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Octavia Hill and the Hill Family – pioneers of the green spaces movement

Octavia Hill was instrumental in the founding of the National Trust, which celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2020.

“There is every reason to regard Octavia Hill as one of history’s most inspirational figures. Housing and green spaces campaigner, a founder of the National Trust and a pioneering woman at a time when women’s voices were too rarely heard; she has long been a heroine of mine. But to many, her large family, close friends and the people with whom she worked and on whom she leaned have remained somewhat shadowy figures, even though they had a huge influence on Octavia’s hard working life. Now Duncan Mackay has set out to put that right.” ~ Dame Fiona Reynolds, Master of Emmanuel College, Former Director-General of the National Trust.

The Hill family transformed Britain and were champions of the Victorian open spaces movement. Duncan Mackay’s book Whispers of Better Things celebrates their story and achievements.

From Duncan Mackay’s introduction:

This book narrates the truly astonishing achievements of the Victorian-era Hill family, the people who inspired them and those who were inspired by them. Chief amongst their achievements was the co-creation of the National Trust via the Society for the Diffusion of Beauty, a body that virtually nobody knows of today. The social origin of the threads that formed the weft and warp of the fabric of this mighty institution and other bodies was a reaction by Christian, middle-class people to the widespread suffering of the urbanised working classes. This might be considered as ‘do-goodery’ or cynically smoothing your own path to the afterlife with kind deeds, but it was clearly much more than that in terms of its intent and impact. The Hill family were startlingly different people. This difference was marked by a curiously benevolent blending of medical welfare knowledge, Christian Socialism bound together with Pestalozzian educational principles, Owenite radicalism and strong female relationships.

Haunting it all was the deep dread of falling into debt and being cast amongst the destitute in the workhouse, as the ‘undeserving’ poor, the ‘living dead’ of the Victorian Industrial Revolution. This was a matter of critical, middle-class importance, as Charles Dickens discovered, and produced family members that, usually, supported each other in the perilous game of economic snakes and ladders. They provided ‘cover’ whenever unpredictable disasters beset them, even if, as in the Hill family, there were, through early death and mental illness, children by three different mothers and one latterly absent father.

In that era of ‘devil take the hindmost’ laissez-faire economics, pleas for the poor, the provision of decent housing, urban and urban fringe public open spaces, places for children to play, access to greenery, sunlight, clean air, natural beauty and a ‘right to air and exercise’ to lead healthier lives, were initiated by the redoubtable Hills. Some of this pleading was stimulated by their forebears’ concerns for better public health, social justice, universal education and sanitation. There was, eventually, a huge response then and, arguably, because of subsequent population expansion, there is an even greater need for a bigger response now. It is a continuously evolving story. We all need space.

‘We all need space; unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently.’ — Octavia Hill, 1888

The battle for the preservation of the greenery of the Green Belt today is something that the Hills would recognise, mainly because they invented the term ‘Green Belt’. The ‘whispers of better things’ envisaged by the Hills’ principal spokesperson for land to be shared amongst the landless for the health, happiness and better wellbeing of the many is still a tiny voice. Maybe it is something that requires our urgent amplification before the ‘sense of quiet’ is drowned out by the ugly din of rampant development.

This book is also a description of strong-willed women, women who overcame prejudice in the Victorian era of male domination, and indeed of women who preferred women to men and created their own universes including same-sex love and care in a sea of sometimes even riotous misogynous hostility. In an era when there was no word for lesbianism or bisexuality, the language became blurred and many female ‘companions’ seem to have existed in the literature of the time – perhaps as a proxy term, or perhaps not.

Miranda, Octavia and Florence Hill never married and surrounded themselves with fellow female workers or women who seem to have shared a similar attitude towards life. Their actions, and the enabling financial support of other, much wealthier, women, definitely made the world a better place. The National Trust website notes that: ‘Hill’s lack of interest in marriage and her passionate friendship with other women formed a life-path that was common among independent-minded Victorian women. In the early 1860s she had a friendship with Sophia Jex-Blake, who led the fight for women’s entry to the medical profession. In May 1860 Jex-Blake confided to her diary that Hill “sunk her head on my lap silently, raised it in tears, and then such a kiss”.’ In September 2016 Historic England (the government’s advisory body) included Octavia Hill in its compilation of notable LGQBT female history-makers, based on evidence relating to her short relationship with Sophia Jex-Blake as a young woman.

The Hills were sandwiched between the impoverished working classes and the outrageously wealthy elites. Their story was a bourgeois tale of middle-class social placement emerging through a froth of religious and moral challenges raging between the established church, dissenters, Christian Socialists and others. Mix in ideas of obligation, duty, ‘service to others’ ‘self-help’, abstinence, plain living and inner reflection during an extreme period of capitalistic brutality, and it is easy to see how the countering efforts of social reform and suffrage found a niche.

Historians have attributed gentrification tendencies to Octavia Hill’s rigid rules of social housing care and other writers have accused Miranda Hill’s Society for the Diffusion of Beauty (later renamed the Kyrle Society) of being aesthetic nonsense. However, these unashamedly middle-class individuals, whatever their faults, foibles and frailties, did something, rather than just pontificating about doing something, or even worse, promising one thing and doing the opposite. Other members of the Hill brood did things differently or more quietly but all had extended family connections that reinforced their collective endeavours.

Narrating the struggle of a small number of people committed to the cause of creating beauty and goodness over ugliness and badness may stir a sense of homage. However, the Hills were never perfect people, but beings driven by strong desires for self-actualisation whilst suffering their own demons of doubt and despair. I hope this book allows some judgement that their instincts were right, that the products of their ‘work’ initiatives are still relevant to many people’s lives today, and that it is a continuing story that begs our urgent attention and action. Miranda Hill, in particular perhaps, has been greatly overlooked by history but her key contribution was to supply the quiet emotional intelligence to seek and speak out for ‘beauty’ and to stir a pot that still gives intellectual nourishment today, particularly as urbanisation increases. Miranda did not create volumes of letters to fellow workers, grab the headlines or publish polemical papers every week like her younger sister, but her sprinkling of ideas was the fairy-dust from which much else sparkled. Arguably, it would be true to say that it was Miranda who lit the torch for ‘natural beauty on the doorstep’ that Octavia used to illuminate the path to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty and led to modern protected countryside landscape designations such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The task now is to return these initiatives for natural beauty to the cities, towns and urban fringes from whence they came, in ideas such as National Park Cities, currently being mooted for Greater London, utilising tools like natural capital evaluation.

Who, wherever they reside, does not want to live amongst beauty and open spaces, or enjoy a better quality of life’s experience? Everything is learning and we can all learn to be better and do beautiful things. The Hills show how the seemingly impossible can be achieved by any of us.

Would you like to buy the book?