life of Octavia Hill, pp. 189190Google Scholar. She was also greatly influenced by a lecture of Charles Kingsley's urging women to engage in sanitary work for the sake, as he put it, of “the noblest race the world contains,” Maurice, , Life of Octavia Hill, p. 148Google Scholar.

6. Many of the properties were let out for a number of lives rather than years, see Maurice, , Life of Octavia Hill, p. 440Google Scholar and Best, , Temporal Pillars, pp. 480482Google Scholar.

7. For the housing reform agitation of the 1880s, see Wohl, A. S., “The Bitter Cry of Outcast London,” International Review of Social History, XIII (1968)Google Scholar and Wohl, A. S., The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (Leicester, 1970)Google Scholar.

8. Minutes of Evidence from the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, in Parliamentary Papers, 18841885, XXX, 294–95Google Scholar. Hill, , Octavia Hill, p. 86Google Scholar. See also Ouvry, E. Southwood (ed.), Extracts from Octavia Hill's ‘Letters to Fellow Workers’, 1864–1911 (London, 1913), pp. 2325Google Scholar. Henrietta Barnett estimated in 1884 that there were over one thousand families living under her management or in houses of those who copied her methods. See, Barnett, H., “Women as Philanthropists,” in The Woman Question in Europe, ed. Stanton, T. (New York, 1884), p. 119Google Scholar.

9. This honor was probably accorded to her as much for her activities with the Kryle Society, the National Trust, and her general conservationist work, as for her achievements as housing reformer.

10. Dictionary of National Biography, “Octavia Hill.”

11. Ouvry, , Extracts, p. 53Google Scholar. See also Maurice, , Life of Octavia Hill, pp. 265, 441, 449Google Scholar. For the Octavia Hill Association of Philadelphia see, Lubove, R., The Progressives and the Slums, Tenement House Reform in New York City, 1890–1917 (Pittsburgh, 1962), p. 106Google Scholar. For her influence in America generally see Bremner, , “Iron Scepter,” Social Service Review, II, 227–31Google Scholar.

12. Times, August 16, 1912.

13. For the housing reform movement in the first half of the nineteenth century see my works, mentioned above, and, Wohl, A. S., “The Housing of the Artisans and Labourers in Nineteenth Century London, 1815–1914” (Ph.D. dissertation, Brown University, 1966)Google Scholar.

14. Times, August 16, 1912.

15. A bitter controversy raced over whether the Peabody Trust was carrying out the directives of George Peabody and housing the “poor.” For this controversy and the conflicting evidence on wages and occupations of the occupants of the model blocks, see Wohl, , The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, pp. 131–32Google Scholar. In 1887 Charles Booth had defined the poor as those earning under 21s. per week for a moderate family. In 1885 the average wage of Peabody tenants was 23s. 8d. per week. The Columbia Square buildings hardly qualified as a capitalist venture, as they returned only 2½ per cent on capital invested. See Owen, , English Philanthropy, pp. 378, 387Google Scholar. The architect of the grim Columbia Square buildings was Henry Darbyshire, who was later responsible for many Peabody buildings. See Tarn, , “Housing in Urban Areas,” p. 152Google Scholar. In 1884 the East End Dwellings Company tried to reach the lower laboring classes, but the experiment ended in failure.

16. The Peabody Trust expected prospective tenants to furnish a reference from their regular employer. See Barnett, H., Canon Barnett. His Life, Works and Friends (London, 1918), I, 135Google Scholar.

17. O. Hill, “Blank Court; or, Landlords and Tenants, “Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV (1871), 457Google Scholar. The tenants had “sunk to the lowest depths of degradation, and the houses themselves were in an indescribable condition of filth and neglect”, Times, August 15, 1912.

18. “My tenants are mostly of a class far below that of mechanics; they are, indeed, of the very poor,” she said of her “Blank Court” tenants, Hill, O., “Organised Work among the Poor: Suggestions founded on Four Years' Management of a London Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XX (1869), 223Google Scholar. For her instigation of court proceedings see Hill, , “Cottage Property,” Fortnightly Review, VI, 686Google Scholar.

19. But she did offer, at least in the early years of her career, two rooms for little more than the rent of one, Hill, , “Cottage Property,” Fortnightly Review, VI, 685Google Scholar. She offered two rooms for 4s.6d. per week, where one room in the same neighborhood cost 4s. But she was certainly no innovator in this, and housing reformers throughout the century lamented the working man's willingness to accept one-roomed dwellings when an extra room could be obtained for so little extra rent. Only in the most overcrowded parts of London were two rooms twice the rental of a single. Later in her work, Octavia Hill concentrated upon one-roomed tenements, for which she was much criticized. See below, p. 128.

For working class budgets, in addition to Booth, C., Life and Labour of the People in London, I, Poverty (London, 1902)Google Scholar, passim, see, Sherwell, A., Life in West London (London, 1897)Google Scholar, passim, and Booth, et al. (eds.), Family Budgets: Being the Income and Expenses of Twenty-Eight British Households, 1891–1894 [Economic Club] (London, 1896)Google Scholar, passim, and Tabulations of the Statements made by Men living in Certain Selected Districts in London in March, 1887, in Parliamentary Papers, 1887, LXXXIGoogle Scholar, especially table C, 315.

The Royal Commission on the Housing of the Work Classes discovered that almost a half of the working classes in London spent between one quarter and a half of their wages on rent, and 85 per cent spent over one-fifth. Report from the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, in Parliamentary Papers, 18841885, XXX, 21Google Scholar.

20. Booth, , Life and Labour, IGoogle Scholar, “Poverty,” passim. For an excellent recent study of Booth see Pfautz, H. (ed.), Charles Booth on the City. Physical Pattern and Social Structure (Chicago, 1967)Google Scholar.

21. For these writers and a critical summary see Dyos, H. J., “The Slums of Victorian London,” Victorian Studies, XI (1967)Google Scholar.

22. Webb, B., My Apprenticeship (New York, 1926), p. 90Google Scholar.

23. The housing reformers, men like Godwin, editor of the Builder, were always aware of the social costs and extremely critical of the improvement schemes. See Wohl, , “The Housing of the Artisans,” p. 70Google Scholar and also Wohl, A.S., “The Housing of the Working Classes in London, 1760–1914,” in Studies in the History of Working Class Housing, ed. Chapman, S. to be published by David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, in Spring, 1971Google Scholar.

24. Transactions of the Society of Medical Officers of Health, Session 1883-84, pp. 36-37 and Dwellings of tht Poor [Report of the Dwellings Committee of the Charity Organisation Society] (London, 1861), p. 141Google Scholar.

25. The inability to house the displaced was the charge uniformly levelled against the dwelling companies, trusts, and public bodies.

26. Hill, , “Organised Work,” Macmillan's Magazine, XX, 220Google Scholar.

27. Her opposition to large schemes carried on by the model dwelling companies and public bodies was based more upon their impersonal and de-humanized nature than upon the type of tenant they catered to.

28. See Kensington Borough Council, Minutes, IV (London, 19031904), 147Google Scholar and Camberwell Borough Council, Minutes, II (London, 19011902)Google Scholar.

29. Daily News, August 16, 1912.

30. Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 464Google Scholar.

31. Pall Mall Gazette. November 22, 1883.

32. Hill, , Homes of the London Poor, p. 77Google Scholar.

33. Hill, , “Cottage Property,” Fortnightly Review, VI, 682, 687Google Scholar.

34. Ibid., p. 682.

35. Webb, , My Apprenticeship, p. 257Google Scholar.

36. Miss Hill desired to “free a few poor people from the tyranny and influence of a low class of landlords and landladies”, Hill, , “Cottage Property”, Fortnightly Review, VI, 682Google Scholar and see Bremner, , “Iron Scepter,” Social Science Review, II, 226Google Scholar.

37. Wohl, , “Bitter Cry,” International Review of Social History, XIIIGoogle Scholar.

38. See for example, Kirwan, D., Palace and Hovel, or Phases of London (London, 1870)Google Scholar and Greenwood, J., The Wilds of London (London, 1874)Google Scholar, Greenwood, J., The Seven Curses of London (London, 1869)Google Scholar, Greenwood, J., Unsentimental Journeys (London, 1867)Google Scholar, and Greenwood, J., Low Life Deeps (London, 1876)Google Scholar. Earlier descriptive works include Jerrold, D., St. Giles and St. James (London, 1851)Google Scholar, Sala, G., Twice Round the Clock (London, 1859)Google Scholar and Sala, G., Gaslight and Daylight (London, 1860)Google Scholar.

39. Quoted in Woodroofe, K., From Charity Work to Social Work in England and the United States (London, 1962), p. 22Google Scholar.

40. Barnett, , “Women as Philanthropists,” p. 116Google Scholar.

41. Hill, O., “The Importance of Aiding the Poor without Almsgiving,” Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (1869), p. 589Google Scholar. [Hereafter, Transactions.]

42. Barnett, , “Women as Philanthropists,” p. 119Google Scholar.

43. Hill, O., “District Visiting,” in Essays (Boston, 1880), p. 5Google Scholar.

44. Owen, , English Philanthropy, p. 389Google Scholar.

45. Barnett, , “Women as Philanthropists,” p. 114Google Scholar.

46. Webb, , My Apprenticeship, p. 252Google Scholar. Beatrice Webb couldn't understand the reluctance of Emma Cons and Octavia Hill to keep precise statistical records of their tenants or conduct sociological surveys among them. Ibid., pp. 258, 263, 269.

47. Hill, , “Cottage Property,” Fortnightly Review, VI, 683Google Scholar. She saw the role of landlady as one of teacher and guidance officer, achieving in the home what the minister and teacher accomplished in church and school, and providing a home environment in which the moral lessons taught in the classroom and from the pulpit could take root and flower.

48. Ibid., Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 456Google Scholar and Maurice, , Life of Octavia Hill, p. 453Google Scholar.

49. “I have great sympathy for the ground landlord,” she once stated, “he is a man whose power for good I believe in, and have spent much of my life in getting people to become landlords,” Minutes of Evidence from the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, in Parliamentary Papers, 18841885, XXX, 296Google Scholar.

50. Lord Carrington told the Royal Commission that the “low class of property is very much sought after, and recommended by some lawyers as the safest eight per cent, investment that exists at present,” Ibid., 300. Hill, , “Importance of Aiding the Poor,” Transactions, p. 593Google Scholar.

51. For all these activities see W. Hill, Octavia Hill, passim and Maurice, Life of Octavia Hill, passim, and Miss Hill's own writings, especially, Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 458Google Scholar.

52. Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 458Google Scholar, and the Times, August 15, 1912.

53. Owen, , English Philanthropy, p. 389Google Scholar.

54. Barnett, , “Women as Philanthropists,” p. 31Google Scholar. Archbishop Temple once remarked after a meeting with Miss Hill concerning the Ecclesiastical Estates, “I never had such a beating in my life!” Best, , Temporal Pillars, p. 492Google Scholar. In a revealing aside Henrietta Barnett mentioned that Miss Hill usually “disliked other people's arrangement of flowers or furniture.” Barnett, , Canon Barnett, I, 31Google Scholar.

55. Justice, March 29, 1884. See also Justice, July 19, 1884 for William Morris's attack on Miss Hill.

56. See for example the Morning Post, August 15, 1912.

57. Quoted in Owen, , English Philanthropy, p. 390Google Scholar.

58. “To sum up,” she wrote in 1866, “my endeavors in ruling these people should be to maintain perfect strictness in our business relations, perfect respectfulness in our personal relations.” Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 458Google Scholar.

59. Hill, , “Organised Work,” Macmillan's Magazine, XX, 225Google Scholar and Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine XXIV, 458Google Scholar.

60. Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 458Google Scholar and Hill, , “Organised Work,” Macmillan's Magazine, XX, 224Google Scholar.

61. Hill, , “Organised Work,” Macmillan's Magazine, XX, 221Google Scholar and Bremner, , “Iron Scepter,” Social Service Review, II, 226Google Scholar.

62. Maurice, , Life of Octavia Hill, p. 217Google Scholar.

63. Ibid., vi.

64. Hill, , “Organised Work,” Macmillan's Magazine, XX, 225Google Scholar.

65. Times, August 15, 1912.

66. Ibid., and Hill, , “Cottage Property,” Fortnightly Review, VI, 683Google Scholar.

67. She had two cardinal rules in dealing with the poor. The first was always to bring personal influence to bear on the poor; the second was to abstain from any form of almsgiving. See Hill, , “Importance of Aiding the Poor,” Transactions, p. 389Google Scholar.

68. Ouvry, , Extracts, p. 3Google Scholar.

69. Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 457Google Scholar. It is perhaps not irrelevant to recall that Henrietta Barnett considered that Miss Hill had an almost masochistic love of suffering. Barnett, , Canon Barnett, I, 31Google Scholar.

70. St.James, and St. John,, Clerkenwell, , Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health (London, 1883), pp. 1415Google Scholar.

71. Hill, , “Cottage Property,” Fortnightly Review, VI, 682Google Scholar.

72. Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 460Google Scholar. A couple of years later she wrote of the same property that it “is still in a dilapidated state; oh! So dirty and dilapidated; but the people are so charming; we have such a wonderful hold over them, and can therefore do so much with and for them.” Maurice, , Life of Octavia Hill, p. 268Google Scholar.

73. Ouvry, , Extracts, p. 3Google Scholar.

74. George, D., London Life in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1965), pp. 104106Google Scholar.

75. Model dwelling companies were often encouraged by estate managers to build on or near large freehold estates for the same reason. See Olsen, D. J., Town Planning in London (New Haven, 1964), p. 192Google Scholar.

76. Webb, , My Apprenticeship, p. 268Google Scholar.

77. Hill, , “Organised Work,” Macmillan's Magazine, XX, 222Google Scholar.

78. Hill, O., “Colour, Space and Music for the People,” Nineteenth Century, XVI (1884), 744Google Scholar. This article discusses the activities of the Kryle Society.

79. Hill, , “Organised Work,” Macmillan's Magazine, XX, 221Google Scholar. One should note that Henrietta Barnett considered Miss Hill to be totally without a sense of humour. See Barnett, , Canon Barnett, I, 30Google Scholar.

80. Best, , Temporal Pillars, p. 492Google Scholar.

81. See Tarn, , “Housing in Urban Areas,” p. 340Google Scholar.

82. Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 464Google Scholar.

83. Charity Organisation Review, new series, I & II (1897), p. 245Google Scholar.

84. Hill, O., “Influence on Character,” in Life and Labour of the People in London, ed. Booth, C. III, Pt. I, Blocks of Buildings, pp. 3536Google Scholar. “In the block, even the perambulator may be a difficulty, pets are impossible, even the nail for the funeral card or photograph of the son in Egypt, must be put, if at all, on the picture rail.” Ibid., p. 36.

85. Miss Hill ignored the larger issues and concentrated upon work of infinite detail. Her work, she wrote, was “one of detail..: Locks to be mended, notices to be served, the missing shilling of the week's rent to be called for three or four times, petty quarrels to be settled, small rebukes to be spoken, the same remonstrances to be made again and again.” Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 465Google Scholar.

86. See for example her comments before the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes of 1884-5: Minutes of Evidence from the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in Parliamentary Papers, 184-85, XXX, 291, 294, 388Google Scholar.

87. Quoted in Hill, , Octavia Hill, p. 162Google Scholar.

88. In each of the three decades between 1871 and 1901, Greater London increased its population by over 850,000 people.

89. Octavia Hill was partially instrumental in assisting the passage of the Cross Act of 1875. See Hill, , Octavia Hill, p. 89Google Scholar. The Torrens Act, passed in 1868, permitted local authorities to pull down unsanitary houses; the Cross Act extended the same right over a large area to the Metropolitan Board of Works.

90. Miss Hill's evidence before the Commission on Housing: Minutes of Evidence from the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in Parliamentary Papers, 18841885, XXX, 292Google Scholar. This is exactly what the Cross Acts allowed for. The Metropolitan Board of Works undertook the clearance work and left the construction generally to the model dwelling companies and trusts, to whom it sold the cleared land.

91. In this respect her housing schemes were but an extension of her work with the Charity Organisation Society and conformed closely to its philosophy. “The rich,” she insisted, “must abstain from any form of almsgiving,” and subsidized rents to her were merely a form of alms. Hill, , “The Importance of Aiding the Poor,” Transactions, p. 389Google Scholar.

92. Minutes of Evidence from the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in Parliamentary Papers, 18841885, XXX, 298Google Scholar.

93. In a letter written in the 1880s she proudly stated, “I have always made the houses under my charge pay five per cent ….” Maurice, , Life of Octavia Hill, p. 451Google Scholar. Of course one could argue that five per cent, was a very low return for working class houses at that time, and that it therefore represented subsidised housing, for which the term “philanthropic capitalism” was merely an euphemism to ease the conscience. Ruskin, for example, maintained that his Marylebone properties could realise a return of ten per cent, in the hands of other house managers. Manchester Guardian, August 16, 1912.

94. Minutes of Evidence from the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in Parliamentary Papers, 18841885, XXX, pp. 292, 305Google Scholar.

95. Hill, , Homes of the London Poor, p. 2Google Scholar.

96. Minutes of Evidence from the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in Parliamentary Papers, 18841885, XXX, 292Google Scholar.

97. Hill, , Homes of the London Poor, p. 3Google Scholar.

98. Minutes of Evidence from the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in Parliamentary Papers, 18841885, XXX, 305Google Scholar.

99. Miss Hill's acceptance of extremely low standards had an influence directly upon the building of the East End Dwellings Company and indirectly upon the model dwelling movement as a whole. For the East End Dwellings Company's Katherine Buildings, see Barnett, , Canon Barnett, I, 30Google Scholar.

100. The phrase is the Social Democratic Federation's. Justice, January 21, 1884.

101. Gatliff, C., “On Improved Dwellings and their Beneficial Effect on Health and Morals with Suggestions for their Extension,” Journal of the Statistical Society of London, XXXVIII (1875), 3435Google Scholar, London County Council, London Statistics, XII (19011902)Google Scholar, table II, 117, and Spensley, J. C., “Urban Housing Problems,” Journal of the Statistical Society of London, LXXI (1918), 200Google Scholar.

102. Dwellings of the Poor, p. 138.

103. Times, December 6, 1898; December 22, 1898.

104. For an interesting discussion of this point see Gilbert, B., The Evolution of National Insurance in Great Britain; The Origins of the Welfare State (London, 1966), pp. 2628Google Scholar.

105. Hill, O., Our Common Land (London, 1877), p. 160Google Scholar. Miss Hill strongly advocated that “Rich and Poor should know one another simply and naturally as friends.” Ibid.

106. Minutes of Evidence from the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, in Parliamentary Papers, 18841885, XXX, 412Google Scholar.

107. Ibid., p. 168.

108. Maurice, , Life of Octavia Hill, pp. 286–87Google Scholar. Miss Hill was the first to admit that her work required a “great deal of personal supervision,” Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV, 459Google Scholar.

109. She belonged to that generation, perhaps best typified by the Oxford and Cambridge men who flocked to the East End Settlements, which asked, not what is to be done, but what can I do — her approach always remained a highly personal and individualistic one.

110. Many of her essays end on a highly religious note. See for example, Hill, , “Blank Court,” Macmillan's Magazine, XXIVGoogle Scholar. In an earlier article she wrote:

It is necessary to believe that in thus setting in order certain spots on God's earth, still more in presenting to a few of His children a somewhat higher standard of right, we are doing His work, and that He will not permit us to lose sight of His large laws, but will rather make them evident to us through the small details. Hill, , “Organised Work,” Macmillan's Magazine, XX, 224Google Scholar.

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