Fran Ross’s Oreo is amazing and hilarious and wondrous, I cannot believe I had never heard of it before, never read it. It is funny, so few books are actually successfully funny. Brilliant inventive language and a dance through culture and knowledge that makes absurd any distinction between high and low. All about race, hybridity, fierce female strength and sass that is comfortable in its own skin. It contains some awesome whipping of some pimp ass. Philly v New York. My my, but you could not ask for more.
Writing so much about segregation, this made me laugh out loud but it is not the best bit by any stretch. That might be the bit about riding the bus, but might not. There are so many.
The family favorite that night was the story she told about playing at a house party in the all-black suburb of Whitehall, so much in the news when low-income whites were making their first pitiful attempts to get in. The upper-middle-class blacks of Whitehall objected to the palefaces, not because they were poor (“The poor we have with us always,” said town spokesman, the Reverend Cotton Smith-Jones, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church), but because they were white (“We just do not want whitey, with his honky ways, around us,” said Reverend Smith-Jones to a chorus of genteel Episcopalian “Amens”). As Chuck Smith-Jones pointed out, whitey was beyond help. Chuck did not groove on crime in the streets, the way black people did; he did not dig getting his head whipped, his house robbed, his wife raped, the way black people did; he was not really in getting his jollies over his youngsters’ popping pills, tripping out, or shooting up, the way black people did. Such uptight, constipated people should not he allowed to mingle with decent, pleasure-loving black folk. That was the true story, but officially Whitehall had to be against the would-be intruders on the basis of poverty.
The town adopted a strict housing code, which was automatically rescinded for blacks and reinstated whenever whites appeared. (The code was shredded, its particles sprinkled into confiscated timed-release capsules, and is now part of the consciousness of millions of cold sufferers.) “Keep Whitehall black,” the townspeople chanted in their characteristically rich baritones and basses. “If you’re black, you’re all right, jack; if you’re white, get out of my sight,” said others in aberrant Butterfly McQueen falsettos. These and other racist slogans were heani, as the social, moral, economic, and political life of the town was threatened.
The white blue-collar workers who labored so faithfully at the Smith-Jones Afro Wig and Dashiki Co., Inc., were welcome to earn their daily bread in the town, but they were not welcome to bring their low-cholesterol foods, their derivative folk-rock music, and their sentimental craxploitation films to Whitehall. The poor, the white, and the disadvantaged could go jump.
The people of Whitehall set up floodlights to play over the outskirts of the neighboring, honky-loving black town, whose lawns (formerly reasonably manicured but now nervously bitten to the quick) bore sad witness to the instant herbaphobia that whites brought with them. Black Whitehall posted sentries and devised elaborate alarm/gotcha systems (the showpiece was a giant microwave oven with the door ajar). The Whitehall PO-lice raised attack dogs on a special “preview” diet of saltines and the white meat of turkeys. Helen quoted Reverend Smith-Jones as saying, in his down-home way, “If any chalks should be rash enough to come in here, those dogs will jump on them like white on rice.” (73-75)
Ross, Fran ( 2015) Oreo. New York: New Directions.
I found a hotel on Third Street that was tenanted by dark Europeans. It was managed by an elderly woman who, when I asked if Orientals were accepted, explained that it was not an American establishment. She meant that Filipinos were allowed to stay so long as they abided by the rules. In other places I had felt like a criminal, running up to my room in fear and closing the door suspiciously, as though the whole world were conspiring against me. (306)
Wonderful autobiography, highly recommend.
Bulosan, Carlos ( 2014) America is in the Heart: A Personal History. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press.
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.
I almost wholeheartedly loved Walter Gropius on the Scope of Total Architecture. One of the key figures of Bauhaus, he still writes this as his preface, reminding us of the ideals behind the best of this new architecture:
CREATION AND love of beauty are elemental for the experience of happiness. A time which does not recognize this basic truth does not become articulate in the visual sense; its image remains blurred, its manifestations fail to delight.
Since my early youth I have been acutely aware of the chaotic ugliness of our modem man-made environment when compared to the unity and beauty of old, preindustrial towns. In the course of my life I became more and more convinced that the usual practice of architects to relieve the dominating disjointed pattern here and there by a beautiful building is most inadequate and that we must find, instead, a new set of values, based on such constituent factors as would generate an integrated expression of the thought and feeling of our time.
How such a unity might be attained to become the visible pattern for a true democracy-that is the topic of this book. It is based, essentially, on articles and lectures written-with a few exceptions-during my years in Harvard University as chairman of the Department of Architecture (1937-1952). (7)
ENTERING A new chapter of my life that–contrary to the normal expectation of life after seventy–looks to me just as turbulent and perilous as the period preceding it, I realize that I am a figure covered with labels, maybe to the point of obscurity. Names like “Bauhaus Style,” “International Style,” “Functional Style” have almost succeeded in hiding the human core behind it all, and I am eager, therefore, to put a few cracks into this dummy that busy people have slipped around me. (11)
So many cracks! I am so glad to have read this.
Part 1: Education of Architects and Designers
He is and architect and planner, but in many ways and above all a teacher. There is so much here about supporting the following generations to think, imagine, create for themselves. It is lovely, open-minded, focused always on self-improvement through collective endeavor. I also love the way he italicises sentences — much like Ruskin’s aphorisms but not pulled to one side. I have highlighted them because the formatting loses them just a little.
MY intention is not to introduce a, so to speak, cut and dried “Modern Style” from Europe, but rather to introduce a method of approach which allows one to tackle a problem according to its peculiar conditions. I want a young architect to be able to find his way in whatever circumstances; I want him independently to create true, genuine forms out of the technical, economic and social conditions in which he finds himself instead of imposing a learned formula onto surroundings which may call for an entirely different solution. It is not so much a ready-made dogma that I want to teach, but an attitude toward the problems of our generation which is unbiased, original and elastic. (17)
This is a little more of what I was expecting:
Only perfect harmony in its technical functions as well as in its proportions can result in beauty. That makes our task so manifold and complex. (18)
But this relates more to understanding architecture as not simply of aesthetic value but its role in our everyday lives. The way he writes shades sometimes into the uncomfortable pronouncements of the expert upon how lives should be lived, but there is enough sensibility of people’s need to have ownership and control over their environments that could win out over such a top-down assumption of privilege. I am not sure they always did of course, but they might have.
More than ever before is it in the hands of us architects to help our contemporaries to lead a natural and sensible life instead of paying a heavy tribute to the false gods of make-believe. We can respond to this demand only if we are not afraid to approach our work from the broadest possible angle. Good architecture should be a projection of life itself and that implies an intimate knowledge of biological, social, technical and artistic problems. (18)
My Conception of the Bauhaus Idea
After that violent eruption, every thinking man felt the necessity for an intellectual change of front. Each in his own particular sphere of activity aspired to help in bridging the disastrous gulf between reality and idealism. It was then that the immensity of the mission of the architect of my own generation first dawned on me. I saw that, first of all, a new scope for architecture had to be outlined, which I could not hope to realize, however, by my own architectural contributions alone, but which would have to be achieved by training and preparing a new generation of architects in close contact with modern means of production in a pilot school which must succeed in acquiring authoritative significance…
I tried to put the emphasis of my work on integration and co-ordination, inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, for I felt that the art of building is contingent upon the co-ordinated teamwork of a band of active collaborators whose co-operation symbolizes the co-operative organism of what we call society. (19)
I can’t help but feel that this is the genius of Gropius, not so much in what he designed but in the open vision he developed and invited others to own, the creation of collaborative spaces that respected all aspects of creative work, the support of an ideal that working together we are always better than working alone. This thread runs throughout his writings, as does the necessity of reconciling the new industrial reality with a high quality of art and life in a way that someone like Ruskin never could.
Thus the Bauhaus was inaugurated in 1919 with the specific object of realizing a modern architectonic art… It deliberately concentrated primarily on what has now become a work of imperative urgency–averting mankind’s enslavement by the machine by saving the mass-product and the home from mechanical anarchy and by restoring them to purpose, sense and life. This means evolving goods and buildings specifically designed for industrial production. (20)
And so we have interdependence rather than individualism:
What the Bauhaus preached in practice was the common citizenship of all forms of creative work, and their logical interdependence on one another in the modern world. (20)
Our conception of the basic unity of all design in relation to life was in diametric opposition to that of “art for art’s sake” and the much more dangerous philosophy it sprang from, business as an end in itself. …
Here again the emphasis on an openness of vision:
The object of the Bauhaus was not to propagate any “style,” system or dogma, but simply to exert a revitalising influence on design. A “Bauhaus Style” would have been a confession of failure and a return to that devitalizing inertia, that stagnating academism which I had called it into being to combat…
God knows we have too much of the stagnating academism. He opposed this as much as he did the early specialisation to the ignorance of other forms of art and knowledge:
The Bauhaus aimed at the training of people possessing artistic talents as designers in industry and handicrafts, as sculptors, painters and architects. A complete co-ordinated training of all handicrafts, in technique and in form, with the object of teamwork in building, served as the basis. (23)
It embraces this idea of industrialisation as a force that can free us from labour rather than enslave us further. When exactly did we lose that?
The standardization of the practical machinery of life implies no robotization of the individual but, on the contrary, the unburdening of his existence from much unnecessary dead weight so as to leave him freer to develop on a higher plane. (20) … Ruskin and Morris were the first to set their faces against the tide, but their opposition against the machine could not stem the waters. It was only much later that the perplexed mind of those interested in the development of form realized that art and production can be reunited only by accepting the machine and subjugating it to the mind. (21)
and this, refining and repurposing their critique for modern times:
The difference between industry and handicraft is due far less to the different nature of the tools employed in each, than to subdivision of labor in the one and undivided control by a single workman in the other. (22)
His solution? Perhaps not immediately obvious, I am not sure even now perhaps with the benefit of hindsight given all the complexities of capital and consumerism.
DEVELOPMENT OF STANDARD TYPES. The creation of standard types for everyday goods is a social necessity. The standard product is by no means an invention of our own era. It is only the methods of producing it which have changed. It still implies the highest level of civilization, the seeking out of the best, the separation of the essential and superpersonal from the personal and accidental It is today more necessary than ever to understand the underlying significance of the conception “standard”–that is to say, as a cultural title of honor–and firmly to combat the shallow catchword propaganda which simply raises every industrial mass product to that high rank. (26)
Last point here, the importance he set on practice, on experience, on book learning and classroom teaching less than half an education. I love how the material space of the Bauhaus came to be.
In particular, the erection of our own institute buildings, in which the whole Bauhaus and its workshops co-operated, represented an ideal task. (27)
Is there a science of Design?
This looks at design psychologically, understanding how we experience reality and illusion, how children’s perceptions change, the impacts of our subconscious. All the new insights swirling about at the time that now perhaps feel a little dated — but so will our theories in the same span of time. I would like to think architects continue to grapple with them. Gropius again turns to a kind of standardisation:
If design is to be a specific language of communication for the expression of subconscious sensations, then It must have its own elementary codes of scale, form and color. It needs its own grammar of composition to integrate these elementary codes into messages which, expressed through the senses, link man to man even closer than do words. The more this visual language of communication is spread, the better will be the common understanding. This is the task of education: to teach what influences the psyche of man in terms of light, scale, space, form and color. (33)
I am unsure what quite I think of this. What resonates more clearly is the insight into a need for change and motion, the enjoyment of creative tensions.
THE NEED FOR CHANGE. This shift in the basic concept of our world from static space to continuously changing relations engages our mental and emotional faculties of perception…Art must satisfy this perpetual urge to swing from contrast to contrast; the spark, generated by tension of opposites, creates the peculiar vitality of a work of art. For it is a fact that a human being needs frequently changing impressions in order to keep his receptive abilities alert. (40)
He writes a bit later:
We have also learned that the human being needs frequently changing impressions in order to keep his receptive abilities alert. To produce such a stimulus for him contemporary artists and architects try to create the illusion of motion. (69)
Part Two: The Contemporary Architect
Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture
I think the present situation can be summed up as follows: a breach has been made with the past which enables us to envisage a new aspect of architecture corresponding to the technical civilization of the age we live in; the morphology of dead styles has been destroyed and we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling; the general public, which was formerly indifferent to everything to do with building, has been shaken out of its torpor; personal interest in architecture as something that concerns every one of us in our daily lives has been aroused in wide circles; and the lines of future development have become clearly manifest throughout Europe. (59)
I am not sure this still feels true, but I love how it rings.
Archeology or Architecture for Contemporary buildings?
This reminds me quite a bit of Lefebvre, and I love this stretching towards how the co-constitution of society and material built environment might work.
ARCHITECTURE is said to be a true mirror of the life and social behavior of a period. If that is true, we should be able to read from its present features the driving forces of our own time. There is conflicting evidence, however. …
Surely there will always be conflicting evidence, surely this conflict must reflect the various social conflicts as much as capital and its dominant aesthetic and social ideals.
Good original architecture depends just as much on an understanding public as on its creators. (66)
I’m still thinking through that.
The Architect Within Our Industrial Society
His is a broad vision far beyond architecture conceived as a single structure, as his writing on housing issues and planning show. He has strong critique of capitalism:
The satisfaction of the human psyche resulting from beauty is just as important for a full, civilized life, or even more so, than the fulfillment of our material comfort requirements.
We sense that our own period has lost that unity, that the sickness of our present chaotic environment, its often pitiful ugliness and disorder have resulted from our failure to put basic human needs above economical and industrial requirements. (71)
As already noted, a strong preference for the collective above the individual, and a very different vision of leadership based on this:
to collaborate without losing their identity. This is to me an urgent task lying before the new generation, not only in the field of architecture but in all our endeavors to create an integrated society. (78)
The conditio sine qua non of true teamwork is voluntariness; it cannot be established by command. It calls for an unprejudiced state of mind and for the firm belief that togetherness of thought and action is a prerequisite for the growth of human culture. Individual talent will assert itself quickly in such a group and will profit for its part from the cross-fertilization of minds in the give and take of daily contact. True leadership can emerge when all members have a chance to become leaders by performance, not by appointment. Leadership does not depend on innate talent only, but very much on one’s intensity of conviction and devotion to serve. Serving and leading seem to be interdependent. (79)
Synchronizing all individual efforts the team can raise its integrated work to higher potentials than is represented by the sum of the work of just so many individuals. (80)
Architect–Servant or Leader?
So what has Bauhaus achieved in his view?
If we look back to see what has been achieved during the last thirty or forty years we find that the artistic gentleman-architect who turned out charming Tudor mansions with all modern conveniences has almost vanished. This type of applied archeology is disappearing fast. It is melting in the fire of our conviction that the architect should conceive buildings not as monuments but as receptacles for the flow of life which they have to serve, and that his conception must be flexible enough to create a background fit to absorb the dynamic features of our modern life. (84)
If only this had not been quite so true, resulting in today’s starchitect working in service of capital:
This cult of the ego has delayed the general acceptance of the sound trends in modern architecture. Remnants of this mentality must be eliminated before the true spirit of the architectural revolution can take root among the people everywhere and produce a common form expression of our time after almost half a century of trial and error. This will presuppose a determined attitude of the new architect to direct his efforts toward finding the type, the best common denominator instead of toward the provocative stunt. (85)
It feels like we now live in ever more global cities of provocative stunts and banal ‘luxury’ residential sameness precisely because ‘we’ (developers, planners, people with money) have failed to put ‘basic human needs above economical and industrial requirements‘. Principally economic as financialisation sweeps all before it. It has resulted in a cold and sterile style that draws on Bauhaus, but has none of its soul, vision or open adaptability to facilitate life rather than capital.
Anyway, a few more posts on this to come — much better than the old post on another of my dad’s old books that I read some time ago now.
Gropius, Walter ( 1966 ) Scope of Total Architecture. New York: Collier Books.
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.
The Design Museum’s Moving to Mars exhibition was brilliant, fascinating. Yet it moves from simple wonder at a new world to the beauty that can be built as we flee the earth having destroyed it.
The tag line: should we stay or should we go.
But oh the wonder. It allows you to stand (or perhaps you are lucky enough to sit) in front of three enormous screens with high resolution images from rover. Like these, but without the jagged edges. See a world no human being has seen with their own eyes.
It starts, though, with the ancient Sumerians and Greeks tracing the path of mars across the sky.
It has a telescope along the lines of Caroline and William Herschel, the notebooks of Kepler and Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli of course described a phenomenon of canali, wrongly transcribed as canals and thereby the life obsessions of Percival Lawrence Lowell who built the beautiful telescope of in Flagstaff. It allows you to see scale models of these miracles of engineering humans have created to move across this terrain to capture these images. I loved each room had an engineer asking us to enter into the excitement of solving the many questions that continue to lie before us. My dad always said they should teach school not so much about all that we know but about what we don’t, and I think he was right.
I love robots, these are so splendid. Robots much like them feature most heavily in the construction of the worlds humans would have to create in the deserts of mars. Look at them building these great hollow mounds to protect human beings from the radiation of the skies above them.
This scheme for Mars housing proposes sending robot-builders in advance of the astronauts.
These robots pose a big challenge for programming and artificial intelligence, since they will need to be semi-autonomous and smart. They cannot follow a rigid routine, since much about the Mars surface and subsoil where they will be working is unknown.
The habitats are based on inflatable modules for up to four astronauts, which need to be built on Earth and then shipped to Mars. The first stage is to dig foundation pits for them, 1.5 metres deep. The inflated pods are then covered and reinforced with regolith (Martian topsoil) bound together by a 3D-printing process using microwave energy. Mars Habitat Foster + Partners, 2015
A stunning short film can be seen here: https://www.fosterandpartners.com/projects/mars-habitat/
All of these proposed models used 3d printers to spin Martian regololith topsoil into structure.
They are used here too:
MARSHA is a first principles rethinking of what a Martian habitat could be – not another low-lying dome or confined, half-buried structure but a bright, multi-level, corridor-free home that stands upright on the surface of Mars. Where structures on Earth are designed primarily for gravity and wind, Martian conditions require a structure optimized to handle internal atmospheric pressure and thermal stresses. Marsha’s unique vertically oriented, egg-like shape maintains a small footprint, minimizing mechanical stresses at the base and top which increase with diameter. Standing tall on the surface grants the human crew a superior vantage point to observe a dynamic landscape with weather patterns, clouds, and shifting hues – their new home and object of study both. The tall, narrow structure reduces the need for a construction machine to continuously rove on the surface, reducing risk and increasing speed and accuracy.
These innovations challenge the conventional image of “space age” domes by focusing on the creation of spaces tuned to both known and anticipated physical and psychological demands of a Mars mission.
They are working to create and test a new city in the Mojave, have created some really stunning visual glimpses of what a radically reimagined architecture for Mars — and Earth — might look like. Visuals are undoubtedly their strong point, there is this glorious visual of a truly massive city spreading across the new planet.
More internal schematics!
The aesthetics clearly dominate all of these, but thought did go into the lived experience of space, the need to create home. It is hard to see, however, quite what personal mark individuals might make on these pristine printed environments. Where the posters and bluetac might go, the strings of lights, the shawls and hangings, the knickknacks. There was an occasional view of a book, a toy. For that the Soviet designer Galina Balashova seemed to be in a league of her own — she painted landscapes herself for soviet astronauts to have something of home:
So much in this exhibition was streamlined and beautiful. I am still not entirely convinced it is a great idea.
Part of me embraces so much this thought of reaching for the stars and yet…Elon Musk, how can his SpaceX fill you with confidence? Though it too is beautiful as it spreads in self-contained domes across the deep red ground.
There is the film near the end in which they describe a scenario in which the planet needs us to come, return it to its former glories when it ran with water, to act as stewards. As if our experience on Earth gave any indication that this would be our role and purpose.
Also missing were serious SF thinking about space travel — Stan Robinson’s Mars trilogy impossible not to feel as an absence here. But even more so the biosphere, the actual attempt of human beings to live in such a dome. Their own experiments of growing plants in space. A reminder of why Mars makes me feel a little bit like home.
So this left me with mixed feelings.
I will end it on returning to the joy of space exploration, the mad SF covers and wild imaginings. Maybe my favourite aspect of space when you come down to it.
The housing struggle is alive and well in Göttingen, it cheered my heart.
Bitches against borders! I laughed out loud.
A sadly folded view of Lisa Simpson, also in protest
Paint splattered bank, that also happened to be home to August Herzog von Sussex (!) and Adolf Friedrich Herzog von Cambridge (!)
And Rock’n Roll Revolution
After the nauseas of Bavaria I was worried, yet Göttingen was quite lovely, This was not just because of its banners, though they set a tone. It is full of lovely old homes with their carved painted wood and names of illustrious men of past ages drawn here by the University (Bismarck, Coleridge, Humboldt) and a most wonderful bear. Also, people who smiled despite my terrible grasp of the German language.