When I was asked to write on the newly published celebration of the life, work and legacy of Victorian social reformer Octavia Hill (full disclosure: I received a free review copy), I felt – as a chronicler and advocate of what I’ll insist on calling old-fashionedly municipal housing – that I was possibly not the best person for the task.
Hill hated municipal housing. She had many objections – it was unfair that property owners paying rates should, in effect, subsidise their competitors; it was corrupting that local councillors should solicit votes from their own tenants. But primarily – and she was speaking here as the London County Council began its own massive rehousing efforts – she believed that ‘rate-supported dwellings paralysed individual effort’. (1)
This emphasis on self-help would be the key-note of her own reforming role. Her housing work began in 1865 when she purchased, with the help of John Ruskin (a friend and ally), three run-down houses in Paradise Place (now Garbutt Place), Marylebone. He insisted on a five per cent return, not to safeguard his own investment but as an incentive for others to follow.
She was a good landlord – ensuring that the properties were well-maintained and kept in good order – but a firm one. Any non-payment of rent led to rapid eviction; her goal for tenants was a ‘dignified independence…in the sense that they are really paying for their own home’.
At best, this was a form of ‘tough love’. She collected rents personally each week and used these visits as an early form of social work, though one very much predicated on her own Victorian values of gentility and respectability. As she stated: (2)
You cannot deal with the people and their houses separately. The principle on which the whole work rests is that the inhabitants and their surroundings must be improved together.
The success of this early venture led, again with Ruskin’s financial aid, to the purchase of a court of five court cottages and a larger house in nearby Freshwater Place in the following year. Its extension, as her portfolio expanded, led to what became recognised and lauded as the Octavia Hill system – her housing managers collected rents weekly, personally supervised tenants, ensured proper maintenance of properties and, where financially feasible, improved them.
These managers were female and, by employing women, Hill had created a new profession, almost the only one open to capable middle- and upper-class women of the day, albeit one rooted in the domestic sphere that was their allotted role. (With the kind of conservatism that enrages her critics, Hill opposed female suffrage and – despite her own increasingly public role and status – a wider political role for women.)
One contributor to the book, Rita Powell, a resident of 49 years’ standing in Gable Cottages in Sudrey Street, Southwark (an attractive purpose-built block of homes designed for Hill by Elijah Hoole in 1889) remembers ‘the ladies’ as ‘quite strict’, insisting – in that quintessential display of middle-class respectability – on net curtains in the windows, for example. But she remembers also their kindness, buying saving stamps for the children and bringing food around when illness had struck. You can negotiate the complexities of that relationship – the mix of control, patronage and compassion – yourself.
The book itself is a ragbag or, to put it more generously, a compendium of contributions from the great and the good, employees and volunteers of what is now known as Octavia Housing, and its residents. It is pegged on the contributors’ varied understanding of what is taken to be Hill’s mission statement – her ambition:
to make individual life noble, homes happy and family life good.
The most meaningful responses come, to my mind, from Octavia Housing’s volunteers and residents. The great and the good (whose names feature on the cover) tend to project their own causes and values on Hill, sometimes in apparent ignorance of just how strongly those might differ from Hill’s. Her rich and varied and essential generous life does, to be fair, give them ample scope. Hill was, amongst other things, a founder member of the Charity Organisation Society (founded to assist the ‘deserving’ poor) and the National Trust.
Both represented a natural extension to her work in housing. She added playgrounds and gardens to her housing schemes as resources allowed and believed, as Simon Jenkins reminds us, that ‘we all want beauty for the refreshment of our souls’. (This reminds me of two other committed Christians, Alfred and Ada Salter, who also sought – albeit by means of the municipal socialism that Hill abhorred – to bring the ‘chiefest means of natural grace’ to the poor of London by their beautification of Bermondsey.)
There are plenty of people who will point very plausibly to the limitations and contradictions of Hill’s philosophy (although that is a term which she herself would have abjured – she saw herself as a pragmatist, concerned with practicalities rather than grand theory). She was absolutely a person of her class, time and place and it is easy – though perhaps less easy now – to see how far her individualistic and self-help values have been superseded by both a better understanding of the structural causes of disadvantage and their assumed remedy in collective and state action.
It is more interesting to take a look at what she got right (when some others didn’t) and to see what has persisted and remains relevant in her labours.
For one thing, she was adamant that her homes should be affordable to the poorest. Writing of Barrett’s Court (which Hill renamed St Christopher’s Place) off Oxford Street, she argued ‘if we had rebuilt, we must have turned [the existing tenants] out in favour of a higher class, thus compelling them to crowd in courts as bad as Barrett’s Court itself was when we bought it’. This had been precisely the deficiency of contemporary model dwelling schemes and would be the fault of the Boundary Estate, the LCC’s first housing scheme. It remained the case that council housing into the interwar period was beyond the reach of many of the lowest paid workers.
To this end, Hill was prepared to rehabilitate older properties and accept the continuing necessity of single-room dwellings. That’s a position that most would find unacceptable today and it’s one which became obsolete as municipal building and systems of rent allowances and rebates (which Hill would presumably have decried as promoting dependency) developed.
But her overall stance would acquire a surprising later resonance. Hill opposed the utilitarian (though ‘model’) tenement schemes of her day, the block dwellings, but also rejected their supposed alternative, working-class suburban cottage estates. In that regard, the unfashionable Octavia Hill comes close to the criticisms made after her death of many later municipal developments. Her support for affordable inner-city living for the poor and the street life in which it rested is a cause which echoes to the present.
The ‘lady collectors’ are ripe for gentle – or not so gentle – criticism too: they were ‘an altogether superficial thing’ according to Beatrice Webb in the face of the ‘collective brutality’ and squalor of endemic poverty. (3) But, in fact, their role and legacy persisted. Ironically, for all Hill’s antagonism to municipal housing, a number of councils were to follow her model, including in her own day Kensington (whose approach for collaboration Hill rejected) and Camberwell.
The Association of Women Property Managers was formed in 1916 and one of its members (who had worked for Octavia Hill from 1910) would go on to become the first female municipal property manager in the country – for Chesterfield Town Council in 1927. Miss Upcott (surely only her family ever called her Janet) was insistent on applying Hill’s methods: (4)
the careful management of the houses by persons thoroughly acquainted with the social needs of an area and able to deal with each individual case according to its requirements. Managers trained on Octavia Hill lines are accustomed to deal with difficult tenants without rejecting them instantly as undesirable; to regenerate slum areas without undue dispossession of the tenants there.
Another graduate of Hill’s, Miss Evelyn Perry, went on to work for the St Pancras House Improvement Society and, in 1928, St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council where she managed a municipal estate in Somers Town.
In changed times and in different ways, in Octavia Housing (as the book makes clear) and in other housing associations and departments across the country, this work continues.
Ultimately, what the book highlights is the enduring need and value of social housing. Something as simple as a fixed address – to register for health services and schooling – can make all the difference. The willingness of recent governments to tolerate the rise of homelessness we see on our streets is nothing less than shocking.
More profoundly, a proper home provides security. Alan Johnson MP writes movingly of his own experience as an Octavia Hill resident as the child of a single mother. In difficult times, she made sure the rent was paid regularly:
Battered by ill fortune and dogged by poor health, my mother’s basic human need for shelter had at last been met and she wasn’t going to let that slip away. Octavia was our source of security –a ‘trust’ in more ways than one.
That is a sentiment echoed by a number of current Octavia Housing residents whose testimonies are included in the volume. It’s ironic that there are right-wing ideologues who criticise social housing for promoting dependence when, in fact, it enables its opposite.
That these homes should be affordable goes – or should go – without saying except that in our current housing Wonderland we live in a world where ‘affordable’ rents are defined as being 80 per cent of current inflated market rates. Octavia Hill understood that rents – particularly in inner London where her work was concentrated – had to be within the means of its poorest citizens. A number of the contributions remind us that social housing remains the best – perhaps the only – means of ensuring truly affordable rents for all our people.
Ian Hislop describes Hill as ‘both brilliant and brittle, inspiring and infuriating, dogmatic and yet an undeniable force for good’. Hill herself wrote of what she hoped would be an evolving legacy:
When I am gone I hope my friends will not try to carry out any special system, or to follow blindly in the track which I have trodden. New circumstances require various efforts; and it is the spirit, not the dead form which should be perpetuated.
Rather, as Gillian Darley reminds us, Hill wished to bequeath ‘greater ideals, greater hope and patience to realise both’. In that spirit, this book is a worthy memorial to her life and labour.
A Life More Noble is published by Octavia and can be purchased for £9.99. You can find out more on the book from its dedicated website.
(1) Enid Moberley Bell and Reginald Rowe, Octavia Hill (1942) and Gillian Darley, Octavia Hill (1990). A revised and updated edition, still in print, of Gillian Darley’s biography of Hill was published in 2010.
(2) Quoted in Caroline Morrell, Housing and the Woman’s Movement, PhD thesis, Oxford Brookes University (1999)
(3) Quoted in Marion Brion, Women in the Housing Service (1995)
(4) JM Upcott, ‘The Management of Municipal Housing Estates on Octavia Hill Lines’. Paper read in Section D, Personal and Domestic Hygiene, of the Congress of the Royal Sanitary Institute, Plymouth, July 14 to 21, 1928.
Upcott (1888-1985) founded the Conference of Women Municipal Managers in 1928 and went on to play a key role in the National Trust as a member, amongst other things, of its Estates Committee for 56 years.
My thanks to the Bishopsgate Institute for the unexpected discovery of Miss Upcott’s pamphlet.