Octavia Hill - Social Reformer - 1838-1912

Octavia Hill was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, the eighth daughter of James Hill, a prosperous corn merchant and former banker and Caroline, the daughter of Dr Thomas Southwood Smith, the pioneer of sanitary reform. James Hill built an infant school, run by Caroline, which was open in the evenings as a community centre for adult education and recreation. But by 1840, James Hill was bankrupt and he later suffered 'a temporary fit of insanity'. The family left Wisbech, and Caroline brought up her children alone in London.

Octavia was particularly concerned with the welfare of the inhabitants of cities, especially London and was a moving force behind the development of social housing. She worked closely with with her sister Miranda (1836–1910), who founded the Kyrle Society. Her campaign for the availability of open spaces for poor people resulted in the establishment of the National Trust in 1895.

This page identifies some of the London locations associated with Octavia Hill which can be seen on my walk routes.


In 1841 Caroline and her daughters are enumerated at Pond Street, Hampstead and in 1851 at Turnpike Road, Finchley.

In 1859 Octavia moved with her family to Milton (now Balcombe) Street and taught at the Portman Hall School.

I haven't been able to find the exact address. This is a nice example of the terraced houses that make up much of the street however there are some modern replacements. The school referred to was on the corner of present Penfold Street and Church Street. There is no trace of this.

St John's Wood walk

14 Nottingham Place

Caroline Hill - house proprietor - age 52
Miranda - daily governess - age 25
Octavia - artist - age 22
Emily - scholar - age 20
Florence - scholar - age 17

Isabella Bain - pupil - age 13
Ellen Howe - servant - age 34
Sophia Blake - arithmetic teacher - age 21
Alice? Hughes - civil servant - age 26

14 Nottingham Place

Caroline Hill - no occupation - age 72
Miranda - school mistress - age 45
Octavia - teacher - age 42
Hariett York - visitor - age 38
Louisa Hoye - cook - age 25
Emma Parker - housemaid - age 23

Amy Watts - Canada - age 18
Annie Harrison - Twickenham - age 17
Alice Hoyland - Humingly? - age 16
Clara Hoyland - Hiendly? - age 14
Helen Botterell - St Garton - age 15
Mary Newman - Barnsley - age 14
Winifred Robinson - Boston - age 14


(first published Macmillan's Magazine, July 1869)

   About four years ago I was put in possession of three houses in one of the worst courts in Marylebone. Six other houses were bought subsequently. All were crowded with inmates. The first thing to be done was to put them in decent tenantable order. The set last purchased was a row of cottages facing a bit of desolate ground, occupied with wretched, dilapidated cow-sheds, manure heaps, old timber, and rubbish of every description. The houses were in a most deplorable condition—the plaster was dropping from the walls; on one staircase a pail was placed to catch the rain that fell through the roof. All the staircases were perfectly dark; the banisters were gone, having been burnt as firewood by tenants. The grates, with large holes in them, were falling forward into the rooms.

Garbutt Street - Marylebone walk

Another early project was St Christopher's Buildings located off Oxford Street.

Mayfair walk

Old Church Street, Chelsea

Once owned by Octavia Hill.
The tenants were mostly elderly ladies
whom she took on an annual outing

Chelsea walk

Originally laid out in the 1880s on the site of a derelict paper factory by Octavia Hill. Red Cross Garden was described as 'an open air sitting-room' for the people of Southwark. It was the scene of the annual Southwark Flower Show and many ftes and concerts in its heyday. Heritage Lottery funding enabled Bankside Open Spaces Trust to work with local residents, businesses, and historians to restore the original layout of the delightful Victorian garden. This included the recreation of the pond with its rustic bridge, new flower beds, lawns and benches, and a small information centre and gardener's office.

Southwark walk

The Army Cadet Force (ACF) is a British youth organisation that offers progressive training in a multitude of subjects from military training to adventurous training (such as Outward Bound) and first aid, at the same time as promoting achievement, discipline, and good citizenship to boys and girls aged 12 to 18.

The ACF can trace its beginnings back to 1859, when it was formed in order to prepare youths to enlist in the army in anticipation of an invasion of Britain by the French. It remained in existence after no invasion materialised, thanks in part to the influence of Octavia Hill, because of its positive benefits on youths. She created the Southwark detachment as the first independent unit.

This plaque is on the hall in the corner of the Redcross Street Garden.

Southwark walk

Gable Cottages in Sudrey Street are similar to the Redcross Street properties. The cottages were in a style favoured by Octavia Hill but it wasn't always possible to have so few dwellings on a piece of land.

Southwark walk

In 1885 the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette WT Stead wrote about how he had procured a 13 year old girl Eliza Armstrong from her parents in Charles Street for 5. His campaign succeeded in getting the age of consent raised to 16 but earned Stead a jail sentence of 3 months! Octavia managed to get the stigmatised slums cleared and replaced with the present Almond & St Botolphs cottages in 1895. Eliza is thought to be the inspiration for Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's Pygmalion.

Octavia Hill was a strong advocate of small scale housing, cottages and more mixed housing forms. She was also prepared to experiment. In her 1897 Letter to Fellow Workers she reported on a new development of 'compound houses' in Charles Street (now14-19 Ranston Street)

... each of which comes to be practically two distinct cottages one on the top of another. One front door and passage leads to a five-roomed cottage, containing three ground floor rooms and two rooms below with coal cellar, wash-house and small back yard. Another front door leads by a separate staircase to a seven-roomed cottage with three rooms on the first floor and four above. This tenement, too, has separate wash-house, coal cellar and outside staircase which leads down to the yard. It has the advantage of enabling us to get what are practically separate cottages, with little yards, and yet get a somewhat greater height of building than two storeys, so diminishing ground rent without resorting to high blocks.

St John's Wood walk

Octavia sometimes worked in conjunction with the Church Commissioners. They redeveloped this 22 acre estate in Walworth, which had previously been slum housing, in the early 1900s. The conservation area provides 600 dwellings.
Left: Villa Street
Right: Portland Street

Walworth walk

Octavia persuaded the Church Commissioners to provide an open space in conjunction with the above development. This still exists as Faraday Park (left).
Walworth walk

She is also associated with the creation of a public garden from the former churchyard of St John's Waterloo (right).
Green Lambeth walk

Vauxhall Park was laid out on the grounds of the Lawn (former home of Henry Fawcett MP) and Carroun House in 1889. The land had been due for development but through the efforts of Octavia Hill and others was purchased by Lambeth Vestry. The Kyrle Society paid the costs of designer Fanny Wilkinson and the park was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1890. The gates and railings were designed by C Harrison Townsend. Only the gate piers survived wartime salvage but the gate has been replaced.

Vauxhall walk

The 1891 & 1901 census record her as a visitor at Larksfield in Westerham, living on her own means.

Octavia died on 13 August 1912 at her home at 190 Marylebone Road (since redeveloped). She was buried at Crockham Hill after a family funeral but a memorial service was held in Southwark Cathedral. 2009

[Wikipedia Article] [Infed article] [Birthplace Museum] [National Trust] [Homes of the London Poor] [walkslist]