Category Archives: City Unseen

Octavia Hill: A Housing Legacy

Life of Octavia Hill

This follows on from a first post about the life of Octavia Hill and on to the beginnings of what Hill would become best known for — housing. There are many better books I gather about her housing legacy, but I ended up with this one. I may get to the others.

This is her sister Emily’s account (wife of Charles Edmund Maurice, who put this collection together):

With regard to the housing problem, my wife gives the following account of the incident which first fixed Octavia’s mind on the subject :

“When we went to Nottingham Place, Octavia arranged to have a weekly gathering in our kitchen, of the poor women whom we knew, to teach them to cut out and make clothes. One night, one of the women fainted and we found out that she had been up all the previous night washing, while she rocked her baby’s cradle with her foot. Next day, Octavia went to the woman’s home, and found her living in a damp, unhealthy kitchen. Octavia was most anxious to help her to move into more healthy quarters, and spent a long time hunting for rooms; but could find none where the children would be taken. Then all she had heard as a child about the experiences of her grandfather, Dr. Southwood-Smith, in East London, and all she had known of the toy-workers’ homes, rushed back on her mind; and she realised that even at her very doors there was the same great evil. With this in her mind, she went to take her drawings to Ruskin, not long after the death of his father. He was burdened by the responsibility of the fortune that he had just inherited, and told Octavia how puzzled he was as to the best use to make of it. She at once suggested the provision of better houses for the poor. He replied that he had not time to see to such things ; but asked whether, if he supplied the Capital for buying a tenement house, she could undertake the management. He should like to receive five per cent. (189)

This is the first reference to it from Ruskin himself. I don’t know how I didn’t know it was Ruskin provided the wherewithal to begin this…I love this letter in relation to The Seven Lamps.

May 19th, 1864.

MY DEAR OCTAVIA, Yes, it will delight me to help you in this ; but I should like to begin very quietly and temperately, and to go on gradually. My father’s executors are old friends, and I don’t want to discomfort them by lashing out suddenly into a number of plans,—in about three months from this time I shall know more precisely what I am about : meantime, get your ideas clear—and, believe me, you will give me one of the greatest pleasures yet possible to me, by enabling me to be of use in this particular manner, and to these ends.

Affectionately yours, J. Ruskin.

Thank you for notes upon different people. I’ve got the plates for Miss B. (213)

There are curious moments of reflection on her own character

To Florence (4th February 1863)

I often long for you, dear, with all your sympathy with people in general, and power of making children happy. You know I’ve a damping cool sort of way that just stabs all their enjoyment. I don’t think I’ve any child nature left in me. However, it will injure them less, that what they all want is to grow up. (204)

But she seems to have been such a force of nature, small wonder she preferred to work alone…the number of buildings soon expanded.

May 19th, 1866.

To Miss BAUMGARTNER. My work grows daily more interesting. Ruskin has bought six more houses, and in a densely populated neighbourhood. Some houses in the court were reported unfit for human habitation, and have been converted into warehouses ; the rest are inhabited by a desperate and forlorn set of people, wild, dirty, violent, ignorant as ever I have seen. Here, pulling down a few stables, we have cleared a bit of ground, fenced it and gravelled it; and on Tuesday last, opened it as a playground for quite poor girls. I worked on quite alone about it, preferring power and responsibility and work, to committees and their slow, dull movements ; and when nearly ready I mentioned the undertaking, and was quite amazed at the interest and sympathy that it met with. Mr. Maurice and Mr. L. Davies came to the meeting ; and numbers of ladies and gentlemen ; and the whole plan seem to meet with such approval that subscriptions are offered, and I hope to make the place really very efficient. My girls are of course very helpful…

My dear old houses contribute the aristocracy to all Our entertainments. We took twenty of the children from them, to make a leaven among the wilder ones on Tuesday ; and I hope much from them here-after… (221)

This is the kind of thing she wrote to her tenants while abroad for reasons of her health:

LETTER READ AT GATHERING OF TENANTS (16th June 1867)

MY DEAR FRIENDS. As you will be all together I take the opportunity of writing a few words to tell you how much I am thinking of you. I remember the many times we have met on such occasions before, and I long to be amongst you. I should so like to have a little chat with each of you, to hear how all the little ones are, and how you have been getting on all this long time. My sisters write and tell me how you are, more than once a week ; but you know this is never quite the same as talking to you. Those are, however, my happiest days when I hear good news of you ; and the best news I could hear is that you are trying to do what is right. You and I, my friends, each know how difficult this is; we have each our different temptations, but we will strive to do better than we have done. You will all know how I look for good news of you, how I have wished to see you make your homes better and happier, how I have felt that the places I possessed were given me to make them better; how I have loved my work, and now that I have only left it in the full hope of going back to it far better able to do it than I was. So you will understand that I hope we have a great deal to do together, in the glad time to come, when I shall be among you again. (231)

There are these little tidbits…

To Miss F. Davenport Hill (9th May 1869)

I had the report from a surveyor on the houses for which we are in treaty. He says very naively, “It seems to me the houses are much out of repair, tho’ considered by the landlord in excellent condition for the class of inmates.” He says, too, the property in the neighbourhood is in excellent condition, and will let well. . . (252)

She went to see Saltaire where I would also very much like to go (also this is already a taste of her growing fame, won precisely through her work on housing):

6, Clifton Villas, Bradford, September 17th, 1869.

TO EMILY. To-night there is to be a dinner party here. Dr. Bridges and several influential people are asked to meet me;—I do feel such a take-in of a person. I wish some-one would explode me ; it is so difficult to un-humbug oneself. It is all taken for extreme modesty (fancy mine !) and laid to one’s account as so much excellence. A Mr. and Mrs. R. K., who are looked upon as great guns, are giving a dinner party in my honour. Really its very ridiculous ; what I am glad of is that I am going to see Saltaire, a model village near here which has grown up round a manufactory, belonging to a Mr. Titus now Sir Titus) Salt ; no beer shops there, Only model cottages, schools, etc. . . I’m very happy, and as bright as can be ; but save me from this again! (255)

Her housing work is impossible to separate from these complicated relationships with other women, younger women. Her role as part martyr part savior. I am so looking forward to reading Beatrice Webb’s memoirs of her time as a rent collector. But to turn to Miss Mayo.

Church Hill House, Barnet, September 26th, 1871.

TO MISS MAYO. It is no joke to get £3,000, to ascertain precisely the value of the property, and to negotiate with all the people concerned, in exactly the right order and way. I have not had a spare five minutes I think till now ; and I have thought of you so much, and so very lovingly.

There is something ludicrous in attempting to foresee events. On the principles we may build, for they do not change ; but the outward things and their teachings we cannot foresee.

Somehow personal poverty is a help to me. It keeps me more simple and energetic, and somehow low and humble and hardy, in the midst of a somewhat intoxicating power. It pleases me, too, to have considerable difficulty and effort in my own life, when what I do seems hard to the people…(270)

Intoxicating power…there are such fascinating hints to her in these letters, but not enough to go on in pulling them together into a fair picture.

Too Miss Mayo (26 September 1871)

I am thinking of writing on the subject of women’s work from their own homes. You know how strongly I believe in its practicability and power.

You all know Freshwater Place, our first freehold, Mr. Ruskin’s court, where we have our playground, which is mixed up with May festival memories for many of you.

You know something of how hard I worked for it long ago ; my difficulties in building the wall, and in contending with the dirt of the people how gradually we reduced it to comparative order, have paved it, lighted it, supplied water cisterns, raised the height of rooms, built a staircase, balcony, and additional storey; how Mr. Ruskin had five trees planted for us, and creepers, and by his beautiful presents of flowers, helped to teach our people to love flowers. You know, or can imagine, how dear the place is to me.

For some six years now, I have thought that, if ever I could afford it, I should like to put up along the whole length of the four houses which face the play-ground on the east side, some words, which have been very present to me many a time, when my plans for improving the place for the tenants were either very unsuccessful for the moment, or very promising or very triumphant, or very bright, but far away in the future.

The words are these : “Every house is builded by some man; but He that built all things is God” (293-94)

In an 1874 letter to her sister Emily, her mother notes how she continues to receive offers of property. It is a bit tangled here — her sister Miranda’s founding of the Kyrle Society to bring beauty to the homes of the poor (!), which would include public space and gardens, Octavia’s involvement with that and also with the Commons Preservation Society, though she did not quite see eye to eye with this ‘more combative body’ nor according to Maurice did they understand her distinction between her roles for the two at the same time. So she left to focus on the work with her sister which would lead in time to her also cofounding the National Trust.

It also seems to me her heroes did not ask her the right kinds of questions…

June 8th, 1876.

FROM RUSKIN. My question, a very vital one, is, whether it really never enters your mind at all that all measures of amelioration in great cities, such as your sister’s paper pleads for, and as you rejoice in having effected, may in reality be only encouragements to the great Evil Doers in their daily accumulating Sin?

Venice, shortest day, 1876.

And still her housing work continues…the drive and effort involved immense

To Mrs Gillum (7th Feb 1877)

…the ever-flowing stream of persons with whom I have to make appointments on business, and the incessant buzz around me of my assistants and immediate fellow-workers, leave me in a state of utter exhaustion on a Saturday night, which makes perfect stillness the only possibility for Sundays…

I know you will begin to tell me I ought to give something up. And I could only answer my whole life is giving up of work. I part with bit after bit often of that I care for most, and that week after week ; but it is the nearest of all duties, added to the large new questions, in which a little of my time goes a very long Way, which thus engross me. Such, for instance, as those I have now in hand—the purchase for Lord Pembroke of £6,000 worth of houses for the poor. He gives money, pays worker; one of my fellow workers trains her. Mr. Barnett sends me names of courts; but the seeing the spot, its capabilities, value, the best scheme to improve it, getting surveyors’ and lawyers’ reports, I must do. I have six such schemes in hand now, small and large together at this moment. Then I had to see Sir James Hogg, the chairman of the Metrop, Bd. of Works, on Tuesday about the Holborn rebuilding under the Art. Dwell. Bill. I have obtained leave from Sir E. Colbroke to plant the Mile End Road with trees. I have all the negotiations with the vestry to make. The C.O.S. takes much of my time, tho’ I have left all our local works to others. Then all the time I have 3,500 tenants and £30,000 or £40,000 worth of money under my continuous charge and, though I only see my people in one court face to face as of old, and the ordinary work goes on smoothly, yet even the extra-ordinary on so large a scale takes time. Questions of rebuilding, of construction, of changes of collectors, of introduction of workers to one another,—I assure you the exceptional things I can hardly refuse to do (so large is the result from half an hour’s work), use up my half hours nearly every one….(347-48)

The scale of her work is really quite impressive.

On class prejudice and the cost of charitable housing…

Eland House, November 3rd, 1879 or ’80.

FROM MRS. EDMUND MAURICE to OCTAVIA. We went to the opening of Walmer Castle, which was a great success. There were large crowds both of rich and poor. … The whole place looked very clean and comfortable, and all the food very nice ; there were decorations of flowers, and bright flags flying outside. We went over the house, and saw the beautiful dining-room upstairs and the smoking-room, and some very comfortable furnished little bed-rooms for respectable men. General Gardiner turned to a friend and said, ” We should some of us have been very glad of as good a bedroom as this at the University,” My fear about the bedrooms is that they are too dear. A shilling a night is not much to pay for so rice a little furnished room ; but, if a working man has to pay seven shillings a week for his room, I fear he will think it too much. Downstairs there is a nice large room to be used for the Boys’ Club. It is to be decorated by the Kyrle Society. (394-95)

But to return to housing the working classes…there are a couple of letters in here to the women working with her, and they are fascinating in whole:

1885 LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS. I have, since I last wrote to you, been successful in establishing my work in South London, according to the long-cherished wish of my heart. In March of 1884, I was put in charge, by the owner, of forty-eight houses in Deptford. In May of the same year, I under-took the care of several of the courts in Southwark for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. In November of the same year, the Commissioners handed. over to me an additional. group of courts. In January of 1885 I accepted the management of seventy-eight more houses in Deptford. A friend is just arranging to take forty-one houses in Southwark on lease from the commissioners. But I hope to retain trained workers and a portion of the tenants in a considerate and responsible way, which is quite independent of me or my advice. I ought, however, to repeat here once more that there is much which is technical, and which must be thoroughly learnt; and that unless intending workers set aside a time to learn their business thoroughly with us or others who have experience, they will do more harm than good by undertaking to manage houses.

One distinct advance, that is noticeable since I last wrote, is the readiness shown by men of business and companies to place their houses under our care. A deeper sense of responsibility as to the conduct of them, a perception of how much in their management is better done by women, and I hope, confident that we try faithfully, and succeed tolerably, in the effort to make them prosperous, have led to this result. This method of extending the area over which we have control has been a great help. It has occurred at a time when, owing to the altered condition of letting in London, I could no longer, with Confidence, have recommended to those who are unacquainted with business,and who depend on receiving a fair return for their capital, to undertake now the responsibility of purchasing houses.

When we began in Southwark, we secured an almost entirely new group of volunteers, who learnt there under one or two leaders, and who now form a valued nucleus from which to expand further.

In Deptford, I was obliged at first to take with me helpers from some distance, as we had none near there; but gradually, I am delighted to say, we have found many living at Blackheath and its neighbourhood who are co-operating with us; and we hope they, as the years roll on, will be quite independent of us. Of the success of our work ? Well ! I am thankful and hopeful.

Of course it has varied with the nature and constancy of our workers, and with the response our tenants give us. The new places always tax our strength, and we have had our difficulties in them, but we seem to make steady progress; I feel all must go well in proportion as we love our people and aim at securing their real good, and base our action on wise and far-sighted principles. There is not a court where not I do not, mark distinct advance ; but none know better than I how much more might have been done in each of them, and how much lies before us still to do. (452-453)

On the difficulties of building Red Cross Garden

LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS, 1887, ABOUT RED CROSS GARDEN.

It was, when handed over to me, a waste, desolate Place. There had been a paper factory on one half of it, which had been burnt down. Four or five feet of unbent paper lay in irregular heaps, blackened by fire, saturated with rain, and smelling most unpleasantly. It had lain there for five years, and much rubbish had been thrown in. A warehouse some stories high fronted the street on the other half of the ground, with no forecourt or area to remove its dull height further from the rooms in the model dwellings which faced it. Our first work Was to set bon-fires alight gradually to burn the mass of paper. This took about six weeks to do, tho’ the fires were kept alight day and night. The ashes were good for the soil in the garden, and we were saved the whole cost of carting the paper away. Our next task was to pull down the warehouse, and let a little sun in on our garden, and additional light, air and sight of sky to numerous tenants in the blocks in Red Cross Street.

The next work was to have a low wall and substantial iron railings placed on the side bounded by the street, so that the garden could be seen and the light and air be unimpeded.

Then came the erection of a covered playground for the children… (454)

And finally a picture! This book fails terribly in providing pictures…

Southwark. Red Cross Cottages and Garden. Opened June 1887.

Her thoughts on the growing settlement movement…(though we never see the cutting referred to, I assume that is what this is all about!)

Hotel Bellevue, Waggis, May 24th, 1885.

TO HER MOTHER. I am much interested in the Spectator cutting, tho’ I believe myself that the strain of living in the worst places would be too trying yet to educated people; it would diminish their strength, and so their usefulness The reform must be, I believe, more gradual. The newspapers go in for such extremes, from utter separation to living in a court I I should urge the spending of many hours weekly there, as achieving most just now, because it is less suicidal than the other course, and more natural. (455)

There is too little of the actual day to day business, the lives of the tenants and such here, but occasionally a letter got through like this one reporting to Octavia Hill

1884 or 5

Miss ELLEN CHASE TO OCTAVIA. King (a Deptford tenant) had torn his garden all to pieces and broken pale of fence and windows here and there, and did not show himself at all. We were non-plussed. First I hoped to slip notice under door, but the weather-board was too close ; that is a reason against putting them on. Then we debated how legal a service pinning to the back door would be, but Mr. P. thought it would be awkward if I was summoned for breaking into his premises ; and to post it we thought would not be customary ; so we were balked and Mrs. Lynch smiled sweetly all the time at her door. Mrs. T. had the cheek to offer nothing, so I took her a notice. I gave out several jobs of cleaning to even off the £7. Mrs. Sandal’s cistern was leaking worst sort. Matthews and Arter both said floor too old to pay for removal. My unlets have come down I0s. (458)

And still she is acquiring houses. She writes to Mary Harris in December of 1889 that she has acquired ‘9 new blocks of buildings within a stone’s throw of this house. We are buying some of the worst houses that remain in Blank Court. I am preparing to build in Southwark.’ (500-501)

I wish to see these mapped, wish to know what ‘a stone’s throw’ means for her, who refused to live amongst the poor. London must still have been so much more of a street-by-street checkerboard then.

14, Nottingham Place, W. April 28th, 1889.

To HER MOTHER. Miranda and I concocted a letter to the owners of some dreadful buildings in Southwark, which Miss J. is ready to undertake, asking to have them put under her care. So we have sent that off ; and it may bear fruit now or later. Then we finished the accounts of Gable Cottages, and despatched report of same. They are now complete! Then I settled about the painting of Hereford Buildings. We had an evening’s work over Income Tax returns. . . . To-morrow I collect in Deptford ; Miss Hogg is still away ; also Mr. T. is sending his manager to talk over matters with me… (501)

There is this mad description of an event at ‘the Poor’s land’ in Bethnal Green

Octavia to Mrs Edmund Maurice 14th August 1890

They showed us a workmen’s club there, numbering 600 members, to which is attached a co-operative store, doing £10,000 a year business. It is all under the wing of Mr. and Mrs. B., who used to go backwards and forwards from Hampstead to work, but now have taken a large old house adjoining the club, and live there entirely. . They have a sacred-looking little chapel, where they have family prayers, which opens from their house and from the club…At night we went to Bethnal Green to be present at a meeting of the local committee. They met in the first floor room over a cheesemonger’s shop, the cheesemonger being himself one of the trustees. The committee was all composed of trades-men of the neighbourhood, except that there was one very young but very capable lawyer from Oxford House. Then there was a negro, who, they say, has been most helpful. He has a wonderful gift of oratory, and has addressed numbers of open-air meetings. It was a strange and interesting sight, but oh! so difficult to get any business done, tho’ they were all very zealous and touchingly eager to do all which would enable us to take up the matter. (511-12)

In 1890 they moved to a new house — it’s just a very small glimpse into the home and the way that their lives and work were shared with others…

Miranda to Mrs Durant (12th Nov 1890)

[it is] smaller than this, and with much smaller rooms ; but it is quiet, light, and cheerful (having its chief rooms with a south aspect), and cheap. It is also not a great risk, as we shall take it by the year—at any rate till we know how we like it. It has a garden in front—and a yard behind-to our great delight a little light space and quiet being our chief requirements. The Marylebone Road used to be noisy ; but now it has a wooden pavement, a great boon. There will be room for Octavia and me with Miss Yorke and two of the friends now living with us, Miss Pearson and Miss Sim. It would be a great sorrow to part with them; so we are thankful to get a house large enough for us all.

Octavia’s work is so wide and many-sided, and she is so largehearted and wise in giving all her fellow workers leave to work in their own way, that she often hands a little domain over to me to work in my own way. So there is no sense of not carrying out my own ideas. (515)

The letters skip long periods here, though there are thanks for the funds raised for this paint by John Singer Sarjeant. It is 17 years though, before another of these collected letter calls to my interest but its is a brilliant one to her fellow workers with updates on the work…

To FELLOW WORKERS. (1901)

But by far the largest increase of our work has been in consequence of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners asking us to take charge of some of their property, of which the leases fell in, in Southwark and Lambeth. In Southwark the area had been leased long ago on the old-fashioned tenure of ” lives.” That is, it was held, not for a specified term of years, but subject to the life of certain persons. The lease fell in therefore quite suddenly, and fifty of the houses, which were occupied by working people, were placed under My care. I had only four days’ notice before I had to begin collecting. It was well for us that my fellow-workers rose to the occasion, and at once undertook the added duties; well, too, that we were just then pretty strong in workers. It was a curious Monday’s work. The houses having been let and sublet I could be furnished with few particulars. I had a map, and the numbers of the houses, which were scattered in various streets over the five acres which had reverted to the Commissioners; but I had no tenant’s name, nor the rental of any tenement, nor did the tenants know or recognise the written authority, having long paid to other landlords. I subdivided the area geographically between my two principal South London workers, and I went to every house accompanied by one or other of them. I learnt the name of the tenant, explained the circumstances, saw their books and learnt their rental, and finally succeeded in obtaining every rent. Many of the houses required much attention, and since then we have been busily employed in supervising necessary repairs. The late lessees were liable for dilapidations, and I felt once more how valuable to us it was to represent owners like the Commissioners, for all this legal and surveying work was done ably by responsible and qualified men of business, while we were free to go in and out among the tenants, watch details, report grievous defects, decide what repairs essential to health should be done instantly. We have not half done all this, but we are steadily progressing.

The very same clay the Commissioners sent to me about this sudden accession of work in Southwark, the asked me whether I could also take over 160 houses in Lambeth. I had known that this lease was falling in to them, and I knew that they proposed rebuilding for working people on some seven acres there, and would consult me about this. But I had no idea that they meant to ask me to take charge of the old cottages pending the rebuilding. However, we were able to undertake this, and it will be a very great advantage to us to get to know the tenants, the locality, the workers in the neighbourhood, before the great decisions about rebuilding are made. In this case I had the advantage of going round with the late lessee, who gave me names, rentals and particulars, and whose relations with his late tenants struck me as very satisfactory and human. On this area our main duties have been to induce tenants to pay who knew that their houses were coming down; (in this we have succeeded), to decide those difficult questions of what to repair in houses soon to be destroyed, to empty one portion of the area where Cottages are first to be built, providing accommodation as far as possible for tenants, and to arrange the somewhat complicated minute details as to rates and taxes payable for cotta ges partly empty or temporarily empty, on assessments which had all to be ascertained, and where certain rates in certain houses for certain times only were Payable by the owners, whom we represent. (545-547)

There is a second such letter from 1903

LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS. It was a huge undertaking, and needed much care and labour to start it well, and naturally we were all keen to help. It was a great day when we took over the place. Our seconds in command took charge man-fully for a fortnight of all our old courts ; and fourteen of us, including all my own responsible workers, and one lady who had gained experience in Edinburgh. We met on Monday, October 5th, to take over the estate, and collect from 500 or 600 tenants wholly unknown to us. We organised it all thoughtfully we had fifteen collecting books, and all the tenants’ books prepared; had opened a bank account, had found a room as office, and divided the area among our workers. Our first duty was to get the tenants to recognise our authority and pay us. I think we were very successful we got every tenant on the estate to pay us without any legal process, except one, who was a regular scamp. We collected some £250, most of it in silver, and got it safely to the bank. Then came the question of repairs; there were written in the first few weeks 1,000 orders for these, altho’, as the whole area is to be rebuilt, we were only doing really urgent repairs and no substantial ones. All these had to be overlooked and reported on and paid for. Next came pouring in the claims for borough and water rates. We had ascertained the assessment of every house, the facts as to whether land-lord or tenant was responsible, whether the rates were compounded for or not, what allowance was to be claimed for empty rooms. There were two water companies supplying the area, and we had to learn which supplied each house.

The whole place was to be rebuilt, and even the streets rearranged and widened ; and I had promised the Commissioners would advise them as to the future plans. These had to be prepared at the earliest date possible; the more so as the sanitary authorities were pressing, and sent 100 orders in the first few days we were there. It is needless to say with what speed, capacity and zeal the representatives of the Commissioners carried on their part of these preparations and they rapidly decided on the streets which should be first rebuilt, and what should be erected there. But this only implied more to be done, for we had to empty the streets swiftly, and that meant doing up all possible empty houses in other streets and getting the tenants into them. Fortunately, there were several houses empty, the falling in of the lease having scared away tenants. The Commissioners had decided to close all the public-houses on the estate, and we let one to a girls’ club, and had to put repairs in hand to fit it for its changed destination.

Meantime, my skilled workers had to be withdrawn, tho’ Miss Lumsden’s staff was new to the work; and I do not know how the business could have been done but for her immense power, devotion and zeal, and the extreme kindness of friends in offering special help.

The matter now stands thus: We have got thro’ the first quarter have collected £2,672—mostly in silver. Plans have been prepared for rebuilding and rearrangement of the whole estate, and these are now before the Commissioners for consideration. They provide a site for rebuilding the parish school; an area of about an acre as a public recreation ground; they substitute four wide for three narrow streets, and afford accommodation for 700 families in four-roomed and six-roomed cottages, cottage flats, and flats of three and two-roomed. tenements in houses in no case higher than three storeys. (557-559)

Yet another letter to her fellow workers 1907, not full of interest given its details on housing like the others, but pretty good none the less given its appalling view of charity as the solution to poverty.

LETTER TO MY FELLOW WORKERS.

The Poor Law Commission has necessarily occupied much of my time, and bids fair to continue to do so. It is naturally very interesting. We have visited Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Midlands, South Wales, the Eastern Counties, the Western Counties, and Scotland. My colleagues went also to the neighbourhood of Shrewsbury and to Northumberland; but I could not go. Next year we purpose visiting Ireland. The time has not arrived for making any remarks on the vast field which has opened before us; it is deeply interesting, partly by the great and important questions it suggests, partly by the large number of individuals of whose life-work we get some idea. These latter have often and often recalled to me Miss Alexander’s beautiful legend of the Hidden Servants; and, as I have got a glimpse of the righteous manufacturer, the devoted leader of the Friendly Society, the generous founder of some out-of-sight charity, the faithful nurse, the energetic matron or teacher, the self-sacrificing wise guardian, the humble and gentle pauper, I have heard echo in my ear the thankful words: “How many Thy hidden servants are”.

Of course there is the other side; and the problem appears to me the more puzzling, the more the solution of it depends, not on machinery which Commissions may recommend and Parliaments set up, but on the number of faithful men and women whom England can secure and inspire as faithful servants in their manifold duties. (565-66)

This is echoed in a letter to Lord George Hamilton in November 1908 on the changes to the poor laws. I can’t even remember exactly what was proposed but again she is up in arms over the rightful role of charity:

I can’t see my way about the ” Abnormal ” scheme of National Work; nor to accept what seems to me an extension of out-relief. I am ready not to vote for its abolition. I am glad that the out-relief given should be far more wisely supervised ; that we should have country work-houses with space for real work (called Labour Colonies if the world likes); but, when it comes to money grants for the able-bodied men outside any institution, and without disfranchisement, because they are thought respectable, we seem to be extending out relief to trench on what can only be done by Charity. (569)

A final letter (she died in 1912, but I have left out the last few years). The link between poverty, charity and imperial might…

LETTER TO MY FELLOW-WORKERS. We are, many of us, much exercised now as to the future of the Cadet Corps. The First London Battalion, founded in 1887, has always been linked closely with our work in Southwark, two companies drilling in the Hall, and the headquarters of the battalion being quite near. The health, the physique, and the moral training of our lads have owed much to it. More than eight thousand boys have passed through its ranks; and many have done honourable service for their country both by sea and land. The day has now come when the War Office are about to link on the Cadets to the general organisation for military service. They have issued suggested regulations, which appear to me, and to all the devoted group of gentlemen who have acted as officers to these lads for now so many years, to be full of peril to the whole movement. (571)

Maurice, C. Edmund (ed) ([1913] 2010) Life of Octavia Hill As Told in Her Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Letters and Life of Octavia Hill

This is such a curious, most Victorian/Edwardian, often boring and frustrating and perhaps a tiny bit compelling accompaniment of the life of a woman whose ideas I do not share at all and who I am fairly certain I should have come to actual blows with. Yet the view into her hopes and work and life meant I was still sorry to approach the end, as it meant her death.

Octavia Hill had such a huge impact on housing in the UK, training hundreds of women into the rehabilitation, development and management of cottages and courts for the deserving working classes. This was housing meant to pay its own way and to be run never by the state but dependent entirely on voluntarism and for its foundation, the charity of the titled and the wealthy. It demanded cleanliness, hard work, good Christian morals and thankfulness of its tenants, it also asked them to sing and grow flowers. Good for some I know, but oh god, the condescension of it.

Octavia Hill. From a Drawing by Edward Clifford, 1877 from the Life of Octavia Hill as told in her letters[1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19456426

This is a selection of letters from her brother-in-law, and for our times and my own interest in housing, a rather curious one. Thick as this volume is, there is so much it leaves out, and I am curious what light Miss Hill would appear in were more here. These are undoubtedly selected to show her in her best light (according to her brother-in-law). This frustrated painter, great traveler (and the letters describing her travels are in many ways the best), devout Christian.

It is, though, just a little poignant finishing it with all of Hill’s many periodic ‘break-downs’ of health in which she must head off for the countryside, preferentially in Europe, while I myself have been off ill — overwork, anxiety, panic, stuck in my home and the insalubrious environs of Longsight. Still, sick leave is such a luxury, for both of us. [you know, I started these notes last June, and now I finish them in the midst of global pandemic. They are haunted by illness. I had thought them posted long ago until working on the post of Ruskin]

My favourite bits are actually where you can hear the voice of those Octavia Hill worked with, like this child toy worker writing to Octavia’s sister Emily. It’s curious how regularly Octavia bemoans her inability to be natural and friendly with people, to inspire them the way her sisters do (though at times she does claim it). One of the first projects Octavia and Emily worked on with the Woman’s Guild was to create a workshop for children to be able to earn money in better conditions. Sigh. Isn’t this the whole contradiction in a nutshell? The assumption that some children must work as the natural way of things?

But this is so lovely:

MARGARET -A TOY-WORKER–TO EMILY HILL. (1855)

I hope you are enjoying yourself. . . . We had such a beautiful lesson to-day about the world. I miss you very. I wish you would come back again. It is now twenty-five minutes to eight it was very dark, and I and Harriet put a farthing together, and sent L. and S. out for a halfpenny candle. . . . Oh ! our gardens are getting on so badly ! We had an Irish stew for dinner to-day. Do come back as soon as you can and I daresay you see numbers of snakes and snails, and glow-worms, and beautiful caterpillars and all sorts of insects. I daresay the leaves are falling fast. (58)

This captures the contradiction equally nicely:

LETTER ABOUT A TOY-WORKER 83 39, Devonshire Street, Queen’s Square, July 5th, 1856. To THE MOTHER OF ONE OF THE TOY-MAKERS.

DEAR MRS. J., I regret to have to tell Harriet not to return to work till Thursday next, as I have said that those children who do not earn five shillings in a week should lose three days’ work. I am very sorry to be obliged to say this, but I hope it, or a sense of the necessity of being industrious, will soon render any such law unnecessary. I shall be as pleased as proud when the day arrives, when I see all the children steady, earnest, and eager to do all they can to help those near and dear to them. I am sure their idleness results more from want of thought than anything else but they must try to overcome this ; and if they fail to do this because it is right to do so, they must be taught to do so by other means. However, I ought to say that Harriet has improved very much indeed lately ; she has been so much more gentle and steady, and more earnest about her lessons. It is therefore with much pleasure that I give her Mr. Neale’s invitation to spend a day at his house, and hope that she may grow more and more good, gentle, generous, and earnest, working for you, herself and all whom she can benefit, not only willingly but unceasingly; and I am sure she will find in quiet earnest work a happiness and peace which are far more joyous than giddiness. I ought to tell you how much I love her, and how much life and pleasure she gives to all here. (83)

But most surprising to me really, was the connections Octavia Hill had to art, her focus on drawing and painting and the close connection with Ruskin, but also acquaintance with others. Though I don’t imagine she would have got on with the Pre-Raphaelites, which makes this rather hilarious

45, Great Ormond St., July 1st, 1857.

TO EMILY. I did not go to Mr. Neale’s and the children made a horrid mess of it. Miss C. forgot the name of the station ; and they went to Beddington and had to walk eight miles, and other absurdities. I saw Rossetti last night, and learned that Ruskin is not going abroad, but to Manchester, Oxford, etc., to lecture. He starts to-day. He was at Russell Place, to see the pictures ; but did not see any of us. Rossetti was so friendly, I could not hate him, with his bright bright eyes, and recalling, as he did, dear people ; and he was so kind too. . . (97)

Of course, Kingsley sounds like a right twat as she paraphrases him here from a speech he made to an Association of women formed to help sanitary reform at their first public meeting in Willis’s rooms. It was opened by Lord Shaftesbury:

To Miranda (July 24th 1859)

“..if you think that the English race is the very noblest race the world contains; that it has, moreover, a greater power of adapting itself to every kind of climate and mode of life than any other, except the old Roman, ever had; that, besides all this, it is, on the whole, a young race, showing no signs of decay you will see that it is worth while for political economists to look on the map, and see that at least four-fifths of the world is uninhabited, and not cultivated even in the most ordinary way.”

…he looked upon the legislative part of sanitary reform with something more like despair than ever…He was not going into the question here ; it would have to be attended to, but it seemed a great way off. Therefore he hoped women would go, not only to the occupiers, but to the possessors of the house, and influence people of ” our own class.” ” And it’s so easy,” he said ” there isn’t a woman in this room who couldn’t save the lives of four or five children within the next six months ; and this, without giving up One of your daily duties, one of your pleasures, one even of your frivolities, if you choose.” (148-49)

You can’t entirely blame Octavia for her many issues when she sat around listening to such twaddle while so impressionable and young.

But there are so many glimpses of the realities of working life…she could have gone a different way, couldn’t she? She didn’t have to respond so to circumstances like this:

To Miss Baumgartner (19th August, 1860)

If you had any notion of my state of mind just now! Everything I want to do seems delayed. One girl, a darling protege of mine, says her mistress starves her will not try another place, insists upon going home. Oh such a home! irreligious, dirty, cruel, impoverished; and the girl has just had two years’ training. Well she must just try her home, and God bring her safe out of it. (184)

This embodies the spirit found throughout. Personal interest and care that come packaged with a demand for gratefulness alongside the demand that subjects put up with their station and what she and their employers believe is best for them.

This would be central to her housing projects, subject of another post. Here I will just focus on her charities, though they are to some extent intertwined.

She was part of the Charity Organisation Society (COS) briefly. She didn’t play well with others, and the reasons are various, though she did extend her networks — like getting to know Rev Samuel Barnett, who would go on to found Toynbee Hall. But her brother-in-law’s insights into the workings of COS are rather fascinating.

It was in connection with the committee that Octavia insisted most on the desirability of substituting employment for relief whenever possible…(258)

There is this also. The geographical distribution of wealth, continues the same.

Another and marked defect in the organisation of the Council led Octavia to abandon, for a time, one of her special beliefs in order to enforce another, which seemed to her of more importance. The Committees of the Society, through which direct relief work has always been carried on, were divided according to the chief London districts; and thus some Committees of the richer parishes were much more able to raise funds in their own neighbourhood than could the Eastern and Southern Committees. The consequence was that the Central Society was obliged to supply funds to supplement the needs of the Poorer districts and in return, claimed to exercise a control over the distribution of those funds, which could not be claimed over the richer Committees. (259)

They also checked her books, when her own report of the initial conditions sparked a small controversy about the liveability of her housing…there is nothing more about this. I shall have to find it elsewhere.

She disliked the thought of greater publicity, but reluctantly consented to submit her books and papers to the Special Committee appointed for this enquiry, Though they were friendly in tone, Octavia greatly disliked the visits of these gentlemen; and, when they wished to examine the tenants of the courts to find out the moral effects produced on them by the changes, Octavia put her foot down, and declined to allow this interference between herself and her “friends.”… it was the first important exhibition of that officialism which increased in Octavia her strong dislike of State or Municipal management. (262)

and finally, that small matter of the Suffragettes.

First ; it was with women that she specially co-operated in her work among the poor; and her discovery of a new outlet for their energies, and her warm appreciation of their possible capacity, led her to look on the Female Suffrage movement as a sort of red herring drawn across the path of her fellow workers, which hindered them from taking an adequate interest in those subjects with which she considered them specially fitted to deal. Secondly, even in that pacific phase of the Female Suffrage movement, there were champions of this cause who thought it more important to call attention to what women could accomplish than to undertake regular work. Thus they seemed to promote that intense love of advertising which Octavia abhorred. Lastly, there were always people who assumed that one, who had done so much efficient work, must be in favour of a change, which would enable so many other women less well provided with powers of work to accomplish more than they could now succeed in doing. (263)

I know that these are the words of her brother-in-law. Not hers. They are so very distasteful though. Like how she really feels about Greeks…my god the vomitousness

Achmetaga, Euboea
Octavia to her mother, 24th April 1880

Mr Noel was away for some days; and she and the tiny child were the only representatives of the race that rules here by education and gentleness. The rest just look, love and obey. (429-30)

A short description of her from Mr Cockerell, as pleasant as to be found in the volume…

September 5th, 1871.

First and foremost of all the guests at Ben Rhydding, in my opinion, comes Miss Octavia Hill ; an unobtrusive, plainly dressed little lady, everlastingly knitting an extraordinarily fine piece of work, whose face attracts you at first, and charms you, as you become acquainted with the power of mind and sweetness of character, to which it gives expression ; a lady of great force and energy, with a wide, open and well-stored brain, but, withal, as gently and womanly as a woman can be ; and possessed of a wonderful tact, which makes her the most instructive and the pleasantest Companion in the establishment. Miss Hill has done great things among the poor, in her own district of Marylebone…(265)

This same Mr Cockerell keeps trying to get her to read books she really doesn’t like — this is pretty awesome on Tolstoy’s Resurrection

Of course, one feels the nobility of the author’s aim , and some of the chapters are interesting as opening a view into life so utterly different from ours…But, take it as a whole, I can’t say I feel the book either refreshing or helpful; and I am a little disappointed even with the art of it. (561)

To what little I could extract about housing, see the second post. I disliked her a great deal, but there are so many holes in this accounting of her life…I really would love to know what fill them.

Maurice, C. Edmund (ed) ([1913] 2010) Life of Octavia Hill As Told in Her Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gorton Constitutional

These are such extraordinary times, these covid-19 times. For a week now working from home, Mark here. Going out once a day for a walk while we still can, hands in pockets, giving others wide berth. But the streets are eerily empty. As they should be. Worrying about toilet paper, because that is something I never have too much of, until M headed down to Asda before it opened to make sure of it. I’m reading The Decameron. A few friends with mild symptoms so far, but worried for others and especially family in the US. Signed up for volunteering but nothing to do so far — for the first time I wish I had a car. There is little to be done on foot. A neighbourhood terribly limited for walks, but I suppose that makes it easy to keep distance from others. Today felt more apocalyptic perhaps, freezing wind, mostly cloudy, landscapes of ruin that have nothing to do with the virus except in the ways they have been created by a rapacious kind of capitalism and lack of investment. And someone who likes to set rubbish on fire.

Work has been diabolical, but I hope this week will be calmer. Time to work on the blog even. It has been so long.

reading buildings like tea leaves

Magush reads the future in a vacant building opposite the charcoal yard where he lives. The six huge picture windows and the twelve little windows of the adjacent building are like cards for him. Magush never thought of associating windows and cards: that was my idea. His methods are mysterious and can be explained only in part. He tells me that during the day he has trouble drawing conclusions, because the light disturbs the images. The most propitious moment to carry out his task is at sunset, when certain slanting rays of light filter through the side windows of the building and are reflected onto the glass of the windows in front. That is why he always makes appointments with his clients for that hour of the day. I know, having learned from careful research, that the upper part of the building has to do with matters of the heart, the lower part with money and work, and the middle with problems of family and health.

— ‘Magush’ by Silvina Ocampo in Thus Were Their Faces, p 126

Housing the masses, BulgarIa

It is hard staring up at these huge tower blocks to imagine what lives they hold within them. So many lives. Landscapes unlike anything I could have imagined growing up, in a great circle around the city and forming its boundary. There is more variation than I was expecting as I have read so much about the ubiquitous type. I love how staring at them you see just how individual they actually are with paint, balconies become rooms, curtains, plants, doorways…So many lives.

Sofia’s Cityscapes

Not much time to write about Sofia — not much time for anything at all. But it is a city I quite loved. Incredibly layered, much of the past gone it’s true, but the incredible Roman ruins of Serdica lie beneath it all, swathes of it opened up to view here and there across the centre city in often unlikely places.

The Greek inscription on the first city walls of Serdica, carved over the North and West gates of the city, reads:

Good luck!

The greatest and divine emporers, Ceasars Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Agustus, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, Father of the Fatherland, Greatest Pontiff and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, Father of the Fatherland, Leader of the Youth, gave to the city of the Serds a fortress walls when the Governor of the porvince of Thrace was Aselius Aemilianus, Envoy of the Emporer, Propraetore, appointed as governor of that same province.

Above sits a great mix of eras between and around the great communist boulevards and massive state buildings. I was reading Owen Hatherly, and so much of what he wrote about Warsaw, Berlin and all cities not Sofia still held true here. I am not sure how much I am still fascinated by this architecture, like everything else any promise of the early soviets crushed by a ponderous Stalinism…but probably still fascinated. It carves through the older city, yet leaves so much on either side completely untouched.

This city is full of life, grit, graffiti, architecture of many periods and styles, colour, noise, good public transportation (but confusing), delicious food.

While I might not have entirely agreed with the decision to quarantine ‘socialist’ art in the city’s outskirts, I confess did quite love seeing everything in one place.

And its special ode to Lenin.

The other monument to this era is, of course, housing. It’s own post.