Tag Archives: Charity Organisation Society

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.