Why we need some Victorian attitude
Deep in the bowels of the London borough of Southwark, under the shadow of the gleaming Shard skyscraper, is Red Cross Garden. Encircled by housing estates and office blocks, it is an oasis of nature amid the capital’s aggressive urbanism. There is a pond, space for toddlers to roam, carefully planted beds and plenty of benches.
Overlooking the garden is a terrace of fine Victorian cottages. At one end of the row is a community hall and at the other an Arts and Crafts-style mosaic. The park and its homes are a local, improving and well designed social enterprise – and a great testament to the life and times of Octavia Hill, who endowed this first Victorian community garden.
One hundred years after her death, the vision of this extraordinary woman – housing reformer, feminist, welfare pioneer, conservationist and founder of the National Trust – seems more relevant than ever. She was a pre-welfare state radical who speaks powerfully to our own age of austerity, isolation and ‘Big Society’.
Her story begins in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, where she was born in 1838 to the merchant James Hill and his wife Caroline Southwood Smith. She came from a family of social reformers – most notably, her grandfather Thomas Southwood Smith who was one of the leading public health reformers of early Victorian Britain. Her father, James Hill, combined business with support for socialist communes run by followers of Robert Owen.
Octavia displayed a better business acumen than her father, but inherited his belief in remoulding society. Her first job, in 1852, was at the Christian Socialist Ladies’ Guild (a crafts workshop for unskilled women and girls) managing a gaggle of toymakers from the local Ragged School.
But through her mother’s smart social connections, Hill also came to know the great minds of the age – the Christian Socialist minister FD Maurice; the art critic John Ruskin, and the anti-capitalist author Charles Kingsley. It was at a lecture by Kingsley on the role women should play in improving the lives of the poor that Hill realised her vocation was to be social housing.
She began with a series of properties off Marylebone Road in central London, where she established a system of ‘five per cent philanthropy’: that the wealthy who invested in her housing projects would see a five per cent return on their capital, which meant tenants had to pay their way. There was to be no charity: the poor had to be helped to help themselves.
Hill’s team of housing managers (or ‘visitors’) sought to transform the workshy, drunken habits of the poor through personal contact, tenement by tenement – “Each block is placed by me under a separate volunteer worker, who has the duty of collecting rents, advising as to repairs and choice of tenants, and who renders all personal help that can be given to the tenants without destroying their independence…”
Yet Hill always connected cultural philanthropy to social reform. It wasn’t enough to collect the rent and fix the gutters. Her housing estates were also hubs of creativity, with music lessons, cultural outings and Gilbert & Sullivan performances. She even thought a bit of military training would not go amiss and began one of the first cadet corps.
She was adamant that a distant, Whitehall-run welfare state could never provide such intimacy and personal care. True to her Victorian upbringing, Hill was dead against free school meals, council housing and an universal old-age pension. Hers was a fairly black-and-white approach to the deserving and undeserving poor.
But it also had a grandeur of vision. Above all, she believed in the virtue of nature for the urban masses – “A few acres where the hill top enables the Londoner to rise above the smoke, to feel a refreshing air for a little time and to see the sun setting.”
She campaigned to save Parliament Hill from developers and then established the National Trust itself, so that London’s fast-disappearing countryside could “be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment and rest of those who have no country house”.
“When I first began to work, people would say, ‘I’ll give you money for necessaries for the poor, but I don’t see what they want with recreation’,” she once wrote to her sister Miranda. “Then, after a few years, they said, ‘I can understand poor people wanting amusement, but what good will open spaces do them?’ and now everybody recognises the importance of open space.”
For so much of the 20th century, that organic thinking went unheeded. In an era of large welfare states it was too easy just to transfer money. But today Hill’s vision is embraced by a new generation of social entrepreneurs and civic activists.
Take the words of a social housing manager in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent, putting into practice Hill’s philosophy of personal intervention, not form-filling: “Her insights are timeless, her methods proven and her approach deserves rehabilitation.” It certainly does.
Tristram Hunt is the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central. The centenary of Octavia Hill’s death is August 13
To find out about grassroots organisations following the self-help ethos of Octavia Hill, go to http://www.bigissue.com/features/1360/big-society-solution-community-spirit