Octavia Hill's Anniversary - founder of the National Trust

The following information about Octavia Hill comes from the Society of Antiquaries Salon 282 6th August 2012

'The one-hundredth anniversary of the death of Octavia Hill occurs on 13 August 2012. BBC Radio 4 will broadcast a programme about her life and work on that day, presented by Tristram Hunt but with contributions from our Fellow Gillian Darley, whose biography of Octavia Hill was published in a revised edition in 2010 (Francis Boutle Publishers). Gillian is also one of the contributors to a publication that can be downloaded for free from the website of the think tank Demos called The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill. Later this year (on 22 October 2012), a memorial to Octav! ia will be unveiled at a special service in Westminster Abbey to mark what the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, described as her ‘substantial and extensive contributions to the preservation of the history and environment of this country’.

Octavia Hill (1838—1912) is perhaps best remembered as one of the three founders of the National Trust, along with Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter; their particular achievement was to pioneer a new form of property ownership, whereby land and buildings ‘of beauty or historic interest’ could be held in trust for the specific purpose of conserving them, and their animal and plant life, on behalf of the nation inalienably and in perpetuity, by means of the 1907 National Trust Act. But Octavia Hill’s achievements were far wider than that: with John Ruskin she established a network of fifteen social housing schemes that had, by 1874, provided decent, clean accommodation for nearly 3,000 tenants in London. She also campaigned vigorously for the protection of what she termed ‘open-air sitting rooms’ — that is to say, urban and suburban green spaces, which were in danger of being swamped by the scale of building development that took place in the latter half of! the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth. London’s Vauxhall Park and Parliament Hill remain unbuilt upon as a result of her advocacy and organisational ability.

Like a latter-day John Clare, who wrote passionately about the privatisation of common land and open countryside by corrupt landowners ganging together to pass enclosure acts, so Octavia Hill resented the closure of what had been city-fringe commons and public footpaths by developers using the law to get their way, knowing that poor people lacked the means to mount an effective opposition. She argued that ‘the little winding, quiet byways with all their beauty, that lead us on by hedgerow and over brooks, through scented meadows, and up grassy hill, away from dusty roads, and into the silent green of wood and field, are a common possession we ought to try to hand down undiminished in number and in beauty for those who are to follow’. Instead, they were vanishing, ‘closed by quarter sessions, the poor witnesses hardly daring to speak, the richer dividing the spoil, the public from a larger area hardly knowing of the decision which has for ever closed to them some lovel! y walk’. Even where landowners could not close footpaths by law, she accused them of concealing them ‘by judicious planting, a lodge gate or hidden doors’ or of robbing them of all their charm ‘by the erection of high, black, pitched fences … depriving it of the fresh air that blew across it, the view over adjacent field and leaving but a hollow mockery’.

Octavia’s work is far from done. Among the organisations that strive to follow her example and promote her ideals are the excellent Open Spaces Society and the Octavia Hill Society, based in Hill’s Birthplace House, in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, which is mounting special exhibitions and events for this centenary year.'


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