Octavia Hill and her Love of ‘Place’

Places. Despite this all encompassing word representing the key work of the National Trust, it dawned on us that there has yet to be a piece written for this blog that explains where this devotion originated. For us that answer, of course, comes from the inspirational beliefs of one of the National Trust’s wonderful founders: Octavia Hill.

Octavia Hill (1838-1912).

With 2012 being the centenary year of Octavia’s death and today seeing a memorial service to her taking place at Westminster Abbey, it seemed fitting that with the arrival of three new writers to this site, where better to start than explaining just how the National Trust’s love of open places first began.

 A History of Octavia Hill

Born in 1838 into a family trying to stay clear of poverty, Octavia Hill started working for the welfare of people when she was just 14. She was initially a force in acquiring the creation of social housing for the poor. This may have seemed sufficient success in itself, yet for a young Octavia was truly not enough.

With the second half of the 19th century seeing a great number of property developers moving towards London, aiming to replace much of the city’s open space with buildings to accommodate its ever growing population, the work Octavia did next became one of her key life goals for every modern city. For her this was:

 ‘To protect all open spaces, no matter how small, secure them, cultivate them, and most importantly allow them to be open ‘for everyone’.

 But where did this initial ambition actually come from?

 For Octavia, her desire towards wanting to look after open spaces centred around her belief that people of all ages, especially the poor and working class, could be healed from their foul and crowded housing environments, by visiting places of fantastic, clean aired, beauty. Seen as radical thinking for the time, Octavia stressed that:

 ‘the house is an individual possession and should be worked for, but the park or the common which man shares with his neighbours, which descends as a common inheritance…’.

 From this, she distinguished the need for four specific types of open space: places to sit in; places to play in; places to stroll in; and places to spend a day in.

 With a great deal of hard work Octavia successfully lead spaces, including disused churchyards and areas such as Parliament Hill and the Royal Parks, to not only be saved but become both enjoyed and respected by those communities who, as she described, had never had “gardens, backyards or second rooms” to call their own.

View over Central London from Parliament Hill

 Not wanting to stop there, Octavia saw the need to ensure that all of these open spaces should then be constantly able to behold and not just saved. This lead her to create what would become her finest and most remembered achievement.

 The Formation of the National Trust

Octavia’s open space campaigning brought her into contact with both Robert Hunter and dear friend Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. Their similar outlook towards protecting land meant that before long, in 1894 to be exact, their want to form a ‘National Trust’ that could buy and preserve places of natural beauty and historic interest, was established, with, as they say, the rest being history.

 To this day many of these special places remain used by the public, with a massive debt towards the work of Octavia Hill being ever present. With the run up too 100 years since her death seeing the National Trust recruit its 4 millionth member– this gives proof that the cause she so passionately promoted remains as relevant now as it was in 1912.

 It is thanks to Octavia Hill’s initial determination that not only do we still have places like coastline, countryside and spectacular houses to enjoy, but that because of her fantastic ambition, the ‘love of special places’ continues to remain hugely important to both the National Trust and, as we will see in a variety of ways throughout future posts, the nation.

 So thank you Octavia Hill and we promise to make sure that you will continue to have a remembered long lasting legacy.

You can read more about the life and times of Octavia Hill in the books:

Nobler and Better Things: Octavia Hill’s Life and Work – Jenny Rossiter

“To the utmost of her power …”, The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill – Edited by Samuel Jones

Octavia Hill: Social Reformer and Co-Founder of the National Trust – Pitkin Guides.

Blog by Jamie White, Media and Communications (Press Office) Intern


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