On this date in 1838 a British pioneer in housing reform, urban space, and social reform was born. Octavia Hill was the ninth child of a merchant banker and his third wife, an educator. Shortly after her birth, her father went bankrupt and the family began to rely on her maternal grandfather’s support. She ended her education at 12 and at 13 was accepted into a guild program for “distressed gentlewomen” –don’t you just love that phrase and the implications? When the guild expanded its program a year later, Octavia was put in charge of the children in the workroom.
She was so distressed by the poverty from which her charges came that she began to study the problem of urban slums. She also took on part-time work as a copyist for critic and philanthropist John Ruskin, and passionately shared her concerns with him. By her mid-20s she had become an expert on the laws Parliament had passed to reform living conditions for the poor and was convinced that the only way to change things was to create a new model for landlords. Ruskin purchased three cottages and put her in charge of the to implement her ideas.
In exchange for reasonable rent in a well-maintained building, tenants agreed not to overcrowd the home and to ensure that their children were educated and well cared for. Hill provided access to a number of after-school clubs and activities for the children. Her program included a weekly rent collection visit, during which her staff got to know the tenants, ensured that the building was in good condition, and verified that the rent conditions were met. Although she had a narrow view of social good that did not allow for self-determination, her true concern for the conditions of the working poor and regular visits to ensure the success of the next generation were an early form of social work. While not perfect, I think it is worth noting how we see the early start of social work.
Recognizing the need for open spaces, she also advocated for protection of urban parks and green space. Her work in this area, combined with her pioneering ideas about housing reform, set the stage for great improvements in England that served as models elsewhere. She helped to found the National Trust and the organization that grew into the modern charity Family Action. Hill recognized that her work was a starting place. She famously noted,
When I am gone, I hope my friends will not try to carry out any special system, or to follow blindly in the track which I have trodden. New circumstances require various efforts, and it is the spirit, not the dead form, that should be perpetuated. … [more important will be] the quick eye to see, the true soul to measure, the large hope to grasp the mighty issues of the new and better days to come – greater ideals, greater hope, and patience to realize both.
Very much the voice of a social worker! Today, I hope all of us that are social workers respect self-determination while looking at the intersections of oppression.