Octavia Hill may have been somewhat surprised at the appointment of Dame Helen Ghosh as the new NT Director General. Dame Helen is very establishment and of course Octavia was the very antithesis. That’s not to say that she will not provide the type of leadership the Trust requires, after all, the present incumbent,  Dame Fiona has a somewhat similar background.

Octavia Hill’s very being came from her radical upbringing with her family and with the likes of John Ruskin. Indeed without Ruskin as a mentor she would not have achieved what she did.  She did fall out with him in later life but certainly he helped formulate the woman she was to become. Octavia’s love of beauty and the countryside was built alongside Ruskin. His money kicked off her initial social housing projects.
She could, perhaps, be viewed as a ‘democratic autocrat’. She believed in the common/poor man not relying on benefits but working for what they got, although she was willing to help them get started. In her later years she became seen as patronising and old fashioned. Surprisingly she was against women’s suffrage, saying that politics was ‘men’s work’.
So backing away from her as a person, let’s follow her life up to the National Trust and beyond in outline detail (there is so much that it has to be brief).

Octavia became involved in various organisations, all concerned with open space and preserving those spaces for the ‘working man’ and his family. She initially got involved with the Commons Preservation Society(CPS). Commons being common land. Again, this was about stopping the is was still going apace in 1850 and enormous tracts of ‘public/common land’ were being lost.   Octavia was gradually becoming a well known figure through CPS and the Kyrle Society (an organisation with similar aims to the CPS). She was its first treasurer and main fund raiser.
 In 1876 Disraeli put forward legislation to further the powers of the enclosure commissioners thus putting more common land at risk.
Octavia and her colleagues, particularly Robert Hunter and Hardie Rawnsley fought the proposed legislation vigorously, and although the new legislation became law, the overall effect of the campaign was to dramatically reduce the amount of land being enclosed. Most land that was hip as none of the associations had the right to own land. In 1893 Robert Hunter, Octavia Hill and Hardwicke Rawnsley met at the offices of the Commons Preservation Society with the express intention of changing the status quo. They had talked this through together and at the inaugural meeting of the Trust in 1894 they proposed the establishment of a land holding company to be called in Bob Hunter’s words, ‘The National Trust for Historic Sites and Natural Scenery’. For all three who had campaigned over decades, this was the culmination of their work for the preservation of open spaces and historic buildings. Bob Hunter became chairman, Hardie Rawnsley secretary and Octavia Hill, chief fund raiser. Octavia had,  connected.  When the time came for the Trust to start acquiring properties she knew the right people to approach. She was immensely successful. The three of them of course were the co-founders of the Trust we know today and were a very successful partnership, each having their own skills. Hunter had been involved in campaigns to preserve the likes of Wimbledon Common, Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath; Rawnsley in preserving huge tracts of the Lake District from the intrusion of the Victorian railways explosion and Octavia Hill of course for her work in transforming so many parts of run down London and in creating access to public gardens that we see today in modern London.
Octavia Hill died in 1912 and her co-founders in the same decade. The Times Newspaper wrote in 1935, on the fortieth anniversary of the legal incorporation of the Trust, that, of those who called the National Trust into being in 1895, Octavia Hill stands in central place with Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley on either side. Modern thought would perhaps say that we should view the three as one, the founders of the great movement we have today.
Did you know that the Trust has devised two Octavia Hill waymarked walk trails. They are around Toys Hill in Kent. They start and finish in Toys Hill National Trust car park near Westerham. Pdf leaflets at :nationaltrust.org/toys-hill  or pick up leaflets at Chartwell Visitor centre or the Toys Hill car park.

Roger Smith