For International Women’s Day 2020 we are looking back at the life of an inspirational woman in housing, Octavia Hill. She was a pioneering and innovative social reformer who made a significant contribution to the concept of housing management and a moving force behind the development of social housing that paved the way for sector as we know it today.
She was born in 1838, as one of nine children to James and Caroline Hill, both socially conscious people. The family lived a comfortable life, her farther a corn merchant and her mother from a well-off family. Hill’s family hit hard times when her farther experienced bankruptcy after his business failed during the 1840 depression. During this time the family relied on Caroline’s farther for funds. Hill’s farther also suffered with depression and abandoned his family which resulted in her mother working as a manager at the Ladies’ Cooperative Guild in London in order to support the family.
Hill helped to do various jobs around the guild and was appalled by the poverty and awful living conditions she saw around London. This inspired her to help the poor. At the age of 14 Hill started making toys for poor school children at the guild and then went on to work as a copyist for a man called John Ruskin in her spare time.
Hill started developing plans for improving housing for less fortunate people. She found that landlords often disregarded their responsibilities to their tenants and that tenants were oppressed. John Ruskin was impressed by Hill’s drive and was also disgusted by the living conditions in the slums of London which were notorious for poverty and petty crime. This led to him investing in Hill’s proposed activities to address housing issues (for a 5% return) when he inherited a fortune from his father.
With this money, Hill bought her first properties in 1865, extended and refurbished them and let them out to tenants at an affordable rate. She regularly maintained and cleaned the homes and her and her female only rent collectors visited the tenants weekly to work with them and get to know them, somewhat acting as social workers, addressing issues such as their housing needs, employments, budgeting, wellbeing and education.
She believed that personal contact with all tenants was important and thought that tenants needed to be treated in a way that enhanced their self-respect. This led to a good relationship between the tenants and the landlord and the scheme was successful. Any surplus of money was reinvested into the scheme on beneficial projects for the tenants such as playgrounds and classes. As a result of the successfulness of the scheme, Hill received funding from more investors and developed more schemes. By 1874, she had 15 housing schemes and around 3000 tenants. She also trained and paid a group of women housing workers and became a significant public figure.
Octavia Hill was also concerned about the availability of open spaces for underprivileged people and campaigned to preserve open spaces as ‘Space for the people’. This resulted in her becoming one of the founders of the National Trust.
Hill was also one of the founders of the charity Family Action (formally Charity Organisation Society) that formed the concept of current day social work and was also a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws.
Hill died from cancer in 1912, at the age of 73 after impacting housing management on a global scale with some of her ideas being copied across Europe and America.
Octavia Hill’s notion of ensuring that tenants had homes with good living conditions at affordable prices and ensuring that tenants voices were heard can still be seen as the core values of social housing today and numerous housing projects still operate on her concepts.