Sue Young Histories

Octavia Hill 1838 – 1912

January 20, 2010

Octavia Hill 1838 –
1912Octavia Hill 1838 – 1912 was an English social reformer, the granddaughter of  Thomas Southwood Smith, who was forced into poverty due to his interest in homeopathy, forcing Octavia and Miranda to suffer such poverty, they became able campaigners for the poor and for social inequality.

In 1866,  Octavia Hill was was on the Council of Teachers at the Working Woman’s College at 29 Queen Square Bloomsbury. James John Garth Wilkinson was a subscriber to this college at this time (Anon, Second annual report of the council of teachers, London working women’s college, (1866). Page 2).

Octavia was a friend of George MacDonald, Princess Alice of Hesse, John Ruskin, Jane Elizabeth Nassau Senior, Samuel Smiles,

From Octavia Hill was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and worked closely with her sister Miranda Hill, who founded the Kyrle Society.

Octavia was the eighth daughter of James Hill, corn merchant and banker, and Caroline Southwood Smith, the daughter of Thomas Southwood Smith, the pioneer of sanitary reform. Both sisters worked for the preservation of open spaces.

Octavia Hill knew a great many notable Victorian artists and writers. To give but one example; at a party at George MacDonald’s house John Ruskin formally started off a large dance with Octavia Hill as his dancing partner. It was John Ruskin who funded her first ventures in housing reform in 1864 by financing the lease of three slum properties in Marylebone, London.

By the time of her death in 1912, her property portfolio had greatly extended (actual figure unknown) and, through a network of women volunteers, was managing at least 2,000 (possibly many more) dwellings.

She was influenced very much by the important theologian, Anglican priest and social reformer Frederick Denison Maurice. Her study of Frederick Denison Maurice inspired her confirmation into the Anglican Church. His son, Colonel Edmund Maurice edited her letters, which give a good insight into her life. He published Life of Octavia Hill as Told in her Letters (London, 1913).

Her publications include: Homes of the London Poor (1875) and Our Common Land (1877).

In 1889, she created the Southwark detachment of the Army Cadet Force, the first independent unit.

The Army Cadet Force (ACF) is a British youth organisation that offers progressive training in a multitude of the subjects from military training to adventurous training (such as Outward Bound) and first aid, at the same time as promoting achievement, discipline, and good citizenship, to boys and girls aged 12 to 18 year olds and 9 months.

Its affiliated organisation, the Combined Cadet Force provides similar training within various schools. It has connections to the training of the British Army.

Although sponsored by the Ministry of Defence and being very similar in structure and activity, the ACF is not a branch of the British Armed Forces, and as such cadets are not subject to military ‘call up’. A proportion of cadets do, however, go on to enlist in the armed forces in later life, and many of the organisation’s leaders - formally termed ‘Cadet Force Adult Volunteers’, or informally ‘Adult Instructors’ - come from a previous cadet service or military background.

The ACF can trace its beginnings back to 1859, when it was formed in order to prepare youths to enlist in the army in anticipation of an invasion of Britain by the French. It remained in existence after no invasion materialised, thanks in part to the influence of pioneer social worker Octavia Hill, because of its positive benefits on youths. The ACF is a registered charity.

Of interest:

Miranda Hill 1836 - 1910, was an English social reformer.

From She worked closely, from 1891, with her more famous sister Octavia Hill on major housing reform projects in England. She was the daughter of James Hill, corn merchant and banker, and Caroline Southwood Smith, the daughter of Thomas Southwood Smith, the pioneer of sanitary reform.

The sisters were brought up in reduced financial circumstances, and were never formally schooled. To earn her living, Miranda became a teacher at age 13.

Miranda founded the influential Kyrle Society in 1875/1876, a representative of which later sat on the first Council of the National Trust. The Society provided art, books and open spaces to the working class poor, around the slogan “Bring Beauty Home to the Poor”. This involved, at first, artistic decoration of hospitals, schools and working class clubs. It was named after philanthropist John Kyrle.

There were numerous branches around the country, generally formed from around 1877 onwards, and one branch was supported by William Morris. Another notable supporter was the Arts and crafts architect Mary Lovelace. The Society’s Open Space Committee was influential in saving numerous stretches of heathland and woodland in London, that would otherwise have been built on, and which are now highly prized leisure areas for Londoners.

There was also a horticultural wing aimed at children, and a branch called Invalid Children’s Aid (ICA), which became independent in 1908. Membership of the Society often overlapped with that of the early women’s suffrage movement. Miranda also worked in Marylebone as a member of the Board of Guardians there.

Thomas Southwood Smith was the physician of Jeremy Bentham, and the homeopathic practitioner of Emily Dunstan and Mary Shelley, and a friend of Hans Christian Andersen, Robert Browning, Edwin Chadwick, John Chapman, Samuel Taylor** **Coleridge, Charles Dickens, George Grote, William Howitt, Leigh Hunt, William Charles MacReady, John Stuart Mill, and William Wordsworth.


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