OCTAVIA HILL (1838-1912) : THE EARLY YEARS

What an extraordinary woman ! If the glass ceiling had not been invented to break through then surely she would have produced it, not just to rise above it but shatter it into myriad pieces.
 
In many ways she was unique, for her time, totally unique. She came from a radical family, hence those influences in her childhood and upbringing were strong and probably all embracing and formed the strong mindset of this woman who was  to
become a co-founder of the National Trust we know today. 
 
Her grandfather, Thomas Southwood Smith was a campaigning Nonconformist. He was a driven man, dedicated to improving the lot of the ‘common man’.  Indeed the elephant in the room of that time was ‘class...them and us’. 
The middle and upper classes were determined to keep the working classes down and consequently the majority of the population in the early 19th century were worse off than they had been a thousand years before.  Of course times had moved on from the first millennium, the population had grown substantially and many had moved from countryside to town. On the whole these moves had made them worse off, substandard housing and much poorer food. Surprising isn’t it ? Indeed the size, height and shape of the 11th century Anglo-Saxons were very much as we are today. Because of increasing population in the middle ages, food became scarce and good accommodation at a premium and of course with the bullying and taxing barons the quality of life for the majority became very poor.
 
This had an effect on the health and spirit of the general population and health became poorer and size and height went down ,ie, most people became smaller in those intervening seven centuries. Nutrition was , frankly, just downright bad. Many thousands of young men were also slaughtered in the various conflagrations that consumed those years. The population did grow in numbers but saw a deterioration  in the quality of themselves as human beings.
 
By the time we get to the Victorian era things had not improved that much. Education was improving though and this brought about a cadre of knowledge and citizens who thought of others and were prepared and able and had the time to do something about it. Octavia Hill was to become such a woman.
 
 Her grandfather was a leading health reformer and as we know, sanitation still had a long way to go in the early 19th century.  He was well connected and was prepared to use all those contacts to further his relentless campaigns for the
improvement of the living conditions of the nation’s majority. Octavia’s mother married a man who was also a vigorous campaigner. James Hill was also a reformer, a good business man but someone who saw the value of the working
classes and based his efforts in social reform through a series of well intended but misguided attempts at ‘social living’.  James was a political radical and his ‘adventures’ into socialist communes lost him all his backing and friends when
things went wrong. Left bankrupt, he was a broken man.  His wife, Octavia’s mother, was made of stronger stuff and moved her family from Cambridgeshire into north London.Virtually penniless she realised she had to work to get by and encouraged her daughters (probably vigorously) to get jobs and get on with life. The young Octavia’s first job was at the age of fourteen and she was given charge of a Ladies Guild craft workshop for unskilled women and girls. She made a great success of this group of young toymakers and no doubt this proved a good training ground for the young social entrepreneur.
 
The family still had good connections with the reforming elite, amongst whom were, John Ruskin, F D Maurice and Charles Kingsley. Octavia was, it seems, inspired by the thoughts and words  of Kingsley who laid out the role women could
play in improving the lives of the poor. Octavia’s belief was that she should help the poor so that they could help themselves. She believed in giving them opportunities so that they could work and live in properties they could only
have dreamed of. She was sparky and feisty, did not suffer fools easily and in modern parlance, was ‘a tough cookie’.
 
She involved others in her work and worked her well established connections to the ultimate. She had firm opinions and her
autocratic attitude worked miracles. She had a relentless resolve and although a  social reformer, would have no truck
with what we today call the benefits system. You might say that we will never see her like again. Indeed it’s hard to think of many people who could fill a large room with their personality. People such as Octavia are a rare breed and are the nation’s true treasures.  A woman to be remembered with great fondness and unending admiration.
 
Roger Smith