Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was a woman ahead of her time. An artist and a radical, she was a pioneer of affordable housing and can be seen as the founder of modern social work. Writing in the late 19th Century she stated that her purpose was to “make lives noble, homes happy and family life good”.
Housing was fundamental but Octavia Hill recognised that improving the properties alone was simply not going to have the desired effect of changing behaviour. Employment, organising activities for young people(including establishing the Southwark Cadet Company in order to introduce the boys of the slums of that area to the virtues of what she described as order), cleanliness, teamwork and self-reliance also played a huge role.
Octavia’s real skill was in what we would today call “regeneration”. Properties were initially acquired in an awful state. her method was initially to bring the properties to a decent standard and to improve them subsequently as the tenants demonstrated that they were able to look after the homes. She was respectful of the rights of tenants and would enter properties only with their permission. Her approach was basically one of “modelling” the right sort of behaviour that she wanted to encourage. She ensured that communal areas were clean and that corridors were scrubbed and rubbish removed, that all rents were paid on time and regularly, even if it meant several visits in a week. She also helped to provide work where necessary when tenants were out of employment, to ensure that they were all able to pay for the rent.
Octavia knew that open spaces played an important role in improving lives so she advocated for a “green belt” and was instrumental in getting Parliament Hill Fields bought for the benefit of Londoners, raising part of the money from the local authority and the rest – some £54,000 from private investors. It was Octavia’s campaign that ultimately led to the start of the National Trust in 1895.