Biographies 1 – 18th January 2018


Octavia Hill 


OCTAVIA HILL - Portrait by John Singer-Sargent 1898 painted at the end of her life.
I was made very welcome at the Biographies 1 group meeting in Cromer this morning. Currently at full capacity with 15 members, it was a smaller than expected group than regularly gather, probably due to travel concerns following last night’s high winds.
Luckily the Group Contact (Maureen) has a ready store of previous Biographies dating from way before anyone present had been members and we were able to enjoy “one she’d made earlier” which was an excellent piece on Octavia Hill which we heard and discussed - this is a very brief synopsis of the talk.
As I listened it occurred to me that Octavia Hill was a woman born out of her time and would have been entirely at home and an even greater influence if she had lived in the 20th or 21st century. Her life (1838 – 1912) spanned 75 years through the early reign of Victoria to beyond Edward’s reign, during which was a time of massive change.
Born 1838, the 8th child of her father James Hill’s 3rd marriage to his children’s governess, she had 1 half-brother and 7 sisters. Following their father’s two bankruptcies much of her life was hard and spent in poverty. Her maternal grandfather was a great influencer in the world of sanitation and public health and came to know many of the greats from her era – John Ruskin was a friend, as was the artist John Singer-Sargent. She became a major reformer and philanthropist, exhibiting strong management and entrepreneurial skills her whole life which she later used to create a portfolio of properties - which today from part of the National Trust she helped to create. Octavia Hill’s focus was to provide the opportunity to enable people to help themselves and I was shocked to find, in complete contrast to the picture of her I had created in my mind, she was NOT a supporter of Votes for Women!
In her 40s/50s she was able to address her growing concern for the lives of her tenants, believing in the "the life-enhancing virtues of pure earth, clean air and blue sky." Thus she became involved with the preserving the open spaces and urban woodland helping to save Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hills from development. Eventually the Commons Preservation Society secured high profile support from Octavia and her associates and the development of a trust (called The Commons and Gardens Trust) which became the National Trust (formal title: the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest of Natural Beauty)
Discussion within the group was very open and shortly after coffee and biscuits the meeting drew to a close.
Peggy Williams – Joint Groups Co-ordinator