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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Octavia Hill: the founder of modern housing


2016 is the 100th anniversary of the first meetings of the Association of Women Housing Workers and the very origins of CIH. So who was Octavia Hill, the woman who started it all? CIH London board vice chair Martyn Kingsford guest blogs.

Octavia Hill was a Victorian philanthropist, born in 1838 - the year after Queen Victoria came to the throne. She died in 1912, seven years before women got the vote. She rightly ranks with the great Victorians such as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, Karl Marx and others who shaped the world we live in today.

Born into an upper middle class family in Cambridgeshire, Octavia moved to London - the largest city in the world at the time, and best described by Charles Dickens as a place with great poverty alongside great wealth.

Domestic surroundings

The family had campaigned for sanitary reform, and Octavia grew up influenced by Christian socialist values. When still young, she was one of band of workers who laboured among the London poor, and this experience convinced her that people were influenced by their domestic surroundings. She wanted them to live in conditions of cleanliness, comfort and decency and she argued that by education, this could be achieved.

But, in her view, it was hopeless to consider this idea as long as tenants were left to the mercies of low-class landlords, whose only idea was to make as much money out of them as possible.

New ideas

Octavia Hill conceived the then-novel idea of obtaining possession of some squalid houses, of collecting her own weekly rents, and of exercising what influence she could in securing the transformation of dwellings and of tenants. She put her ideas to John Ruskin, who not only entered into the scheme but advanced altogether £3,000 for carrying out this social experiment. 

Octavia began by purchasing the lease of three houses near to her own home in Marylebone. They were well-built houses, but in a deplorable condition of dirt and neglect. As her own rent collector, Octavia Hill entirely did away with a middleman, but she was extremely strict in enforcing punctual payment of rent. She encouraged the tenants to keep the houses in a cleanly condition and she set aside a certain amount per year for repairs for each house; the surplus was used for improvements, which the tenants themselves decided upon. These were the very beginnings of tenant involvement and engagement.

Next steps

The next purchase was of six houses, which faced a bit of desolate ground occupied by dilapidated cowsheds and manure heaps. The repairs and cleaning were carried out, the waste land was turned into a playground, and Miss Hill taught the children games.

For the boys she started a drum and fife band - this led to Octavia Hill being one of the founders of the Army Cadet Force. For the parents, she built a large room at the back of her own house, where she could meet them from time to time for the purposes of talk or entertainment - a tenants' clubroom, as we'd know it today.

Her weekly call for the rent was, however, the great hold which she kept over her tenants: "The main tone of action," she wrote, "must be severe. There is much of rebuke and repression needed, although a deep and silent undercurrent of sympathy may flow beneath. If the rent is not ready, notice to quit must be served. The money is then almost always paid, when the notice is, of course, withdrawn."

All of this acted as the origins of the housing worker we know today.

Octavia's influence

Happily, this crusade for better housing and landlord services was completely successful. Not only did the tenants acquire the habit of being punctual in their payments, but they learned of cleanliness, while Octavia Hill - strict as she was in all these things - became the family counsellor for each household and the peacemaker in the settlement of neighbours quarrels (neighbour disputes as we know today!).

And all this before she was 32 years old!

As time went on, many more blocks of dwellings came under Octavia's management in different parts of London and a number of women were trained by her. In 1887, a very practical step was made by the formation of the Women’s University Settlement in Blackfriars Road, whose members worked for Miss Hill in the streets of cottages in Southwark.

Miss Hill gave an active support to the Artisans’ Dwellings Act of 1874, and in 1884 she was one of the witnesses examined by the Special Commission. In 1886 the Horace Street Trust was established, the model on which housing associations were formed. The Trust is now the Octavia Group

Octavia Hill died in 1912 - the women she taught and trained created the organisation that would become the Chartered Institute of Housing.

- Martyn Kingsford OBE TD FRICS FCIH

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