For ever, for everyone
There’s a wonderful quote about the young Octavia Hill, which seems to sum up all she cared about:
She walked in, a little figure in a long skirt, seeming much older than her seventeen years, and followed by a troupe of poor and ragged children. They came from back streets and crowded hovels.
On that occasion she’d walked the children to Romford and back, giving them their first taste of fresh air and green spaces. The episode captures what is special about Octavia Hill. The children came from her Ladies Guild, providing work and education for the poor. Epping Forest (another destination for the children) was one of the ‘outdoor living rooms’ she was to save for the nation. The walk itself — a long distance by today’s standards — reflects her belief in the power of the outdoors and nature to refresh, inspire and transform. And the whole enterprise was an act of a focused, determined and passionate woman.
Octavia Hill was extraordinary. She was a visionary, ahead of her time in the links she made between access to fresh air and physical and spiritual wellbeing. This is a philosophy with which we are only now getting to grips. One hundred years after her death we are only beginning to develop ways of measuring national happiness as well as gross domestic product. In the age of capitalism’s birth, her views were truly revolutionary.
Octavia Hill was one of three founders of the National Trust in 1895. The organisation bears her imprint from the first. You hear her voice in our far-sighted goal — to protect special places forever.
Throughout my time as Director-General of the National Trust, and particularly during 2012 as we mark the centenary of her death, I have felt the spirit of Octavia Hill sitting on my shoulder. The Trust is now a very different organisation from the tiny though ambitious body that existed on Octavia Hill’s death, when it had 58 properties: 15 buildings and 43 areas of land totalling just over 5,000 acres. How are we meeting her uncompromising standards and measuring up against her ambitious, exacting vision?
Most familiar to her, of course, would be that connection between people and place. When I joined the Trust I concluded that while being proud of our many achievements, Octavia Hill might have questioned whether we had sufficient focus on ‘benefit for the nation’. I felt we needed to become more ‘arms open’ if we were to meet her vision.
Now you will find us bringing our places to life, focused both on their care in perpetuity and on enjoyment for people now. We tell the stories of the great families that once lived in our houses and, in a touch that Octavia Hill would surely appreciate, we also tell the ‘below stairs’ stories of their servants. We are concerned by what we see as the growing disconnect between children and nature. And while we may stop short of marching children to Epping Forest, we are constantly looking for ways to encourage families to get outdoors and closer to nature. We are inspired in doing so by Octavia Hill’s own words: ‘the need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise… the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs common to all’.
When Octavia Hill died in 1912, the National Trust had 713 members. We now have 4 million. While she would no doubt be impressed, she would not be surprised, and she would certainly not be complacent. She believed, as we do, that beauty, nature and heritage are fundamental to the human condition. She spoke as she founded us of everlasting delight. No doubt, if she were here now, she would describe the last hundred years of the Trust and what we stand for as one of enduring relevance; a cause from which we must never rest in pursuing.
This extract is taken from 'Octavia Hill and the National Trust', the twelfth chapter in the Demos collection The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill.