If the name Octavia Hill does not sound familiar to you, her legacy certainly will. Co-founder of the National Trust, Hill pioneered a model of social housing still in use today. It all started with three unassuming cottages, just minutes from Marble Arch.
Although born in Cambridgeshire in 1838, adult Octavia Hill called Marylebone home. At the time it was not a desirable location. A Mercury Independent reporter writes that a guide in the area recommended he “hold your handkerchiefs in your hands … You may require them. We are going into one of the foulest dens in the district.” Filled with slums, Marylebone provided ample opportunity for Hill to work with people. Her focus was on social housing. Hill believed that the nurturing role of the woman extended beyond familial duties and into social spheres, with a duty to improve the lives of the poor.
In 1864, Hill embarked on the redevelopment of a trio of run down properties on the aptly-named Paradise Place (now Garbutt Place), just off Marylebone High Street. Money came from writer John Ruskin, but with a condition: Hill must deliver a 5% return on his money. Hill began to rehabilitate these slums into open, airy and clean living quarters. Rented at low cost to poor tenants, the rules of residence were clear: respect your surroundings and pay on time (Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays were ‘rent collection’ days), or leave.
In return, the houses were well-maintained, costs kept low, community activities encouraged and tenants offered employment opportunities. It was a revolutionary approach, designed to improve feelings of self-worth, purpose and responsibility. Business swelled and Hill had no problem delivering the promised return to Ruskin. Hill’s portfolio grew, with additional properties in Marylebone including Homer Street, St Christopher’s Place and Cato Street. She branched out to other areas of London – Southwark, Lambeth and Walworth. Training was provided for other women wanting to become social workers. Today, we may label this a humanitarian mission, but Hill resisted such philanthropic terminology – she merely believed this was her domestic ‘duty’.
Hill lived in Marylebone until her death in 1912. Her own home at 190 Marylebone Road reflected other aspects of her social vision, such as access to outdoor space and community areas (beliefs which led to her becoming one of three founders of the National Trust). Behind her house she built a club house in order to host evening and weekend activities for local women, children and older people. Today, Octavia Housing lives on as a not-for-profit organisation that provides thousands of people with affordable accommodation. Hill’s aim was to make “lives noble, homes happy and family life good” and her approach, borne in a Marylebone slum known locally as ‘Little Hell’, became a model for other housing associations around the world.