A Gay History of Cambridgeshire, Part 4: Cambridgeshire’s Notable LGBT Residents
Octavia Hill, social reformer and founder of the National Trust
Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was a prominent social reformer and activist, campaigning for better social housing and the preservation of open spaces for use by the poor. She is perhaps best known today as one of the founders of the National Trust.
Hill was born in Wisbech to a prominent local family. Her father James was a corn merchant and banker who owned the Angles Theatre and school in the town centre. However the family fell on hard times when James had a mental breakdown and was declared bankrupt; he abandoned his family, and Octavia moved with her mother and siblings to Finchley.
Octavia Hill had little formal schooling and got her first job aged 14, but she developed an early interest in the conditions of the poor in an era when slums were widespread and disease was common. Hill and her friend John Ruskin were early developers of social housing, aiming to treat their tenants (which eventually numbered around 4,000) with dignity and provide additional facilities such as playgrounds, childcare and after-school clubs. Hill later developed an interest in preserving open spaces for recreation for common people, and was instrumental in saving Hampstead Heath from development, as well as acquiring Wicken Fen back in her home county as the first nature reserve to be owned by the National Trust in 1899.
Hill had little interest in fashion but was noted for her passionate speeches and occasionally fiery temper. She was described by her friend Henritta Barnett as: “small in stature with a long body and short legs. She did not dress, she only wore clothes, which were often unnecessarily unbecoming; she had soft and abundant hair and regular features, but the beauty of her face lay in brown and very luminous eyes, which quite unconsciously she lifted upwards as she spoke on any matter for which she cared. Her mouth was large and mobile, but not improved by laughter. Indeed, Miss Octavia was nicest when she was made passionate by her earnestness.”
Hill had several passionate relationships with women, including Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the UK’s first female doctors. Her long term companion was Harriot Yorke, with whom she lived in Marylebone and Kent for over 30 years. They are buried together in Crockham Hill, Kent.
Independent Women, Historic England https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/lgbtq-heritage-project/workplaces-and-creativity/independent-women/
Octavia Hill, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octavia_Hill
John Mason – Volunteer