While living in Finchley, Octavia was influenced by her maternal grandfather, Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith. He was “the Physician to Mankind”, a friend of Jeremy Bentham and tireless campaigner for decent living conditions for poor people.
In 1851, the family moved into London, where the grim urban poverty horrified Octavia. Caroline Hill managed the Ladies Guild, a co-operative enterprise, designed to empower women by giving them economic independence. At this time, Octavia wrote the entries in her “Commonplace Book”, containing extracts of her readings and accounts of lectures she attended, which can be seen at the Birthplace House.
Other early influences on Octavia’s life were F.D. Maurice, the leader of the Christian Socialists, who inspired her confirmation into the Anglican Church, and the influential art critic John Ruskin, who was disenchanted with the existing social order.
Octavia’s grandfather, Dr Thomas Southwood Smith, eulogised by Leige Hunt as “Physician to Mankind”, helped establish the Health of Towns Association, which led to the model dwelling movement. His legacy is evident in social housing everywhere. He was a leading social reformer, who worked with Edwin Chadwick.
While a medical student in Edinburgh, he took charge of a Unitarian congregation. In 1816, he became a doctor and began to practise in Yeovil, Somerset. He moved to London to devote himself principally to medicine.
In 1824, he was appointed physician to the London Fever Hospital and in 1830 published the “Treatise on Fever”, which was once accepted as a standard authority on the subject. In this book he established the direct connection between living conditions and epidemic fevers. He said, “These poor people are victims that are sacrificed. The effect is the same as if twenty or thirty thousand of them were annually taken from their homes and put to death”.
He was frequently consulted on fever epidemics and sanitary matters by public authorities and his reports on quarantine, cholera, yellow fever and the results of sanitary improvement were of international importance.
His daughter, Caroline, married James Hill of Wisbech in 1835. Octavia Hill was born in 1838.
An English jurist, philosopher and legal and social reformer, he was a political radical and leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law. He is best known as an early advocate of utilitarianism and fair treatment of animals who influenced the development of liberalism.
He argued in favour of individual and economic freedom, including:
The art critic, author and social reformer was, with FD Maurice, a major influence on Octavia Hill’s life and work. She was under his tutorage and he funded her first housing experiments in the 1860s. It was Ruskin who introduced Hardwicke Rawnsey, a co-founder of the National Trust, to Octavia Hill.
After a bitter quarrel in the 1870s, they did not meet again, but when he died in 1901, Octavia Hill wrote:
“Since my letter to fellow-workers went to press, I have seen that Mr Ruskin is gone before. The earth seems indeed sadder and poorer that such a man lives on it no more.
To me the news brings up such a crowd of holy and lovely memories of all that he was and did in the far away years, that I am lost in the sense of tender reverence.That penetrating sympathy, that marvellous imagination, that grasp of expression, that high ideal of life have not only blessed his friends, but have left their mark on England. His thoughts have so pervaded thousands of homes that England is better, greater, and more attuned to noble ideals than she could have been but for his life and writings”
Today, the St. George’s Guild, founded by Ruskin in 1817, aims to promote the advantages of education and training in the fields of rural economy, industrial design and craftsmanship and appreciation of the arts.
The English theologian and Christian Socialist was ordained in 1834. After he became Reader at Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, young Octavia Hill attended his Sunday sermons there for three years before her confirmation into the Church of England at 15 years old.
In 1838, he wrote “The Kingdom of Christ”, in which he argued that politics and religion are inseparable and that the church should be involved in addressing social issues. Maurice rejected individualism, with its competition and selfishness, and suggested an interventionist alternative to the economic principles of laissez faire.
Maurice was attracted to the socialist and educational ideas of Robert Owen. He began editing the “Educational Magazine” in 1839, which expressed these views.
In 1840, he was appointed Professor of Literature at King’s College, London. In 1848, Maurice was among a group of tutors there who established the Queen’s College in Harley Street, a new training school for teachers.
In 1853, the Principal of King’s College was deeply shocked by the religious views expressed in his book of “Theological Essays”. The college council decided that Maurice’s doctrines were “dangerous” and asked him to resign from his post as Professor of Theology.
He then concentrated on educational reform and in 1854, drew up a scheme for the Working Men’s College, which started with over 130 students.
From 1866, Maurice was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge University.
In 1994, the Octavia Hill Birthplace Museum Trust (registered charity no.1018947) purchased part of the house, opening a museum that is entirely run by volunteers. It attracts visitors from all over the world.
In 2007, the Trust purchased the rest of Octavia Hill’s Birthplace House. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the European Regional Development Fund and a fundraising appeal, the reunification project was completed in 2009.
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