08 Mar 2021

How a remarkable woman's vision gave birth to social housing and CIH

This International Women’s Day, we want to reflect on the pivotal role of one remarkable woman on housing. CIH and modern social housing both owe their beginnings to the formidable Octavia Hill.

Octavia was an extraordinary woman; born in 1838 – the year after Victoria became queen – she was inspired by her mother Caroline’s interest in social reform and the importance of education. She began her work on behalf of London's poor when she was 14 by helping to make toys for poor children and also served as secretary of the women's classes at the Bloomsbury Working Men's College.

She first began working in housing in the 1850s, and it was clear from the outset her mission was about much more than bricks and mortar.

“You cannot deal with people and their houses separately,” she said, and her vision was to make “lives noble, homes happy and family life good.” It would be difficult to find a housing provider who doesn’t have a version of this as their mission statement today.

Octavia believed as long as housing was in the hands of landlords motivated only by rental income, it was not possible to make sure families were able to live in clean, comfortable and decent homes.

It was Octavia who first conceived the idea of buying squalid homes, collecting weekly rents and transforming the buildings and the people living in them. In 1865 John Ruskin bought three cottages in Marylebone for her to manage, buying another five more a year later. By 1874 she had 15 housing schemes with around 3,000 tenants.

At the heart of the Octavia’s system was the weekly visit to collect rent. From the outset, she conceived this as a job for women only. She and her assistants combined the weekly rent collection with checking every detail of the premises and getting to know the tenants personally, acting as early social workers.

She encouraged tenants to keep their houses in good condition. An amount from the rent was set aside every year for repairs, and any surplus was used for improvements decided by the tenants themselves.

Her influence and her model for housing grew, with new accommodation and principles, including turning wasteland into playgrounds and the creation of clubs for tenants. She believed in "the life-enhancing virtues of pure earth, clean air and blue sky."

In 1884 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners recognised her enlightened approach and turned to her to manage and reform their slum properties in South London, which were notorious for poverty and petty crime. She turned these estates into model properties, which still paid a return on investment.

Octavia died in 1912 - six years before women were allowed to vote. After her death the women who worked with her took her vision of housing for those who needed it the most and established the Association of Women Housing Workers in 1916. This was the first ever professional body for housing workers and where CIH’s roots lie.

Our profession started with these pioneering women, and in today’s challenging housing landscape it is more important than ever that we remember Octavia. Her vision still resonates. She, and thousands of women who followed in her footsteps, were at the heart of building the CIH and the social housing we have today.