A Formidable Victorian Woman

What links a former Marylebone resident, a housing association, the National Trust, and a Marylebone slum which ironically included a street named Paradise Place?

Image of Octavia Hill

The answer is the social reformer Octavia Hill.

In 1864, John Ruskin, at Octavia’s persuasion, purchased three houses in Paradise Place. He gave them to Octavia Hill to manage. The aim was to make “lives noble, homes happy and family life good” in this, one of London’s notorious slums, known as ‘Little Hell’. Nearby in Freshwater Place (now Homer Street Marylebone) further housing was purchased two years later for a second social housing project. She described the slum conditions of one of the Freshwater Place houses:

“The plaster was dropping from the walls, on one staircase a pail was placed to catch the rain that fell through the roof. All the staircases were perfectly dark; the banisters were gone, having been used as firewood by the tenants.”

The water supply for these houses was stored in a leaking dirty water butt, the result being that there was often no water. These conditions must have been typical for many of the London subdivided tenements in which several families and also single workers resided.

Paradise Place is now known as Garbutt Place

Paradise Place is now known as Garbutt Place.

Paradise Place is now known as Garbutt Place and runs north from Moxon Street (formally Paradise Street). The houses purchased by Ruskin survive on the east side of this street and are marked by an English Heritage blue plaque. Earlier this year one of these 3 bedroom houses was on the rental market for £3,012 pcm, a far cry from the 19th century weekly rent of a few shillings.

From these beginnings her ‘housing empire’ grew rapidly, so that by 1877 she stated

“I have 3,500 tenants and £30,000 or £40,000 worth of money under my continuous charge”.

This quote gives an indication of her character. Olivia Hill was personally involved in all aspects of the project and expected all her rent collectors and administrative staff to be as meticulous in their work as she was. The money from rents was used not only to maintain the dwellings but also provide an income of 5% for the financial backers of the schemes. If it appears that these projects were set up solely for generating profits, this was not so. Octavia Hill was keen to educate the tenants in budget management and provided other facilities such as laundries so meeting halls. Paradise Place was close to a school set up by Octavia Hill several years earlier.

Octavia Hill's blue plaque in Garbutt Place

To find out more about this formidable Victorian woman, take a look at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card number). The dictionary also includes an entry for her early supporter John Ruskin. For more details of her life and work, you can visit the City of Westminster Archives Centre. As a major and influential Westminster resident the centre holds several biographies and also a number of her original letters.

Octavia Hill died in 1912. One hundred years later a memorial plaque was unveiled in the nave of Westminster Cathedral acknowledging her role as a social reformer and founder of the National Trust.



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