Why we should all be grateful to Wisbech’s Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill, the Wisbech-born co-founder of the National Trust. Picture: Archant library

Octavia Hill, the Wisbech-born co-founder of the National Trust. Picture: Archant library - Credit: Archant

We can enjoy the legacy that a pioneering social reformer has given us, says Tony Mallion.

Having recently enjoyed a January visit to Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge three cheers to the National Trust and the decision to open properties all year round, rather than putting them in dust jackets and hibernation each winter.

Visiting NT houses, gardens and open spaces is one of life’s pleasure - and something for which in part we can thank Octavia Hill.

She was born in Wisbech in 1838 where her Birthplace House alongside the river is both an excellent museum and tribute to this incredible woman who left such a lasting impact and legacy on our society.

Her father was something of a radical forward thinker and wealthy corn merchant but when hit by bankruptcy the family were hounded out of the town so-called ‘polite society’.

Octavia was only a teenager but moving to London and influenced by her mother she soon became involved with social causes and improving the lives of needy people.

She became a pioneer for better social housing and management which went alongside the need for gardens and open green spaces to improve living conditions.

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Known as the ‘Florence Nightingale of Victorian housing’ she campaigned for planning laws to help achieve this; set up Civic Amenity Societies, the Green Belt around London and helped to establish social work. She was also keen that all should benefit from music, art and drama.

Ultimately her passion spread wider campaigning to preserve the countryside, particularly in the Lake District, which led to her becoming one of the founders of the National Trust in January 1895.

She believed in ‘pure earth, clean air and blue sky’ as life-enhancing virtues. As if that were not enough she even started the Army Cadet movement.

A remarkable life indeed which was strongly motivated by her faith and the Christian Socialist movement with its notable followers like artist and critic John Ruskin.

In the gospels Jesus talked about faith moving mountains which is not to suggest that only people of faith can achieve so much, but it certainly helped Octavia Hill, and over a century since her death we still reap the benefit.