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The Great Housing Philanthropists Part 2: Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill was a prominent social reformer in Victorian England. She became an influential driving force behind the development of social housing for low income working people.

Hill was a pioneer of providing mixed housing forms using small scale housing and cottages rather than block apartment styled developments. She also argued for the improvement of existing properties rather than constructing ‘block dwellings’ which she thought was expensive both to build and maintain.

Hill sought investment from her employer John Ruskin, who was also a social reformer. With Ruskin’s investment, Hill purchased properties in London worth £7-9 million in today’s money which she in turn managed.

Her first project was Paradise Place, a terrace of three artisan cottages near Marylebone High Street. Octavia Hill was charged with the management and maintenance of the property. After completing the redevelopment here, Hill’s next management project was Freshwater Place. This was slightly bigger and housed around ten families. Rent was charged at £12 a week in today’s money, and collected by lady-rent collectors. Failure to pay would mean certain eviction. The ‘Octavia Hill Method’ as it came to be known was hugely successful, and by 1874 Hill had 15 housing schemes with around 3000 tenants.

A return of an investment was crucial to the scheme. Hill’s properties usually yielded a return of between 4-5%. Any profit over the yield payment would usually be invested in additional properties or community facilities such playgrounds.

The ‘Octavia Hill method’ also became influential in the United States. In 1896, the Octavia Hill Association was founded in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. In the UK, the Octavia housing association group now manages over 4300 affordable homes. These include some of the original properties purchased by Octavia Hill.

Sources and suggested further reading
Gareth Steadman Jones, Outcast London: A study in the relationship between classes in Victorian society, 1971.
Anthony S. Wohl, The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London, 1977.
Anthony S. Wohl, Octavia Hill and the homes of the London poor, 1971.
Gillian Darley, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Octavia Hill, 2004.
Lynsey Hanley Estates. An intimate history, 2007.
Ellen Ross, Slum Travelers: Ladies and London poverty, 1860-1920, 2007.
http://infed.org/mobi/octavia-hill-housing-and-social-reform/
www.octaviahill.com