Octavia Hill

Sermon preached at St John’s by Douglas Bartles-Smith
Archdeacon of Southwark
Sunday 28 January 2001

“The Land belongs to God” - Leviticus 25.23

The EVENT which dominates the Old Testament is the liberation of a poor, oppressed and landless people from slavery in Egypt, who after a time of homeless wandering entered the Promised Land determined to build a just and fair society. A good start was made by allotting land to each family so that everyone had a home. Furthermore, legislation was introduced to ensure the family home was never lost. Every 50 years anyone forced to sell their property in hard times got their home back free of charge - because the land belonged to God!

The Bible therefore gives a high priority to every person having a home. But a home, as the Faith in the City report reminded us, is more than bricks and mortar, more than a roof over one’s head. Octavia Hill realised this in 1864 when she visited the home of one of her pupils which so shocked that she asked her friend John Ruskin for money to buy a small lodging house. This was the start of Octavia’s moral mission to manage not only housing but also poverty. In this she was remarkably prophetic and modern.

Ann Power makes this clear in her important book “Property before people:The Management of 20th Century Council Housing”. Ann found that the problems she and others were facing in the Priority Estates Project in the 1980’s were strikingly similar to those faced by Octavia Hill and her  housing managers (all women incidentally) - so they began to look again at her remedies which, though simple, had been completely forgotten by largely men in council house management in more recent times. Octavia Hill’s remedies were to: “Repair houses incrementally and constantly, in line with tenants’ preferences and in proportion to their support for the improvements; do not displace existing tenants; help the most needy; give housing jobs to the residents; collect rents personally, door to door weekly (eviction though accepted as a last resort, was rarely used); put one manager in charge of a small area of not more than 300 households, and responsible for every aspect of dealing with tenants; link social and housing needs, business and personal support; give tenants maximum say and responsibility for their housing; be tough minded and assertive with those who make other people’s lives miserable.”

In her recent biography of Octavia Hill, Gillian Darley sees the 800 tenancy Walworth Estate as the embodiment of Octavia’s ideas on the largest scale she has ever attempted. In 1903 a 100 year old lease expired on 22 acres of estate owned by the Church Commissioners and described by the Times Newspaper as “one of the most crowded of those South London slums which have engaged the attention and taxed the studied moderation of Mr Charles Booth.”

The potential for redevelopment of the area, so totally different from what it was at the beginning of the 19th century was enormous. Nevertheless the Church Commissioners were persuaded by Octavia Hill not to sell the freehold to developers but to redevelop the area themselves, widening and re-arranging the streets, including a co-op shop, setting aside an acre for recreation, an area for a new parish school and accommodation for 790 families in four-roomed and three-roomed cottages and cottage flats and three storey tenement houses. Octavia Hill was invited to manage the properties to add to the Church Commissioners’ housing she already managed in London, including the large Waterloo estate which she took over at four days notice in 1901.

The Church Commissioners said at the time that they recognised that the possession of very large areas of land, some of it situated in districts convenient for the houses of the poorer classes, imposed on them the moral obligation of seeing that the claims of the working classes, to be provided with healthy homes in places convenient for their occupations and at reasonable rents, should be respected.

The Commissioners did not come to this conclusion without pressure being applied. In 1904 the Times Newspaper reported “the management of church estates has recently come in for its share of denunciation. The falling in of some leases of old houses behind the Abbey led to a rising of the antiquaries and to a reply from the Commissioners that it was bound to dispose of property to the best advantages. The state of property in Walworth has brought no little odium upon the church though in actual fact nothing could be done by the Commissioners to improve it till the lease was out. Nothing however could have been more fatal to the prestige of the church than that the present opportunity of illustrating the responsibilities of property, especially when it is vested in Christian people, should be omitted in favour of whatever will “pay” best. Besides the Commission is after all a public body, under parliamentary supervision, and it cannot divest itself of the duty of considering the needs of the people as well as the extension of the church; nor could anything be worse than that the church should be extended in one diocese at the cost of the demoralisation of the people in another.”

All that is true today as 100 years ago. But it was Octavia Hill’s pressure on the Commissioners which was decisive! Some years later the Bishop of London remembered how easily Octavia had managed to convince her fellow Commissioners that she was right and they were wrong. “When she had talked to us for half an hour we were quite refuted. I never had such a beating in my life!”

Octavia was surprised to find how effective her pressurising had proved. But she was well prepared by her friendship with John Ruskin and especially her friendship with F D Maurice, Charles Kingsley and other Christian Socialists. Maurice in particular was a great influence whom she talked to and heard sermons from constantly. She herself said, “It was the early connection with that body of Christian Socialists to which much of my present work must owe its spirit.”

It led her (as we have seen) to champion good housing, good management, and what we today call housing plus which is summarised in the list of Octavia’s remedies I read out earlier and which included the need for gardens and open spaces. Octavia was largely responsible for 1881 Metropolitan Open Spaces Acts which is why we have so many in London. This was all of a piece with her concern for the moral and spiritual welfare of the working class, “The Poor of London,” she said, “need joy and beauty in their lives.”

It is remarkable how much of Octavia’s legacy is still with us today. The National Trust which she founded (together with Hardwick, Rawnsley and Hunter) is now a large and flourishing organisation. The Octavia Hill Housing Association which manages some of her old properties is still going strong. The Blackfriars Settlement still has as its headquarters the house Octavia helped it to purchase in Nelson Square. Open spaces all over London are still enjoyed by millions of people. But dearest to Octavia’s heart would be the Octavia Hill Estates, still managed by the Church Commissioners today mainly in Vauxhall, Waterloo and Southwark.

Octavia’s funeral service was held fittingly in Southwark Cathedral in 1912 but her legacy as we have seen is written in stone all over South London. Whenever I visit the Walworth Estate, surrounded as it is by the modern and inhuman concrete jungle of the Aylesbury Estate - I feel immensely proud of Octavia Hill and the Church Commissioners. For the Walworth estate is a shining example of the Church’s commitment to housing 100 years ago which still today has much to teach those who designed, built and manage the 1960’s housing which surrounds it. It is an inspiration for us in our time to do well!

Octavia Hill now has an honoured place in the Anglican Calendar of Saints. We do not have many saints in South London - still less any who have left their mark as much as she has. So we need to learn from her how we should protect the legacy in stone she has left us. We may need to follow Octavia’s example of bringing pressure to bear on the Church Commissioners to see that the Octavia Hill Estates remain affordable to the people of South London.

The Church Commissioners do have an obligation under Charity Law to use their assets to pay the clergy (who are not well paid). They had that obligation 100 years ago - they have it today. But the land they own is God’s land and they still have a moral responsibility to affordable housing on the Octavia Hill Estates. There have always been those amongst the commissioners from Octavia’s time to the present day who have been tempted to “opt” in favour of whatever will pay best.

To remember Octavia Hill means to resist this, as she did 100 years ago -we must do today.