Hill Launches Housing Reform in London

Great Britain’s rapid urbanization in the wake of the Industrial Revolution led to increased construction of houses for the working classes. These homes soon turned into slums. Social reformer Octavia Hill believed that housing decay could be reversed if individual inhabitants were treated humanely and given much greater incentives by enlightened landlords to take care of their homes.

Summary of Event

Octavia Hill, so named as an eighth daughter, was one of the main initiators of the movement in London, and elsewhere in England, to regenerate slum areas into decent, livable housing for workers. She was born in the quiet East Anglian town of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, in 1838. Her father, James Hill, was a prosperous merchant. Her maternal grandfather, Dr. Southwood Smith, a noted reformer of public health through better sanitation and housing conditions for the urban poor, worked at the London Hospital in London’s notorious East End and lived in Highgate, in north London. He became a surrogate father to the Hill children after 1840, when James’s business collapsed and he became insane. Industrial Revolution;and housing[Housing]
Housing reform
England;housing reform
London;housing reform
Hill, Octavia
Ruskin, John
[kw]Hill Launches Housing Reform in London (1864)
[kw]Launches Housing Reform in London, Hill (1864)
[kw]Housing Reform in London, Hill Launches (1864)
[kw]Reform in London, Hill Launches Housing (1864)
[kw]London, Hill Launches Housing Reform in (1864)
Industrial Revolution;and housing[Housing]
Housing reform
England;housing reform
London;housing reform
Hill, Octavia
Ruskin, John
[g]Great Britain;1864: Hill Launches Housing Reform in London[3700]
[c]Social issues and reform;1864: Hill Launches Housing Reform in London[3700]
[c]Architecture;1864: Hill Launches Housing Reform in London[3700]
Maurice, Frederick Denison

Hill’s mother, Caroline, moved the family to Finchley, a village north of London, where she home-schooled the children, allowing them much time to roam the nearby fields and open spaces. In 1851, Caroline moved into central London, to Holborn, and in the next year was offered a job as manager and bookkeeper to the cooperative called the Ladies Guild, which ran a craft workshop. She made Hill her personal assistant, in charge of the girls from the nearby Ragged School who worked in the workshop. When Hill visited the girls’ homes, she saw the appalling poverty and the filth in which the girls lived.

The Ladies Guild attracted the attention of the Reverend Frederick Denison Maurice Maurice, Frederick Denison and other Christian Socialists. Soon, Hill became deeply influenced by Maurice’s ideals and his religious commitment, and was confirmed into the Church of England in 1857. Another visitor to the guild was John Ruskin, the young Victorian art critic who, like Hill, was deeply concerned with the living and working conditions of the working classes. He recognized Hill’s artistic abilities and trained her as his copyist for his art projects. When the cooperative began to fail, he offered her the post of secretary for the women’s classes at the Working Men’s College in Holborn. She also began teaching there. It was at that time Hill was developing a tremendous sense of social purpose, and believed especially that improvements in living conditions could be achieved by individual families voluntarily. She shared the prevailing attitude against any central government control, apart from the government’s role as general enabler.

Ruskin’s father, who died in 1864, left his son a substantial sum of money. Hill was then offered the chance to combine her ideas about social reform with John Ruskin’s ideas and put them into practice. During that same year, the younger Ruskin bought out the landlords of Paradise Place, a notorious slum in London’s Marylebone district, leaving the slum’s recovery and management to Hill. She had the houses completely renovated and set up a new management system. Each family was allocated two rooms instead of one; rooms had to be kept clean and rent had to be paid weekly and on time. Hill gathered a team of “fellow workers,” as she called them, to collect the rent. Some of these volunteers, including Beatrice Webb and Hardwick Rawnsley, would become famous social reformers in their own right.

Rent collecting changed under Hill’s watch, and soon included a review of a tenant’s welfare. Hill, and later her team, would sit with tenants on a weekly basis during rent collection and talk, even offer friendly advice; bad tenants and debtors were evicted if they were habitually late with the rent. (Ruskin asked for a 5 percent return from the rents; any other profits were plowed back into the project with the advice of the tenants themselves.) Hill was particularly keen on the provision of open spaces around the houses. Also, she encouraged the development of recreational facilities, including a hall for musical and dramatic events, and planned excursions to the countryside for the children.

As Paradise Place prospered, Ruskin provided Hill with enough money to buy up adjacent properties. Unfortunately, he disagreed with her over having a holding company for the finances, and they parted company in 1877, the year Hill had the first of several physical breakdowns. In 1884, however, the ecclesiastical commissioners (the Church of England’s finance managers) were willing to hand over to her substantial slum properties they owned in the Walworth area of south London. There she further developed her ideas, setting up the Army Cadet Force (like the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC) for the boys and a women’s settlement for female students and single women.

Hill wrote widely on her projects and attracted considerable attention within Great Britain and abroad. Hill “trusts” were set up in Holland, Sweden, Germany, and even in Philadelphia, in the United States. She also attracted powerful patronage, including two of the daughters of Queen Victoria, and in the end many wealthy individuals and institutions were willing to invest in her projects. She remained firm in her belief that the idea of model families and the ideals of home should underlie all charitable work.

Later, in 1895, Hill helped set up the National Trust, an environmental organization, with Rawnsley, by that time a clergyman in the Lake District, and Robert Hunter Hunter, Robert , chairman of the open spaces movement. The trio planned to preserve open spaces for the benefit of the whole populace, especially the poor. She had donated one of the first properties to the National Trust, having managed to save from development, as early as 1875, at least three significant open spaces in London. She refused, however, to align herself with the woman suffrage movement, holding to the prevailing “separate spheres” theory of gender.


Before Olivia Hill there were few who successfully reformed the housing stock for unskilled working-class people. Slum clearance schemes were merely replaced by other slums. It has been estimated that by 1881, three million people were living in slums in Great Britain. Hill saw that tenant involvement was necessary for reform and that trained workers, prototypes of modern social workers, were critical in helping tenants manage their lives. Other schemes followed, including the one by Roman Catholic bishop (later archbishop) Manning, who set up an order of priests to minister to the poor in the Bayswater district of London.

Although Hill was against government involvement, her influence helped set up the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in 1884 under Sir Charles Dilke Dilke, Sir Charles , and in 1905 she joined the Royal Commission to revise the Poor Law. Government reforms by local authorities led to the establishment of the London county council, and it, along with other local authorities, was given greater powers to intervene in public housing. During the twentieth century a series of acts of Parliament (1919, 1924, 1930) enabled local councils to build and manage housing designed for people unable to buy their own residences; called council housing in Great Britain, the housing developments are often on large, designed estates.

Hill’s natural successors, however, are the voluntary and self-governing housing associations that developed at the end of the nineteenth century and which continue to flourish in the twenty-first. The Octavia Hill Trust was set up, and 1995 saw the opening of the Octavia Hill Birthplace Museum. The London School of Economics possesses some of her materials in its archives.

Further Reading

  • Bartlett, Ken. Lessons to Be Learned: Thought-Provoking Octavia Hill Commemoration Day Sermons. Wisbech, England: O. Hill Birthplace Museum Trust, 1996. One of the valuable works published by Hill’s birthplace museum. Examines a number of reassessments of Hill’s work.
  • Boyd, Nancy. Josephine Butler, Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale: Three Victorian Women Who Changed Their World. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982. One of a number of studies on Victorian women reformers and their achievements.
  • Burnett, J. A Social History of Housing 1815-1985. 2d ed. London: Methuen, 1986. A classic work that traces the overall history of housing since the time of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Carr-Gomm, Richard. Octavia Hill and the Individual. London: O. Hill Society, 1996. One of the invaluable society monographs.
  • Clayton, Peter John. Octavia Hill, 1838-1912: Born in Wisbech. Wisbech, England: Wisbech Society and Preservation Trust, 1993. A short introductory biography of Hill, published by the preservation society of the town where she was born.
  • Darley, Gillian. Octavia Hill: A Life. London: Constable, 1990. The definitive biography of Hill; a full account.
  • Daunton, Martin, ed. Housing the Workers: A Comparative History, 1850-1914. London: Leicester University Press, 1990. A revisionist set of essays that explore housing’s developmental processes, architectural forms, and patterns of management and control.
  • Hill, Octavia. Homes for the London Poor. London: Frank Cass, 1970. A reprint of Hill’s 1875 monograph, reissued in the Victorian Times series.
  • ______. Octavia Hill and the Social Housing Debate: Essays and Letters by Octavia Hill. Edited by Robert Whalan. Reprint. London: Civitas Institute for the Study of Civil Society, 2000. A most valuable collection of Hill’s writings, reissued in the Rediscovered Riches series.
  • Liebman, George W. Six Lost Leaders: Prophets of Civil Society. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2001. Hill’s efforts to improve housing are included in this examination of six people who believed their individual efforts could improve social conditions.
  • Wohl, Anthony S. The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977. A comprehensive discussion of working-class housing and of a variety of private and public efforts for its regulation and improvement. Wohl finds Hill’s contribution important but not altogether admirable.

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