Octavia Hill dedicated her life to fighting for social change and her legacy lives on over a century after her death

By Nina Steele 

If you are a regular walker in the surrey hills, chances are that you have come across the Octavia Hill trail, which as its name indicates, is dedicated to social activist Octavia Hill (3 December 1838 – 13 August 1912). Hill, who never married nor had any children, dedicated her life to bringing about social change in Britain, in both social housing for those on lower income and her lifelong campaign to protect green spaces from developers. She is one of the founding members of the National Trust.

Octavia Hill’s interest in helping the poor was something she inherited from her mother’s side of the family. Indeed, her grandfather, Thomas Southwood Smith was a “health and welfare reformer” with a special interest in housing for the poor. As Octavia’s life was lived mostly during the Victorian era, notorious for the dreadful conditions in which many poor people lived, her passion for bringing about change to the provision of social housing was much needed, to say the least.

Her commitment to improving the lives of the poor can be described as holistic, in that, it went far beyond housing alone. For example, she took an interest in the lives of the people who rented the properties under her management and wanted them to enjoy the kind of life that was available to those more fortunate. It is to that end that she fought to have some spaces made public spaces, beyond the reach of developers. She is said to have “campaigned hard against building on existing suburban woodlands, and helped to save Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from development”. She is also said to have been “the first to use the term Green Belt for the protected rural areas surrounding London”.

Her passion for ensuring that ordinary people could enjoy the spoils of nature, is what led her and two other associates, Hardwicke Rawnsley and Robert Hunter to found the National Trust on January12, 1895. With a membership of over 5 million and the most recognised charity in the land, the National Trust is deeply embedded in UK culture.

As a social reformer, the achievements of Octavia Hill cannot be overstated. Her deep passion for championing the rights of ordinary people has inspired others, including those in authority to do more for the poor. Today, thanks to her vision, millions of us are able to enjoy walks in some of the many lands owned by the National Trust. Lands which, without that vision, may have ended up in private hands. She is also rightly recognised today as a pioneer in the ways in which she sought to help the poor. Her belief that the poor should be encouraged to become self-reliant, as opposed to relying entirely on handouts, is now viewed in many quarters as a sensible and more practical approach in the fight against poverty.

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