Debunking Octavia Hill

Ian Hislop’s recent TV programme, Age Of The Do Gooders included a mention of Octavia Hill. She was portrayed as a philanthropist who helped house many desperate people and the inventor of both social housing and social work. This is typical of how Hill – for those who have heard of her at all – is represented. However it is wrong on every point. The truth about Hill’s work and legacy is very different.

Unlike her contempories, for example Peabody Trust, Hill was not a philanthropist. The model she used to attract capital funding for social housing was to guarantee a 5% return on investment. This is roughly equivalent to commercial loans taken up by social housing providers today. She was a pioneer of what we now think of as the Private Finance Initiative.

Additionally, although she initially used volunteer staff to manage properties, she soon moved to using paid staff. Her staff went on to form the Association of Women Housing Workers in 1916, this eventually went on to become the Chartered Institute of Housing in 1994. Like many people who start off with a strong voluntary ethic she came to learn the importance of professionalism.

Social housing began with medieval almshouses, some of which remain in use today. Octavia Hill was not even a pioneer of Victorian social housing: Peabody Trust began its work in 1862 while Hill got her first properties to manage in 1865, three years later. It is significant the idea and funding for these properties came from John Ruskin who personally appointed Hill to manage them – the project was Ruskin’s idea, not Hill’s. She turned out to be a good choice although following an argument with Ruskin in 1877 she edged him out. Today’s Octavia Hill Housing Trust should perhaps be called the ‘John Ruskin Housing Trust’.

Octavia Hill ended up with about 500 properties in management valued at about £70,000 in 1880. Much of these were estates already developed as social housing by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners rather than new stock developed by Hill. Her own organisation was too small to make much difference to actual housing in London and her model was not widely adopted. In comparision Peabody Trust at the same time had about £500,000 worth of stock.

It is interesting to speculate the Ecclesiastical Commissioners gave Hill their properties to manage not for altruistic reasons but because she could return a profit on them. This would make Hill the first – and last – person to make a success of sub-contracted housing management.

It’s a common impression that modern social workers provide services directly to vulnerable people. They do not: they organise, commission and supervise services provided by others on much lower pay. The impression that Hill’s housing managers were in any way early social workers is completely wrong. They have much more in common with modern supported housing workers.

Hill is now notorious for her hard-nosed approach to tenants. They had to pay the rent, look for and find work and keep their homes up to standard. If they didn’t they were quickly evicted. This gave her housing managers great – and unaccountable – power over the tenants. Today social housing providers have an infrastructure in place to minimise the risk of housing staff abusing their power over tenants – and yet it still happens. While there are no records of financial, sexual or emotional abuse carried out by Hill’s staff looking at the set-up through modern eyes it would have been inevitable.

I’ve been harsh on Hill. What I most admire is her skills as a blagger – she went from zero properties to about 500 in just over two decades and how many of us can say that? But overall her development model failed. It didn’t deliver significant investment. The real lesson is social housing requires capital funding from central government. In the 1920s councils – funded by the government – would deliver far more than 500 new units each week.

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2 Responses to Debunking Octavia Hill

  1. Firstly, thanks for the link, I will reciprocate.

    Secondly, you might like to mention the Wisbech museum to Octavia Hill and John Ruskin which has a cellar room decorated as slum of the time and the rooms above form the museum. http://www.octaviahill.org/

  2. inks2010 says:

    Hi Single Aspect – cheers for the link, the first to this blog as far as I know!

    I came across the museum site while looking around the web for stuff on Hill – it’s surprising how little there is – but didn’t feel it had much housing related info. Wikipedia, bless it, had more detail. The cellar room decorated as a victorian slum sounds worth a visit mind.

    Whatever Hill’s legacy she played an important role in social housing, the National Trust and the Army Cadet Force. It’s odd how little coverage she gets online.

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