I was back in Arizona for a while, starting the end of July. My mother coming home from the library stumbled in the road just at the corner of her apartment — and in dropping the books dropped this book, Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Somehow she thinks she tread on it awkwardly and turned her foot — breaking one of her bones in her left foot, and fell, breaking one of the bones in her left wrist and twisting badly her right knee. A very frail and elderly neighbour with Parkinsons found her sitting there in the road, and brought her a chair that she somehow, and god knows how, used to get herself inside. She finally managed to finally call my brother. Poor Dan. She ended up in hospital for a week and a rehab clinic for 2 at the height of Arizona’s Covid-19 emergency. For all facebook’s evils, its helped me reach ancient highschool and work networks to find out where was safe. She read this in the rehab clinic while I was quarantining in her apartment. She kept telling me I should read it.
I came home to take care of her. After much stressed back and forth with family. Made it safely – it felt quite alright, the traveling thing, except for Manchester aiport and the two European flights between Manchester and Munich. Everything about those was apalling. I couldn’t help myself, I was furious with hordes of people acting as if nothing were happening and their holidays — multigenerational families as much as young people off to party in Ibiza — were more important than lives. Putting at risk those of us who travelled for necessity and the loved ones we cared for. I stayed 6 weeks, starting days at 5 or 6 am to acomodate meetings and interviews in the UK. As if just getting through pandemic under the apalling demands of higher education for more work, more hours, more blood to keep student fees flowing weren’t quite enough.
I read it evenings, sitting out on the little porch with the sun setting. Skies often filled with ash from California fires. Temperatures still often above 100 because this was the hottest damn summer on record. My single glass of chilled white wine a small reward and and buffer against climate change and a multitude of disasters.
I really liked it. I wanted more of course, but I liked it for what it was, for the limited things it could do and did, for the way it hopefully opened doors to a multitude of people who may just go through them to learn more, get angrier and ever more critical. But two things I liked particularly, just because they resonated so much with things I’ve been thinking about for a while. The first, the power and nature of machine politics, its necessary closeness with the everyday concerns of people of colour, immigrants, the poor. Its ability to get small, but quite important, things done. Its larger costs. Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis on Chicago really got me started thinking about this, as did a book I read long ago on Tammany Hall and its ability to get 200 Irish immigrants made citizens a day, but it was fascinating to come across this aside on Fraser Robinson III’s role with the Democratic party:
He’d held the post for years, in part because loyal service to the party machine was more or less expected of city employees. Even if he’d been half forced into it, though, my dad loved the job, which baffled my mother given the amount of time it demanded. He paid weekend visits to a nearby neighborhood to check in on his constituents, often with me reluctantly in tow. We’d park the car and walk along streets of modest bungalows, landing on a door-step to find a hunched-over widow or a big-bellied factory worker with a can of Michelob peering through the screen door. Often, these people were delighted by the sight of my father smiling broadly on their porch, propped up by his cane.
“Well, Fraser!” they’d say. “What a surprise. Get on in here.”
For me, this was never good news. It meant we were going inside. It meant that my whole Saturday afternoon would now get sucked up as I got parked on a musty sofa or with a 7UP at a kitchen table while my dad fielded feedback—complaints, really—that he’d then pass on to the elected alderman who controlled the ward. When somebody had problems with garbage pickup or snow plowing or was irritated by a pothole, my dad was there to listen. His purpose was to help people feel cared for by the Democrats—and to vote accordingly when elections rolled around. To my dismay, he never rushed anyone along. Time, as far as my father was concerned, was a gift you gave to other people. He clucked approvingly at pictures of cute grandkids, patiently endured gossip and long litanies of health woes, and nodded knowingly at stories about how money was tight. He hugged the old ladies as we finally left their houses, assuring them he’d do his best to be useful—to get the fixable issues fixed. (33-34)
A second aside was just on the changing nature of her Chicago neighbourhood growing up and the impact of white flight. As someone who has written about this, it feels in a way that these school photographs show it more effectively than anything I’ve ever said.
We started in Rochdale — I like Rochdale a great deal though austerity feels like a knife here. It has cut so deep, you can see the pain of it. But this was the best walk we’ve done in a long time, up from the tram station to Healey Dell which is an extraordinarily beautiful place.
Of course to get to it, you have to pass a ruined asbestos factory left to sit here empty, enormous, poisonous.
You are warned by signs that this land is still not entirely safe, even where it seems to have returned to the wild.
But then you come to the nature reserve proper, walk along the old railway line and to the beautiful viaduct over the Spodden.
At its base sits Th’Owd Mill I’Thrutch, a fulling mill built in 1676 by the Chadwick family to process woolen cloth until the late 19th Century. Signs tell you:
Originally the cloth was soaked in a concoction of water. stale urine, soapwort, and Fullers Earth. Workers pounded it by foot; just like treading grapes. In 1863 the process became mechanised using steam power, when a boiler house and chimney were built.
There is very little left of it.
You remember once again that this period of industrialisation was not urban. It scattered along rivers like these, a network now of evocative and beautiful ruins along the river banks of the north in places like Lumsdale Valley, Cromford and New Mills. The waterfalls here are splendid things, and the boundaries in this nature preserve are confused between the natural flow of water and that channeled to service the early industrial revolution before the advent of steam. Steam changed everything, lies beneath the short and desperate lives of workers, the terrifying urbanisation of cities like Manchester.
You continue up the Spodden, then walk down a narrow stairway, ears full of water’s crashing to stand looking out upon this and the stones witness to water’s own force for moulding and shaping the world as it passes.
Even here we could not escape Covid-19, the conspiracy theories that swirl around it. COVID-19 PLANNED BY GOVERNMENT written across all the bins…as if we had a government that could plan anything at all.
From here we climbed up to Rooley Moor to meet the Cotton Famine Road. A cobbled road built across the moors by unemployed cotton workers, who sided with the abolitionist cause during the American Civil War. In solidarity with slaves, while also creating employment for themselves, they successfully campaigned for the passage of the 1863 Public Works Act.
I wanted more moors, more space, more air to breathe before going home, but it was getting late and the miles piling up. So instead of following this yellow brick road we headed back down to Healey Dell, back down into Rochdale. Home.
A long long walk through to neighbourhoods we have not seen before revealed such unexpected treasures today, above all the Fairfield Moravian settlement. We walked through Gorton (increasingly well known) and on to Openshaw, Fairfield, Droylsden. Needing to stretch our legs safely in lockdown, so tired of the streets immediately around us. We went off once again in quest of more blue plaques…quests we enjoy. Mark has posted a badly photographed plaque every day now for weeks, and I love the wander through everyday streets and architectures with a preliminary destination provided by the randomness of human birth and committee-recognised achievement.
We found such extraordinary things on this walk, though sadly as much flytipping as ever. Improved, perhaps, by the presence of creepy dolls and ancient suitcases, cheap chairs sat upright in the road.
We saw flowers growing from walls, the memories of windows and doors and crosses, a canal and some cottages down at an old wharf, geese and the astounding cuteness of goslings, a Moravian settlement of cobbled streets and timeless feel, open fields, huge brick factories in various stages of disrepair and decay, very pleasing sections of older terraced housing, some fascinating church architecture (South Manchester has such a wealth of wondrous churches and mosques with astonishing spires), an extraordinary checkerboarded market building, a variety of old pubs (closed alas all closed), birds attacking a kestrel above the ghosted outlines of a factory long demolished, the library bearing a plaque for Harry Pollitt, former General Secretary and Chairman of the British Communist Party, cats on roofs and staring at us from windows, and the birthplace of Frank Hampson who created the Dan Dare comic strip.
The Moravian settlement was most extraordinary, visited as the site of two plaques but we had no idea what else what there until we found it. A whole community (or what is left of this village and its fields that once covered 60 acres) of Georgian houses opened in 1785, built by Czech Moravians fleeing persecution. The money to build it came from Moravian church member John Lees, who sold two of his mines in Oldham (mines in Oldham!) to raise the £6,000 needed (£6000!). From the church’s website:
Fairfield is a Settlement congregation which was opened in 1785. It was planned and built by its own people, with its inn, shop, bakery, farm, laundry, fire-engine, night-watchman, inspector of weights and measures, an overseer of roads, and even its physician. There were community houses for sisters and brethren, who applied themselves to the varied work of the Settlement.
With the passing of time have come changes. The boarding schools of Fairfield have gone. That for boys, started in 1790, was discontinued in 1891; and the girls’ school, begun in 1796, has passed into the care of the local authority as Fairfield High School for Girls. The work of the Moravian Theological College was transferred to Fairfield in 1875 and continued there in the original Sisters’ House until 1958. Fairfield is no longer a self contained village; no longer does the watchman make his nightly rounds, and in the farm meadows are now streets and houses.
Despite the many changes in the life of the Settlement over the past 200 years, the Church, with its worshipping and serving congregation, remains its focus and heart.
There is a lovely piece in the Manchester Evening News about the museum there (closed sadly but not-sadly of course due to lockdown) and the woman who runs it and was baptised as a baby here. From the news article (well worth a read):
With its own council, inspector of weights and measures, bakery and laundry the Morovians built their own unique community where men and women were equal.
The plaques were for Charles Hindley, first Moravian MP, mill owner and part of the factory reform movement and Mary Moffat who attended the Fairfield Girl’s School, became a missionary to South Africa and whose daughter married David Livingstone. I have left the pictures in the flow of the walk below, simply because they stand in such incredible contrast to the world around them. We were struck by how simple this place is and yet how much better it seemed to work as a place to live, labour, visit than the whole of the area around it. How I would love to live in such a place. Obviously I am a bit obsessive about how urban space works, and some of this has rubbed off on my partner. We spoke about it as we walked the long miles home. Those thoughts and more below:
As I stare at my pictures, and the other pleasing examples of terraces we walked past, I am ever more certain that for me it is the height of the ceilings and the size of the windows above all that makes terraced housing most pleasing. The older they are the bigger the windows, and even the most simple two up two downs are thus rescued from what always strikes me as the meanness of so much later housing construction.
No asphalt or paved roadways, with nicely wide pavements raised from the roadways but not otherwise distinctive. This makes the whole of the space between buildings feel more unified and for walking or playing in, with cars allowed on sufferance. They are cobbled and obviously this makes them absurdly picturesque, but it is more the narrower cobbled space for cars and the parking set in the middle rather than along the edges that makes this work I think.
Likewise I think houses fronting right on the pavements, trees down the middle of the space between the terraces creates more of a sense of community and connection, a shared greenspace but easy (perhaps better said easier) to maintain. But what we could see of the gardens also showed them much loved and beautiful
Unified building materials but very differently sized dwellings giving visual interest, adding nooks and crannies and varied surfaces but also a sense that this community has planned for a diversity of household sizes and needs. There is clearly some level of class/status distinction here, but they feel to some extent unremarkable in the face of the quality of building, the greater sense of community expressed by the layout of the buildings and the way people clearly lived side by side.
the feeling of artisan rather than mass construction
Beautiful communal buildings
Well cared for and maintained (I’m guessing few absentee landlords here, and regulations maintaining the ‘historic preservation’ aspect), clean, some houses covered by greenery (my favourites of course) but many not
I found a map of the original settlement that shows the layout and the changing building uses, including the initial building of rooms for single men and women:
Scrolling down, you meet a statue to honour the early Moravians themselves, and then the village is easy to see emerging from South Manchester. But this walk took us past many streets and buildings and spaces full of character, one of my favourites so far.
When a friend mentioned walking to the secret lake I thought he was just talking about the reservoir, but there is actually a secret lake. We found it almost by accident. Walked through Nutsford Vale Park and through the bit that still feels more landfill than park to find that most of it is actually lovely. We walked through trees and fields to someone playing a slow version of Bella Ciao over and over again. It was eerie, sad when meeting asphalt paths and other people broke the spell.
This walk brought us narrow passages full of rubbish, an old motor bike rusting in a dried stream bed, factories, recycling, Nutsford Vale Park and Greenbank Park, the secret lake full of swans and water lilies and lined by hopeful fisherman.
I think few people understand the psychosis of developers and suburbs like Charles Willeford (1919-1988). He could have invented The Big Short, I’m sorry he didn’t. This does have some brilliant passages that resonate eerily with the 2008 crisis. The more things change the more they stay the same, or some other appropriate cliche.
There were thirty four-story condominium apartment buildings in the complex that made up Kendall Pines Terrace, but only six of the buildings had been completed and occupied. The other buildings were unpainted, windowless, concrete shells. Construction had been suspended for more than a year. Almost all of the apartments in the occupied buildings were empty. For the most part, their owners had purchased them at pre-construction prices during the real estate boom in 1979. But now, in fall 1982, construction prices had risen, and very few people could qualify for loans at 17 percent interest.
“There’s been some vandalism out here,” Susan said, when she parked in her numbered space in the vast and almost empty parking lot. “So they built a cyclone fence and hired a Cuban to drive around at night in a Jeep. That’s stopped it. But some-times, late at night, it’s a little scary out here.”
There was a tropical courtyard in the hollow square of Building Six—East. Broad-leaved plants had been packed in thickly around the five-globed light in the center of the patio. and cedar bark had been scattered generously around the plants. There was a pleasant tingle of cedar and night-blooming jasmine in the air.
Susan … pointed toward the dark Everglades.
“In the daytime you can see them, but not now. For the next four miles or so, those are all tomato and cucumber fields. Then you get to Krome Avenue, and beyond that it’s the East Everglades–nothing but water and alligators. It gets too drowned with water to build on the other side of Krome, and Kendall pines Terrace is the last complex in Kendall. Eventually, the rest of those fields will all be condos, because Kendall is the chicest neighborhood in Miami. But they won’t be able to build anymore in the ‘Glades unless they drain them.”
“This apartment looks expensive.”
“It is, for the girl that owns it. She put every cent she had into it, and then found out she couldn’t afford to live here. She’s just a legal secretary, so she had to rent it out, furniture and all…” (52-53
Perhaps even more interesting, thinking Miami in terms of escaping cops…
If a man had to escape from the cops, he could only drive north or south. Only two roads crossed the Ever-, glades to Naples, and both of these could be blocked. If a man drove south he would be caught, eventually, in Key West, and the cops could easily bottle up a man on the highways if he headed north, especially if he tried to take the Sunshine Parkway.
The only way to escape from anyone, in case he had to, would be to have three or four hidey-holes. One downtown, one in North Miami, and perhaps a place over in Miami Beach. There would be no other safe method to get away except by going to ground until whatever it was that he’d have done was more or less forgotten about. Then, when the search was over, he could drive or take a cab to the airport and get a ticket to anywhere he wanted to go. (67)
Willeford, Charles (1984) Miami Blues. London: Futura Publications.
I praise The gifts of the river. Its shiftless and glittering Re-telling of a city, Its clarity as it flows, In the company of runt flowers and herons, Around a bend at Islandbridge And under thirteen bridges to the sea. Its patience at twilight — Swans nesting by it, Neon wincing into it.
Maker of Places, remembrances, Narrate such fragments for me:
One body. One spirit. One place. One name. The city where I was born. The river that runs through it. The nation which eludes me.
Fractions of a life It has taken me a lifetime To claim.
‘Anna Liffey’, Eavan Boland
[Boland, Eavan (1994) In a Time of Violence. Manchester: Carcanet.]
Today’s walk was long, inspiring, wonderful, still a bit grim. The home of Sam Wild, who fought against fascists first in Manchester and then in Spain, a piece of history to explore further but I am glad his house is just down the road. The birthplace of actor Robert Donat and a chat at….possibly just one metre with the lovely couple who now live there. His son visited with the Oscar — it turns out Oscars are really heavy! She volunteers at the local food bank which initially shut down, but was about to start up again with different patterns of work.
Talking to strangers, these are mad times.
A Russian Orthodox church. A synagogue. Stone entries falling apart in a way I didn’t know stone could, all student rentals. A bridge club. Pubs shut. Police tape closing off courts. Old moat park with no real exciting history behind it. A huge queue to get into Sainsbury’s (not Nando’s as Mark hoped in vain) so we walked on by.
Sadly the best thing we saw that day might just have been the cat sitting in the window just down the street as we left. But no, Sam Wild won hands down.
Longsight…it’s difficult finding an uplifting daily walk for government-sanctioned health purposes in midst of pandemic. Hands dug in pockets. Crossing streets once, twice, three times but giving people a grin as we pass well clear of them. I have come to hate fly-tipping with a previously unknown passion. The strips of park along the Medlock are full of trash.
Still, we have found a wealth of things beyond the markers of resources stripped from Manchester’s green spaces. The previous site of Ardwick Cemetery, open for burials from 1838 to 1950. Here John Dalton was buried among others, named on the stone plaque that marks this memory alongside the playing fields now on the site. They sit behind the Nicholls Hospital, now a school but once an orphanage built in memory of John Ashton Nicholls by his parents after his early death. He did a great number of liberal things with his wealth drawn from cotton manufacturing, and I imagine I shall read more of him at some point.
Nicholls, John Ashton (1823–1859), cotton spinner and philanthropist, was born on 25 March 1823 at Grosvenor Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, the only child of Benjamin Nicholls (1796–1877), cotton spinner and mayor of Manchester (1853–5), and his wife, Sarah, daughter of John Ashton and his wife, Sarah, of Manchester…Having entered his father’s firm during the bitter conflicts of the 1840s, Nicholls displayed a strong desire to improve the condition of the working class and to help reconcile employers and employed through personal example, voluntary endeavour, and civic action. In the vicinity of his firm, he was the linchpin of the Ancoats Lyceum, organizing numerous lectures and entertainments, ‘not knowing’, he wrote to Mrs R. H. Greg, ‘any better way in which employers can show their sympathy with their workpeople, than by joining them in their amusements’ (Nicholls to Greg, 30 Dec 1848, Quarry Bank Mill, Greg MSS)…Nicholls did much for adult education subsequently through his popular lectures and his organizational involvement in the Manchester Athenaeum. He also set up a half-time school for factory children in Mather Street, Manchester, and acted as treasurer of the Manchester Model Secular School established by the National Public School Association…Closely associated with the Cross Street Chapel under William Gaskell’s ministry, Nicholls worked for the spiritual improvement of the working classes through the Unitarian Home Missionary Board. He also joined the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association and spoke eloquently on the need for social improvement, temperance, working-class self-reliance, and rational recreation…Nicholls died of ‘low fever’ at Eagley House, Manchester, on 18 September 1859. He never married. He was buried at Cross Street Chapel, and his funeral sermon (23 September 1859) was preached by William Gaskell, whose wife, Elizabeth, noted the passing of ‘a friend of ours, a young man of some local distinction’ (Letters of Mrs Gaskell 574). His life’s work was commemorated by a tablet in Cross Street Chapel, an obelisk in Great Ancoats Street, erected by the working men to ‘their invaluable friend’ (Gaskell, Christian Views, 129) in July 1860, and by the Nicholls Hospital, an orphanage set up by his parents at a cost of some £100,000, a substantial benefaction in Victorian Manchester. [Gordon, A., & Howe, A. (2004, September 23). Nicholls, John Ashton (1823–1859), cotton spinner and philanthropist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 11 Apr. 2020, from https://www-oxforddnb-com.salford.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-20113.]
We walked across Pin Mill Brow (such an evocative name but the landscape it references is erased by the Mancunian way, one of these great roads driven trough the heart of Manchester and its working class communities to create a pedestrian hell) to Limekiln Lane (a track and a memory of what was here) and the river (a sad stretch of water running between bricks and concrete).
We followed it from here to Gurney Street (it was a long way just to get to Limekiln lane you know, no way to just hop on a bus home), turning there to see the Church of All Souls, a hulking Gothic ruin that rises high above the council housing surrounding it. It was Radcliffian in its splendour, and its registration entry for Historic England as a grade II building hardly does it justice:
Former church. 1839-40, by William Haley. Brown brick with some stone dressings, slate roof. Romanesque style. Rectangular plan on south-west/north-east axis. The 3-bay gabled east and west ends have square pilasters to the corners and flanking the projected centre bay, all with stone false machicolation and pyramidal roofs and those flanking the centre of the west front including tall open-arcaded belfry stages. The centre of the west front has a stone central doorway, with chevron and lobed nook-shafts on scalloped capitals…built for Dr Samuel Warren, who had been expelled from the Wesleyan Methodist Connection; assigned a district in 1842.
It is nice to see the messages of support for our frontline workers, messages of solidarity. The corpse of Winnie-the-Pooh, however, unexpected.
This follows on from a first post about the life of Octavia Hill and on to the beginnings of what Hill would become best known for — housing. There are many better books I gather about her housing legacy, but I ended up with this one. I may get to the others.
This is her sister Emily’s account (wife of Charles Edmund Maurice, who put this collection together):
With regard to the housing problem, my wife gives the following account of the incident which first fixed Octavia’s mind on the subject :
“When we went to Nottingham Place, Octavia arranged to have a weekly gathering in our kitchen, of the poor women whom we knew, to teach them to cut out and make clothes. One night, one of the women fainted and we found out that she had been up all the previous night washing, while she rocked her baby’s cradle with her foot. Next day, Octavia went to the woman’s home, and found her living in a damp, unhealthy kitchen. Octavia was most anxious to help her to move into more healthy quarters, and spent a long time hunting for rooms; but could find none where the children would be taken. Then all she had heard as a child about the experiences of her grandfather, Dr. Southwood-Smith, in East London, and all she had known of the toy-workers’ homes, rushed back on her mind; and she realised that even at her very doors there was the same great evil. With this in her mind, she went to take her drawings to Ruskin, not long after the death of his father. He was burdened by the responsibility of the fortune that he had just inherited, and told Octavia how puzzled he was as to the best use to make of it. She at once suggested the provision of better houses for the poor. He replied that he had not time to see to such things ; but asked whether, if he supplied the Capital for buying a tenement house, she could undertake the management. He should like to receive five per cent. (189)
This is the first reference to it from Ruskin himself. I don’t know how I didn’t know it was Ruskin provided the wherewithal to begin this…I love this letter in relation to The Seven Lamps.
May 19th, 1864.
MY DEAR OCTAVIA, Yes, it will delight me to help you in this ; but I should like to begin very quietly and temperately, and to go on gradually. My father’s executors are old friends, and I don’t want to discomfort them by lashing out suddenly into a number of plans,—in about three months from this time I shall know more precisely what I am about : meantime, get your ideas clear—and, believe me, you will give me one of the greatest pleasures yet possible to me, by enabling me to be of use in this particular manner, and to these ends.
Affectionately yours, J. Ruskin.
Thank you for notes upon different people. I’ve got the plates for Miss B. (213)
There are curious moments of reflection on her own character
To Florence (4th February 1863)
I often long for you, dear, with all your sympathy with people in general, and power of making children happy. You know I’ve a damping cool sort of way that just stabs all their enjoyment. I don’t think I’ve any child nature left in me. However, it will injure them less, that what they all want is to grow up. (204)
But she seems to have been such a force of nature, small wonder she preferred to work alone…the number of buildings soon expanded.
May 19th, 1866.
To Miss BAUMGARTNER. My work grows daily more interesting. Ruskin has bought six more houses, and in a densely populated neighbourhood. Some houses in the court were reported unfit for human habitation, and have been converted into warehouses ; the rest are inhabited by a desperate and forlorn set of people, wild, dirty, violent, ignorant as ever I have seen. Here, pulling down a few stables, we have cleared a bit of ground, fenced it and gravelled it; and on Tuesday last, opened it as a playground for quite poor girls. I worked on quite alone about it, preferring power and responsibility and work, to committees and their slow, dull movements ; and when nearly ready I mentioned the undertaking, and was quite amazed at the interest and sympathy that it met with. Mr. Maurice and Mr. L. Davies came to the meeting ; and numbers of ladies and gentlemen ; and the whole plan seem to meet with such approval that subscriptions are offered, and I hope to make the place really very efficient. My girls are of course very helpful…
My dear old houses contribute the aristocracy to all Our entertainments. We took twenty of the children from them, to make a leaven among the wilder ones on Tuesday ; and I hope much from them here-after… (221)
This is the kind of thing she wrote to her tenants while abroad for reasons of her health:
LETTER READ AT GATHERING OF TENANTS (16th June 1867)
MY DEAR FRIENDS. As you will be all together I take the opportunity of writing a few words to tell you how much I am thinking of you. I remember the many times we have met on such occasions before, and I long to be amongst you. I should so like to have a little chat with each of you, to hear how all the little ones are, and how you have been getting on all this long time. My sisters write and tell me how you are, more than once a week ; but you know this is never quite the same as talking to you. Those are, however, my happiest days when I hear good news of you ; and the best news I could hear is that you are trying to do what is right. You and I, my friends, each know how difficult this is; we have each our different temptations, but we will strive to do better than we have done. You will all know how I look for good news of you, how I have wished to see you make your homes better and happier, how I have felt that the places I possessed were given me to make them better; how I have loved my work, and now that I have only left it in the full hope of going back to it far better able to do it than I was. So you will understand that I hope we have a great deal to do together, in the glad time to come, when I shall be among you again. (231)
There are these little tidbits…
To Miss F. Davenport Hill (9th May 1869)
I had the report from a surveyor on the houses for which we are in treaty. He says very naively, “It seems to me the houses are much out of repair, tho’ considered by the landlord in excellent condition for the class of inmates.” He says, too, the property in the neighbourhood is in excellent condition, and will let well. . . (252)
She went to see Saltaire where I would also very much like to go (also this is already a taste of her growing fame, won precisely through her work on housing):
6, Clifton Villas, Bradford, September 17th, 1869.
TO EMILY. To-night there is to be a dinner party here. Dr. Bridges and several influential people are asked to meet me;—I do feel such a take-in of a person. I wish some-one would explode me ; it is so difficult to un-humbug oneself. It is all taken for extreme modesty (fancy mine !) and laid to one’s account as so much excellence. A Mr. and Mrs. R. K., who are looked upon as great guns, are giving a dinner party in my honour. Really its very ridiculous ; what I am glad of is that I am going to see Saltaire, a model village near here which has grown up round a manufactory, belonging to a Mr. Titus now Sir Titus) Salt ; no beer shops there, Only model cottages, schools, etc. . . I’m very happy, and as bright as can be ; but save me from this again! (255)
Her housing work is impossible to separate from these complicated relationships with other women, younger women. Her role as part martyr part savior. I am so looking forward to reading Beatrice Webb’s memoirs of her time as a rent collector. But to turn to Miss Mayo.
Church Hill House, Barnet, September 26th, 1871.
TO MISS MAYO. It is no joke to get £3,000, to ascertain precisely the value of the property, and to negotiate with all the people concerned, in exactly the right order and way. I have not had a spare five minutes I think till now ; and I have thought of you so much, and so very lovingly.
There is something ludicrous in attempting to foresee events. On the principles we may build, for they do not change ; but the outward things and their teachings we cannot foresee.
Somehow personal poverty is a help to me. It keeps me more simple and energetic, and somehow low and humble and hardy, in the midst of a somewhat intoxicating power. It pleases me, too, to have considerable difficulty and effort in my own life, when what I do seems hard to the people…(270)
Intoxicating power…there are such fascinating hints to her in these letters, but not enough to go on in pulling them together into a fair picture.
Too Miss Mayo (26 September 1871)
I am thinking of writing on the subject of women’s work from their own homes. You know how strongly I believe in its practicability and power.
You all know Freshwater Place, our first freehold, Mr. Ruskin’s court, where we have our playground, which is mixed up with May festival memories for many of you.
You know something of how hard I worked for it long ago ; my difficulties in building the wall, and in contending with the dirt of the people how gradually we reduced it to comparative order, have paved it, lighted it, supplied water cisterns, raised the height of rooms, built a staircase, balcony, and additional storey; how Mr. Ruskin had five trees planted for us, and creepers, and by his beautiful presents of flowers, helped to teach our people to love flowers. You know, or can imagine, how dear the place is to me.
For some six years now, I have thought that, if ever I could afford it, I should like to put up along the whole length of the four houses which face the play-ground on the east side, some words, which have been very present to me many a time, when my plans for improving the place for the tenants were either very unsuccessful for the moment, or very promising or very triumphant, or very bright, but far away in the future.
The words are these : “Every house is builded by some man; but He that built all things is God” (293-94)
In an 1874 letter to her sister Emily, her mother notes how she continues to receive offers of property. It is a bit tangled here — her sister Miranda’s founding of the Kyrle Society to bring beauty to the homes of the poor (!), which would include public space and gardens, Octavia’s involvement with that and also with the Commons Preservation Society, though she did not quite see eye to eye with this ‘more combative body’ nor according to Maurice did they understand her distinction between her roles for the two at the same time. So she left to focus on the work with her sister which would lead in time to her also cofounding the National Trust.
It also seems to me her heroes did not ask her the right kinds of questions…
June 8th, 1876.
FROM RUSKIN. My question, a very vital one, is, whether it really never enters your mind at all that all measures of amelioration in great cities, such as your sister’s paper pleads for, and as you rejoice in having effected, may in reality be only encouragements to the great Evil Doers in their daily accumulating Sin?
Venice, shortest day, 1876.
And still her housing work continues…the drive and effort involved immense
To Mrs Gillum (7th Feb 1877)
…the ever-flowing stream of persons with whom I have to make appointments on business, and the incessant buzz around me of my assistants and immediate fellow-workers, leave me in a state of utter exhaustion on a Saturday night, which makes perfect stillness the only possibility for Sundays…
I know you will begin to tell me I ought to give something up. And I could only answer my whole life is giving up of work. I part with bit after bit often of that I care for most, and that week after week ; but it is the nearest of all duties, added to the large new questions, in which a little of my time goes a very long Way, which thus engross me. Such, for instance, as those I have now in hand—the purchase for Lord Pembroke of £6,000 worth of houses for the poor. He gives money, pays worker; one of my fellow workers trains her. Mr. Barnett sends me names of courts; but the seeing the spot, its capabilities, value, the best scheme to improve it, getting surveyors’ and lawyers’ reports, I must do. I have six such schemes in hand now, small and large together at this moment. Then I had to see Sir James Hogg, the chairman of the Metrop, Bd. of Works, on Tuesday about the Holborn rebuilding under the Art. Dwell. Bill. I have obtained leave from Sir E. Colbroke to plant the Mile End Road with trees. I have all the negotiations with the vestry to make. The C.O.S. takes much of my time, tho’ I have left all our local works to others. Then all the time I have 3,500 tenants and £30,000 or £40,000 worth of money under my continuous charge and, though I only see my people in one court face to face as of old, and the ordinary work goes on smoothly, yet even the extra-ordinary on so large a scale takes time. Questions of rebuilding, of construction, of changes of collectors, of introduction of workers to one another,—I assure you the exceptional things I can hardly refuse to do (so large is the result from half an hour’s work), use up my half hours nearly every one….(347-48)
The scale of her work is really quite impressive.
On class prejudice and the cost of charitable housing…
Eland House, November 3rd, 1879 or ’80.
FROM MRS. EDMUND MAURICE to OCTAVIA. We went to the opening of Walmer Castle, which was a great success. There were large crowds both of rich and poor. … The whole place looked very clean and comfortable, and all the food very nice ; there were decorations of flowers, and bright flags flying outside. We went over the house, and saw the beautiful dining-room upstairs and the smoking-room, and some very comfortable furnished little bed-rooms for respectable men. General Gardiner turned to a friend and said, ” We should some of us have been very glad of as good a bedroom as this at the University,” My fear about the bedrooms is that they are too dear. A shilling a night is not much to pay for so rice a little furnished room ; but, if a working man has to pay seven shillings a week for his room, I fear he will think it too much. Downstairs there is a nice large room to be used for the Boys’ Club. It is to be decorated by the Kyrle Society. (394-95)
But to return to housing the working classes…there are a couple of letters in here to the women working with her, and they are fascinating in whole:
1885 LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS. I have, since I last wrote to you, been successful in establishing my work in South London, according to the long-cherished wish of my heart. In March of 1884, I was put in charge, by the owner, of forty-eight houses in Deptford. In May of the same year, I under-took the care of several of the courts in Southwark for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. In November of the same year, the Commissioners handed. over to me an additional. group of courts. In January of 1885 I accepted the management of seventy-eight more houses in Deptford. A friend is just arranging to take forty-one houses in Southwark on lease from the commissioners. But I hope to retain trained workers and a portion of the tenants in a considerate and responsible way, which is quite independent of me or my advice. I ought, however, to repeat here once more that there is much which is technical, and which must be thoroughly learnt; and that unless intending workers set aside a time to learn their business thoroughly with us or others who have experience, they will do more harm than good by undertaking to manage houses.
One distinct advance, that is noticeable since I last wrote, is the readiness shown by men of business and companies to place their houses under our care. A deeper sense of responsibility as to the conduct of them, a perception of how much in their management is better done by women, and I hope, confident that we try faithfully, and succeed tolerably, in the effort to make them prosperous, have led to this result. This method of extending the area over which we have control has been a great help. It has occurred at a time when, owing to the altered condition of letting in London, I could no longer, with Confidence, have recommended to those who are unacquainted with business,and who depend on receiving a fair return for their capital, to undertake now the responsibility of purchasing houses.
When we began in Southwark, we secured an almost entirely new group of volunteers, who learnt there under one or two leaders, and who now form a valued nucleus from which to expand further.
In Deptford, I was obliged at first to take with me helpers from some distance, as we had none near there; but gradually, I am delighted to say, we have found many living at Blackheath and its neighbourhood who are co-operating with us; and we hope they, as the years roll on, will be quite independent of us. Of the success of our work ? Well ! I am thankful and hopeful.
Of course it has varied with the nature and constancy of our workers, and with the response our tenants give us. The new places always tax our strength, and we have had our difficulties in them, but we seem to make steady progress; I feel all must go well in proportion as we love our people and aim at securing their real good, and base our action on wise and far-sighted principles. There is not a court where not I do not, mark distinct advance ; but none know better than I how much more might have been done in each of them, and how much lies before us still to do. (452-453)
On the difficulties of building Red Cross Garden
LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS, 1887, ABOUT RED CROSS GARDEN.
It was, when handed over to me, a waste, desolate Place. There had been a paper factory on one half of it, which had been burnt down. Four or five feet of unbent paper lay in irregular heaps, blackened by fire, saturated with rain, and smelling most unpleasantly. It had lain there for five years, and much rubbish had been thrown in. A warehouse some stories high fronted the street on the other half of the ground, with no forecourt or area to remove its dull height further from the rooms in the model dwellings which faced it. Our first work Was to set bon-fires alight gradually to burn the mass of paper. This took about six weeks to do, tho’ the fires were kept alight day and night. The ashes were good for the soil in the garden, and we were saved the whole cost of carting the paper away. Our next task was to pull down the warehouse, and let a little sun in on our garden, and additional light, air and sight of sky to numerous tenants in the blocks in Red Cross Street.
The next work was to have a low wall and substantial iron railings placed on the side bounded by the street, so that the garden could be seen and the light and air be unimpeded.
Then came the erection of a covered playground for the children… (454)
And finally a picture! This book fails terribly in providing pictures…
Her thoughts on the growing settlement movement…(though we never see the cutting referred to, I assume that is what this is all about!)
Hotel Bellevue, Waggis, May 24th, 1885.
TO HER MOTHER. I am much interested in the Spectator cutting, tho’ I believe myself that the strain of living in the worst places would be too trying yet to educated people; it would diminish their strength, and so their usefulness The reform must be, I believe, more gradual. The newspapers go in for such extremes, from utter separation to living in a court I I should urge the spending of many hours weekly there, as achieving most just now, because it is less suicidal than the other course, and more natural. (455)
There is too little of the actual day to day business, the lives of the tenants and such here, but occasionally a letter got through like this one reporting to Octavia Hill
1884 or 5
Miss ELLEN CHASE TO OCTAVIA. King (a Deptford tenant) had torn his garden all to pieces and broken pale of fence and windows here and there, and did not show himself at all. We were non-plussed. First I hoped to slip notice under door, but the weather-board was too close ; that is a reason against putting them on. Then we debated how legal a service pinning to the back door would be, but Mr. P. thought it would be awkward if I was summoned for breaking into his premises ; and to post it we thought would not be customary ; so we were balked and Mrs. Lynch smiled sweetly all the time at her door. Mrs. T. had the cheek to offer nothing, so I took her a notice. I gave out several jobs of cleaning to even off the £7. Mrs. Sandal’s cistern was leaking worst sort. Matthews and Arter both said floor too old to pay for removal. My unlets have come down I0s. (458)
And still she is acquiring houses. She writes to Mary Harris in December of 1889 that she has acquired ‘9 new blocks of buildings within a stone’s throw of this house. We are buying some of the worst houses that remain in Blank Court. I am preparing to build in Southwark.’ (500-501)
I wish to see these mapped, wish to know what ‘a stone’s throw’ means for her, who refused to live amongst the poor. London must still have been so much more of a street-by-street checkerboard then.
14, Nottingham Place, W. April 28th, 1889.
To HER MOTHER. Miranda and I concocted a letter to the owners of some dreadful buildings in Southwark, which Miss J. is ready to undertake, asking to have them put under her care. So we have sent that off ; and it may bear fruit now or later. Then we finished the accounts of Gable Cottages, and despatched report of same. They are now complete! Then I settled about the painting of Hereford Buildings. We had an evening’s work over Income Tax returns. . . . To-morrow I collect in Deptford ; Miss Hogg is still away ; also Mr. T. is sending his manager to talk over matters with me… (501)
There is this mad description of an event at ‘the Poor’s land’ in Bethnal Green
Octavia to Mrs Edmund Maurice 14th August 1890
They showed us a workmen’s club there, numbering 600 members, to which is attached a co-operative store, doing £10,000 a year business. It is all under the wing of Mr. and Mrs. B., who used to go backwards and forwards from Hampstead to work, but now have taken a large old house adjoining the club, and live there entirely. . They have a sacred-looking little chapel, where they have family prayers, which opens from their house and from the club…At night we went to Bethnal Green to be present at a meeting of the local committee. They met in the first floor room over a cheesemonger’s shop, the cheesemonger being himself one of the trustees. The committee was all composed of trades-men of the neighbourhood, except that there was one very young but very capable lawyer from Oxford House. Then there was a negro, who, they say, has been most helpful. He has a wonderful gift of oratory, and has addressed numbers of open-air meetings. It was a strange and interesting sight, but oh! so difficult to get any business done, tho’ they were all very zealous and touchingly eager to do all which would enable us to take up the matter. (511-12)
In 1890 they moved to a new house — it’s just a very small glimpse into the home and the way that their lives and work were shared with others…
Miranda to Mrs Durant (12th Nov 1890)
[it is] smaller than this, and with much smaller rooms ; but it is quiet, light, and cheerful (having its chief rooms with a south aspect), and cheap. It is also not a great risk, as we shall take it by the year—at any rate till we know how we like it. It has a garden in front—and a yard behind-to our great delight a little light space and quiet being our chief requirements. The Marylebone Road used to be noisy ; but now it has a wooden pavement, a great boon. There will be room for Octavia and me with Miss Yorke and two of the friends now living with us, Miss Pearson and Miss Sim. It would be a great sorrow to part with them; so we are thankful to get a house large enough for us all.
Octavia’s work is so wide and many-sided, and she is so largehearted and wise in giving all her fellow workers leave to work in their own way, that she often hands a little domain over to me to work in my own way. So there is no sense of not carrying out my own ideas. (515)
The letters skip long periods here, though there are thanks for the funds raised for this paint by John Singer Sarjeant. It is 17 years though, before another of these collected letter calls to my interest but its is a brilliant one to her fellow workers with updates on the work…
To FELLOW WORKERS. (1901)
But by far the largest increase of our work has been in consequence of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners asking us to take charge of some of their property, of which the leases fell in, in Southwark and Lambeth. In Southwark the area had been leased long ago on the old-fashioned tenure of ” lives.” That is, it was held, not for a specified term of years, but subject to the life of certain persons. The lease fell in therefore quite suddenly, and fifty of the houses, which were occupied by working people, were placed under My care. I had only four days’ notice before I had to begin collecting. It was well for us that my fellow-workers rose to the occasion, and at once undertook the added duties; well, too, that we were just then pretty strong in workers. It was a curious Monday’s work. The houses having been let and sublet I could be furnished with few particulars. I had a map, and the numbers of the houses, which were scattered in various streets over the five acres which had reverted to the Commissioners; but I had no tenant’s name, nor the rental of any tenement, nor did the tenants know or recognise the written authority, having long paid to other landlords. I subdivided the area geographically between my two principal South London workers, and I went to every house accompanied by one or other of them. I learnt the name of the tenant, explained the circumstances, saw their books and learnt their rental, and finally succeeded in obtaining every rent. Many of the houses required much attention, and since then we have been busily employed in supervising necessary repairs. The late lessees were liable for dilapidations, and I felt once more how valuable to us it was to represent owners like the Commissioners, for all this legal and surveying work was done ably by responsible and qualified men of business, while we were free to go in and out among the tenants, watch details, report grievous defects, decide what repairs essential to health should be done instantly. We have not half done all this, but we are steadily progressing.
The very same clay the Commissioners sent to me about this sudden accession of work in Southwark, the asked me whether I could also take over 160 houses in Lambeth. I had known that this lease was falling in to them, and I knew that they proposed rebuilding for working people on some seven acres there, and would consult me about this. But I had no idea that they meant to ask me to take charge of the old cottages pending the rebuilding. However, we were able to undertake this, and it will be a very great advantage to us to get to know the tenants, the locality, the workers in the neighbourhood, before the great decisions about rebuilding are made. In this case I had the advantage of going round with the late lessee, who gave me names, rentals and particulars, and whose relations with his late tenants struck me as very satisfactory and human. On this area our main duties have been to induce tenants to pay who knew that their houses were coming down; (in this we have succeeded), to decide those difficult questions of what to repair in houses soon to be destroyed, to empty one portion of the area where Cottages are first to be built, providing accommodation as far as possible for tenants, and to arrange the somewhat complicated minute details as to rates and taxes payable for cotta ges partly empty or temporarily empty, on assessments which had all to be ascertained, and where certain rates in certain houses for certain times only were Payable by the owners, whom we represent. (545-547)
There is a second such letter from 1903
LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS. It was a huge undertaking, and needed much care and labour to start it well, and naturally we were all keen to help. It was a great day when we took over the place. Our seconds in command took charge man-fully for a fortnight of all our old courts ; and fourteen of us, including all my own responsible workers, and one lady who had gained experience in Edinburgh. We met on Monday, October 5th, to take over the estate, and collect from 500 or 600 tenants wholly unknown to us. We organised it all thoughtfully we had fifteen collecting books, and all the tenants’ books prepared; had opened a bank account, had found a room as office, and divided the area among our workers. Our first duty was to get the tenants to recognise our authority and pay us. I think we were very successful we got every tenant on the estate to pay us without any legal process, except one, who was a regular scamp. We collected some £250, most of it in silver, and got it safely to the bank. Then came the question of repairs; there were written in the first few weeks 1,000 orders for these, altho’, as the whole area is to be rebuilt, we were only doing really urgent repairs and no substantial ones. All these had to be overlooked and reported on and paid for. Next came pouring in the claims for borough and water rates. We had ascertained the assessment of every house, the facts as to whether land-lord or tenant was responsible, whether the rates were compounded for or not, what allowance was to be claimed for empty rooms. There were two water companies supplying the area, and we had to learn which supplied each house.
The whole place was to be rebuilt, and even the streets rearranged and widened ; and I had promised the Commissioners would advise them as to the future plans. These had to be prepared at the earliest date possible; the more so as the sanitary authorities were pressing, and sent 100 orders in the first few days we were there. It is needless to say with what speed, capacity and zeal the representatives of the Commissioners carried on their part of these preparations and they rapidly decided on the streets which should be first rebuilt, and what should be erected there. But this only implied more to be done, for we had to empty the streets swiftly, and that meant doing up all possible empty houses in other streets and getting the tenants into them. Fortunately, there were several houses empty, the falling in of the lease having scared away tenants. The Commissioners had decided to close all the public-houses on the estate, and we let one to a girls’ club, and had to put repairs in hand to fit it for its changed destination.
Meantime, my skilled workers had to be withdrawn, tho’ Miss Lumsden’s staff was new to the work; and I do not know how the business could have been done but for her immense power, devotion and zeal, and the extreme kindness of friends in offering special help.
The matter now stands thus: We have got thro’ the first quarter have collected £2,672—mostly in silver. Plans have been prepared for rebuilding and rearrangement of the whole estate, and these are now before the Commissioners for consideration. They provide a site for rebuilding the parish school; an area of about an acre as a public recreation ground; they substitute four wide for three narrow streets, and afford accommodation for 700 families in four-roomed and six-roomed cottages, cottage flats, and flats of three and two-roomed. tenements in houses in no case higher than three storeys. (557-559)
Yet another letter to her fellow workers 1907, not full of interest given its details on housing like the others, but pretty good none the less given its appalling view of charity as the solution to poverty.
LETTER TO MY FELLOW WORKERS.
The Poor Law Commission has necessarily occupied much of my time, and bids fair to continue to do so. It is naturally very interesting. We have visited Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Midlands, South Wales, the Eastern Counties, the Western Counties, and Scotland. My colleagues went also to the neighbourhood of Shrewsbury and to Northumberland; but I could not go. Next year we purpose visiting Ireland. The time has not arrived for making any remarks on the vast field which has opened before us; it is deeply interesting, partly by the great and important questions it suggests, partly by the large number of individuals of whose life-work we get some idea. These latter have often and often recalled to me Miss Alexander’s beautiful legend of the Hidden Servants; and, as I have got a glimpse of the righteous manufacturer, the devoted leader of the Friendly Society, the generous founder of some out-of-sight charity, the faithful nurse, the energetic matron or teacher, the self-sacrificing wise guardian, the humble and gentle pauper, I have heard echo in my ear the thankful words: “How many Thy hidden servants are”.
Of course there is the other side; and the problem appears to me the more puzzling, the more the solution of it depends, not on machinery which Commissions may recommend and Parliaments set up, but on the number of faithful men and women whom England can secure and inspire as faithful servants in their manifold duties. (565-66)
This is echoed in a letter to Lord George Hamilton in November 1908 on the changes to the poor laws. I can’t even remember exactly what was proposed but again she is up in arms over the rightful role of charity:
I can’t see my way about the ” Abnormal ” scheme of National Work; nor to accept what seems to me an extension of out-relief. I am ready not to vote for its abolition. I am glad that the out-relief given should be far more wisely supervised ; that we should have country work-houses with space for real work (called Labour Colonies if the world likes); but, when it comes to money grants for the able-bodied men outside any institution, and without disfranchisement, because they are thought respectable, we seem to be extending out relief to trench on what can only be done by Charity. (569)
A final letter (she died in 1912, but I have left out the last few years). The link between poverty, charity and imperial might…
LETTER TO MY FELLOW-WORKERS. We are, many of us, much exercised now as to the future of the Cadet Corps. The First London Battalion, founded in 1887, has always been linked closely with our work in Southwark, two companies drilling in the Hall, and the headquarters of the battalion being quite near. The health, the physique, and the moral training of our lads have owed much to it. More than eight thousand boys have passed through its ranks; and many have done honourable service for their country both by sea and land. The day has now come when the War Office are about to link on the Cadets to the general organisation for military service. They have issued suggested regulations, which appear to me, and to all the devoted group of gentlemen who have acted as officers to these lads for now so many years, to be full of peril to the whole movement. (571)
Maurice, C. Edmund (ed) ( 2010) Life of Octavia Hill As Told in Her Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
This is such a curious, most Victorian/Edwardian, often boring and frustrating and perhaps a tiny bit compelling accompaniment of the life of a woman whose ideas I do not share at all and who I am fairly certain I should have come to actual blows with. Yet the view into her hopes and work and life meant I was still sorry to approach the end, as it meant her death.
Octavia Hill had such a huge impact on housing in the UK, training hundreds of women into the rehabilitation, development and management of cottages and courts for the deserving working classes. This was housing meant to pay its own way and to be run never by the state but dependent entirely on voluntarism and for its foundation, the charity of the titled and the wealthy. It demanded cleanliness, hard work, good Christian morals and thankfulness of its tenants, it also asked them to sing and grow flowers. Good for some I know, but oh god, the condescension of it.
This is a selection of letters from her brother-in-law, and for our times and my own interest in housing, a rather curious one. Thick as this volume is, there is so much it leaves out, and I am curious what light Miss Hill would appear in were more here. These are undoubtedly selected to show her in her best light (according to her brother-in-law). This frustrated painter, great traveler (and the letters describing her travels are in many ways the best), devout Christian.
It is, though, just a little poignant finishing it with all of Hill’s many periodic ‘break-downs’ of health in which she must head off for the countryside, preferentially in Europe, while I myself have been off ill — overwork, anxiety, panic, stuck in my home and the insalubrious environs of Longsight. Still, sick leave is such a luxury, for both of us. [you know, I started these notes last June, and now I finish them in the midst of global pandemic. They are haunted by illness. I had thought them posted long ago until working on the post of Ruskin]
My favourite bits are actually where you can hear the voice of those Octavia Hill worked with, like this child toy worker writing to Octavia’s sister Emily. It’s curious how regularly Octavia bemoans her inability to be natural and friendly with people, to inspire them the way her sisters do (though at times she does claim it). One of the first projects Octavia and Emily worked on with the Woman’s Guild was to create a workshop for children to be able to earn money in better conditions. Sigh. Isn’t this the whole contradiction in a nutshell? The assumption that some children must work as the natural way of things?
But this is so lovely:
MARGARET -A TOY-WORKER–TO EMILY HILL. (1855)
I hope you are enjoying yourself. . . . We had such a beautiful lesson to-day about the world. I miss you very. I wish you would come back again. It is now twenty-five minutes to eight it was very dark, and I and Harriet put a farthing together, and sent L. and S. out for a halfpenny candle. . . . Oh ! our gardens are getting on so badly ! We had an Irish stew for dinner to-day. Do come back as soon as you can and I daresay you see numbers of snakes and snails, and glow-worms, and beautiful caterpillars and all sorts of insects. I daresay the leaves are falling fast. (58)
This captures the contradiction equally nicely:
LETTER ABOUT A TOY-WORKER 83 39, Devonshire Street, Queen’s Square, July 5th, 1856. To THE MOTHER OF ONE OF THE TOY-MAKERS.
DEAR MRS. J., I regret to have to tell Harriet not to return to work till Thursday next, as I have said that those children who do not earn five shillings in a week should lose three days’ work. I am very sorry to be obliged to say this, but I hope it, or a sense of the necessity of being industrious, will soon render any such law unnecessary. I shall be as pleased as proud when the day arrives, when I see all the children steady, earnest, and eager to do all they can to help those near and dear to them. I am sure their idleness results more from want of thought than anything else but they must try to overcome this ; and if they fail to do this because it is right to do so, they must be taught to do so by other means. However, I ought to say that Harriet has improved very much indeed lately ; she has been so much more gentle and steady, and more earnest about her lessons. It is therefore with much pleasure that I give her Mr. Neale’s invitation to spend a day at his house, and hope that she may grow more and more good, gentle, generous, and earnest, working for you, herself and all whom she can benefit, not only willingly but unceasingly; and I am sure she will find in quiet earnest work a happiness and peace which are far more joyous than giddiness. I ought to tell you how much I love her, and how much life and pleasure she gives to all here. (83)
But most surprising to me really, was the connections Octavia Hill had to art, her focus on drawing and painting and the close connection with Ruskin, but also acquaintance with others. Though I don’t imagine she would have got on with the Pre-Raphaelites, which makes this rather hilarious
45, Great Ormond St., July 1st, 1857.
TO EMILY. I did not go to Mr. Neale’s and the children made a horrid mess of it. Miss C. forgot the name of the station ; and they went to Beddington and had to walk eight miles, and other absurdities. I saw Rossetti last night, and learned that Ruskin is not going abroad, but to Manchester, Oxford, etc., to lecture. He starts to-day. He was at Russell Place, to see the pictures ; but did not see any of us. Rossetti was so friendly, I could not hate him, with his bright bright eyes, and recalling, as he did, dear people ; and he was so kind too. . . (97)
Of course, Kingsley sounds like a right twat as she paraphrases him here from a speech he made to an Association of women formed to help sanitary reform at their first public meeting in Willis’s rooms. It was opened by Lord Shaftesbury:
To Miranda (July 24th 1859)
“..if you think that the English race is the very noblest race the world contains; that it has, moreover, a greater power of adapting itself to every kind of climate and mode of life than any other, except the old Roman, ever had; that, besides all this, it is, on the whole, a young race, showing no signs of decay you will see that it is worth while for political economists to look on the map, and see that at least four-fifths of the world is uninhabited, and not cultivated even in the most ordinary way.”
…he looked upon the legislative part of sanitary reform with something more like despair than ever…He was not going into the question here ; it would have to be attended to, but it seemed a great way off. Therefore he hoped women would go, not only to the occupiers, but to the possessors of the house, and influence people of ” our own class.” ” And it’s so easy,” he said ” there isn’t a woman in this room who couldn’t save the lives of four or five children within the next six months ; and this, without giving up One of your daily duties, one of your pleasures, one even of your frivolities, if you choose.” (148-49)
You can’t entirely blame Octavia for her many issues when she sat around listening to such twaddle while so impressionable and young.
But there are so many glimpses of the realities of working life…she could have gone a different way, couldn’t she? She didn’t have to respond so to circumstances like this:
To Miss Baumgartner (19th August, 1860)
If you had any notion of my state of mind just now! Everything I want to do seems delayed. One girl, a darling protege of mine, says her mistress starves her will not try another place, insists upon going home. Oh such a home! irreligious, dirty, cruel, impoverished; and the girl has just had two years’ training. Well she must just try her home, and God bring her safe out of it. (184)
This embodies the spirit found throughout. Personal interest and care that come packaged with a demand for gratefulness alongside the demand that subjects put up with their station and what she and their employers believe is best for them.
This would be central to her housing projects, subject of another post. Here I will just focus on her charities, though they are to some extent intertwined.
She was part of the Charity Organisation Society (COS) briefly. She didn’t play well with others, and the reasons are various, though she did extend her networks — like getting to know Rev Samuel Barnett, who would go on to found Toynbee Hall. But her brother-in-law’s insights into the workings of COS are rather fascinating.
It was in connection with the committee that Octavia insisted most on the desirability of substituting employment for relief whenever possible…(258)
There is this also. The geographical distribution of wealth, continues the same.
Another and marked defect in the organisation of the Council led Octavia to abandon, for a time, one of her special beliefs in order to enforce another, which seemed to her of more importance. The Committees of the Society, through which direct relief work has always been carried on, were divided according to the chief London districts; and thus some Committees of the richer parishes were much more able to raise funds in their own neighbourhood than could the Eastern and Southern Committees. The consequence was that the Central Society was obliged to supply funds to supplement the needs of the Poorer districts and in return, claimed to exercise a control over the distribution of those funds, which could not be claimed over the richer Committees. (259)
They also checked her books, when her own report of the initial conditions sparked a small controversy about the liveability of her housing…there is nothing more about this. I shall have to find it elsewhere.
She disliked the thought of greater publicity, but reluctantly consented to submit her books and papers to the Special Committee appointed for this enquiry, Though they were friendly in tone, Octavia greatly disliked the visits of these gentlemen; and, when they wished to examine the tenants of the courts to find out the moral effects produced on them by the changes, Octavia put her foot down, and declined to allow this interference between herself and her “friends.”… it was the first important exhibition of that officialism which increased in Octavia her strong dislike of State or Municipal management. (262)
and finally, that small matter of the Suffragettes.
First ; it was with women that she specially co-operated in her work among the poor; and her discovery of a new outlet for their energies, and her warm appreciation of their possible capacity, led her to look on the Female Suffrage movement as a sort of red herring drawn across the path of her fellow workers, which hindered them from taking an adequate interest in those subjects with which she considered them specially fitted to deal. Secondly, even in that pacific phase of the Female Suffrage movement, there were champions of this cause who thought it more important to call attention to what women could accomplish than to undertake regular work. Thus they seemed to promote that intense love of advertising which Octavia abhorred. Lastly, there were always people who assumed that one, who had done so much efficient work, must be in favour of a change, which would enable so many other women less well provided with powers of work to accomplish more than they could now succeed in doing. (263)
I know that these are the words of her brother-in-law. Not hers. They are so very distasteful though. Like how she really feels about Greeks…my god the vomitousness
Achmetaga, Euboea Octavia to her mother, 24th April 1880
Mr Noel was away for some days; and she and the tiny child were the only representatives of the race that rules here by education and gentleness. The rest just look, love and obey. (429-30)
A short description of her from Mr Cockerell, as pleasant as to be found in the volume…
September 5th, 1871.
First and foremost of all the guests at Ben Rhydding, in my opinion, comes Miss Octavia Hill ; an unobtrusive, plainly dressed little lady, everlastingly knitting an extraordinarily fine piece of work, whose face attracts you at first, and charms you, as you become acquainted with the power of mind and sweetness of character, to which it gives expression ; a lady of great force and energy, with a wide, open and well-stored brain, but, withal, as gently and womanly as a woman can be ; and possessed of a wonderful tact, which makes her the most instructive and the pleasantest Companion in the establishment. Miss Hill has done great things among the poor, in her own district of Marylebone…(265)
This same Mr Cockerell keeps trying to get her to read books she really doesn’t like — this is pretty awesome on Tolstoy’s Resurrection
Of course, one feels the nobility of the author’s aim , and some of the chapters are interesting as opening a view into life so utterly different from ours…But, take it as a whole, I can’t say I feel the book either refreshing or helpful; and I am a little disappointed even with the art of it. (561)
To what little I could extract about housing, see the second post. I disliked her a great deal, but there are so many holes in this accounting of her life…I really would love to know what fill them.
Maurice, C. Edmund (ed) ( 2010) Life of Octavia Hill As Told in Her Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.