The Victorian values of Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill retains an extraordinary ability to inspire and infuriate. The ideas of this pioneer of housing management, social work and environmental protection almost seem more influential (and more contradictory) now than they did when she died 100 years ago this week.

She was a high-achieving woman in a society dominated by men but she was not by any stretch of the imagination a feminist. Her housing managers were women because, ‘ladies must do it, for it is detailed work; ladies must do it, for it is household work; it needs, moreover, persistent patience, gentleness, hope’. Yet she was opposed to women’s suffrage on the grounds that, as Kathryn Hughes puts it, ‘women were unsuited to thinking about the big issues of finance and foreign policy’.

She was a pioneer of housing for the poor and of housing management but she remained resolutely opposed to council housing on the grounds that any form of subsidy was inefficient and took away the independence of tenants. She called it ‘the disastrous policy of attempting to supply by the aid of the community a necessary of life (such as lodging is) for the working classes’.

She was a social reformer but she was a reactionary opponent of any form of welfare state – even old-age pensions or free school meals – and a firm believer in the moral distinction between the  ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Here’s a flavour of her thinking: ‘We have made many mistakes with our alms, eaten out the heart of the independent, bolstered up the drunkard in his indulgence, subsidised wages, discouraged thrift, assumed that many of the most ordinary wants of a working man’s family must be met by our wretched and intermittent doles.’

Portait of Octavia Hill by John Singer Sergent

In her long and distinguished career, she also had time to co-found the National Trust, help to inspire the garden city movement and network with anyone who was anyone in Victorian society. Only three women were invited to a Westminster Abbey service for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887: Florence Nightingale, the pioneering feminist campaigner and social worker Josephine Butler and Octavia Hill.

Losing the argument

Yet then she died on 13 August, 1912, Hill seemed to have lost the argument on most of the causes she had espoused. The London County Council was already building the first council housing, the Lloyd George government had laid the foundations for the welfare state and the suffragettes were not taking no for an answer on votes for women. The National Trust was beginning to thrive but was nothing like the powerful organisation it is today.

In her final decade, she had been a member of the 1905-1909 Commission on the Poor Law, Britain’s discredited system of workhouses and outdoor relief. The commission was split between a majority faction including Hill and the Charity Organisation Society who favoured modest reforms and a minority including Beatrice Webb of the Fabians who wanted the complete abolition of the system. The Minority Report was to become the blueprint for the welfare state. However, even the reforms in the Majority Report were too much for Hill: she wrote a dissenting memorandum objecting to its proposals for free medical treatment for the poor and state action on unemployment. As Robert Whelan notes in his Civitas pamphlet Octavia Hill and the Social Housing debate: ‘Octavia was nearing the end of her life and—unfortunately perhaps—lived just long enough to see the passage of Acts of Parliament which introduced the things she had fought most bitterly against, like state pensions, which she was sure would undermine thrift and self-reliance.’

Until about 30 years ago, she was largely forgotten outside of the two relatively small housing organisations that bore her name (one in London, one in Philadelphia), the charity Family Action and the committee rooms of the Institute of Housing (though see Robert Whelan’s pamphlet for details of the fight by women housing managers to maintain their status and independence). Despite her pioneering work in housing, in social work, in environmentalism and in the work of women, her reactionary views made her seem an irrelevance. John Burnett’s book on the social history of housing, my regular source on housing in the 19th and 20th centuries, does not even mention her.

Woman of her time

However, the book was published in 1978, when everything had begun to change. Council housing was about to lose its pre-eminent status, the victim of cuts in public spending and the right to buy. A year later Britain had a new prime minister whose grocery shop notions of economics, suspicion of the state and emphasis on self-reliance were eerily familiar.

When Thatcher talked about returning to ‘Victorian values’, she meant something very like the kind of society that Octavia Hill had advocated, before Britain was ruined by socialist ideas like the welfare state. However, it would be too simplistic to see Hill as some sort of proto-Thatcher. Her father was a follower of the utopian socialist Robert Owen, she was inspired by the sermons of the founder of Christian socialism FD Maurice and her first investor was the art critic and Christian socialist John Ruskin. The Christian socialists were also deeply suspicious of indiscriminate charity and its potential for breeding dependency and this was a period before the left began to see the state as the vehicle for reform. As David Clapham argues in a chapter in Built to Last, she was very much a woman of her time, and ‘to advocate the use of her methods today is to misunderstand the context within which her work took place’.

It’s not hard to see why her ideas carry such resonance on the right and to see echoes of them in, for example, Iain Duncan Smith’s approach to welfare reform. The model that she developed with Ruskin of philanthropy with a 5 per cent return and her opposition to any form of subsidy looks remarkably similar to what we could end up with after the next spending review and the recommendations of the Montague review of private renting. The troubled families programme and its use of payment by results would surely meet with her approval.

Inspiration and contradictions

And yet if Octavia Hill was only a source of inspiration for the New Right, the fascination with her would surely not be as great as it has become 100 years after her death if all she had to offer were the National Trust and Victorian Values. In a book published by Demos in May luminaries from Anne Power to John Bird and from Rabbi Julia Neuberger to Dame Fiona Reynolds explain why they value her legacy.

In housing terms, it’s probably her ideas about what became housing management that are her greatest legacy: the emphasis on going beyond bricks and mortar, on the details of whitewash, access to clean water, unbroken windows and prompt payment of rent, on sound financial management, on the value of open spaces, on community engagement, on regeneration. As Grahame Hindes of Octavia Housing explains in the Demos book, the complexity of modern housing means it would no longer be possible to apply the Octavia Hill method of having a single manager dealing with the property and the people, but the principles behind it live on. That sense of a human scale in housing is a necessary corrective to the mistakes of big council housing.

But the contradictions remain. Octavia Hill disapproved of the construction of blocks of flats by other housing associations like Peabody and insisted on the value of open space and cottage-style homes and homes at affordable rents. She also co-founded the National Trust and would no doubt have approved of its campaign against the national planning policy framework even though the result will be even less land for new homes and inflation of property prices even further beyond most people’s means. She cared for the poor and yet opposed any form of concerted action by the state to tackle poverty. She was one of the pioneers of housing for the poor yet failed to see that philanthropy could only ever offer a partial solution to the problem. As Tristram Hunt, the Labour MP and historian argues, the space has been created for social enterprise operating independently of the state yet how can a vision based on Christian duty work in a secular society?

The housing and welfare reforms of the coalition appear to have swung the pendulum closer to the ideas espoused by Octavia Hill than at any time in the 100 years since she died. All the more vital then to remember why the welfare state and council housing were established in the first place – philanthropy was not enough on its own and Victorian Values had failed to alleviate poverty – at the same time as we remember her unique contribution and her determination to put people at the heart of what she did.

For more about Octavia Hill and the history of housing, see:

Guardian Housing Network has a live discussion about her starting at noon on Monday August 13.


One Comment on “The Victorian values of Octavia Hill”

  1. Colin Wiles says:

    She also proposed a green belt around London in 1875, something that would have been absolutely disastrous for the growth, prosperity and housing of London. Her methods were essentially paternalistic, but as Jules rightly says, they provide much fodder for IDS and the rest. Let’s not forget that the CIH HQ is still names Octavia House.

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