She was a woman who succeeded in a man’s world. A pioneer whose ideas have influenced how people live and see the world around them – and you can see where it all began for her in Wisbech.

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Who was Octavia Hill and what did she do?

Born on the banks of the River Nene in 1838, Octavia Hill was a Victorian social worker. Trying to help the urban poor to lead a better and healthier life, she became a co-founder of the National Trust, a campaigner for open spaces as well as creating a new profession of housing management. Her birthplace on the South Brink of the River Nene is a substantial, but by no means grand, building. Although Octavia lived there only until she was two years old, her roots were in the fenland town. The house has been converted into a museum telling the story of her life, her family and the influences upon her.

A wealthy family?

Octavias parents were James and Caroline Hill. They were radical liberals with opinions that put them at odds with a conservative establishment. James, a banker in competition with the betterknown Peckovers, whose mansion stood directly opposite on the North Brink, was an idealist. He was influenced by the great philanthropist Robert Owen, whose utopian model communities saw property held in common and social rank abolished. Exhibits in the Fenland Room, a former dining room, of the museum tell of the familys exploits. James, who moved from banking to the corn business, founded the areas first newspaper, The Star in the East, which attacked corruption. The couple also founded a school where the Angles Theatre stands. It was dedicated to teaching poor children who were otherwise unschooled; both ventures made them enemies. Friends of the Hills set up an Owenite colony at Manea, near March. Following a promising start it folded in 1843; an interactive scale model illustrates the ambitious plans for the site. A similar fate befell James Hill. He went bankrupt and suffered a breakdown from which he never recovered. Excerpts from his newspaper dedicated to telling The Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth and other cuttings tell the story, but pride of place goes to a figure of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, a friend of the family. The original can be seen in University College, London (where he was later recorded as present but not voting). Benthams body was left to Octavia Hills grandfather, Dr Thomas Southwood Smith. On Benthams instructions he dissected it, wired up the skeleton and put it in Benthams clothes as a memorial.

What did the family do next?

They left Wisbech in 1840 to live with grandfather Smith. Living in rural Finchley, Octavia and her sisters enjoyed an idyllic childhood. But these were serious people, not given to a frivolous lifestyle. Moving to London in her early teens, the slums where the poor lived had a great impact on Octavia. Aged 25, she entered the orbit of John Ruskin, for whom she had made copies of original artwork. This artist turned social campaigner was also appalled at the living conditions of the London poor. When he bought a notorious slum called Paradise Place something of a misnomer otherwise known as Little Hell he appointed Octavia to run it. In the museum, a oneroom apartment has been re-created. Using models of a typical family based on the 1861 census, contemporary illustrations and journalist Henry Mayhews accounts the display shows seven people living in damp and cramped conditions. The pests they also shared space with, from rats and cockroaches to blood-sucking bedbugs are on show. Press the button on a large model to see how the insect expands to absorb human blood.

Lovely. What did Octavia do?

She encouraged the creation of small open spaces to bring the healthy gift of air and joy of plants and flowers. A determined character, her views could be termed hard but fair. She was not interested in dishing out charity, but fostering a spirit of self-reliance and self-help among the poor that would lift them out of the squalor that shortened lives. Her aim was to make lives noble, homes happy, and family life good. She felt personal, friendly and supportive management could improve slum areas and create communities, a view borne out by the results and the properties also made a profit. Illustrations of her practical ideas on creating this are in the Housing Room, in which it is believed she was born. The Hill philosophy on housing management crossed the Atlantic; to this day she is honoured in America. She influenced a generation of housing workers, whose own tales are told in this room. On the staircase to the next floor is an image of an Army cadet. In 1889 she formed the first independent cadet battalion in London. Ruskins own tale is told in a room dedicated to him and his works.

What about the National Trust?

On the second floor we see how she was one of the founders of the National Trust for the preservation of natural beauty and buildings of historical interest. The National Trust today has two million members and half a million acres of land. By this time it was 1895 and she had gone through heartbreak and illness and emerged stronger. We learn how she had been engaged to be married, but her fiancs family objected and the wedding was called off, to her great distress. A wall mural illustrates her life and work, and describes how she was the first to use the phrase green belt to describe the practice of creating open space around cities. Theres a lot to see and take in about this remarkable character at the museum, and visitors are helped by various interactive displays.

The Octavia Hill Society set up the museum, at 1 South Brink Place, in 1995. Call 01945 476358 for more details.

WEBSITES

www.octaviahillsbirthplacehouse.org.uk/

www.nationaltrust.org.uk

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