Life of Octavia Hill as told in her letters/Conclusion
For more than a year before her death, Octavia had suffered from breathlessness, and at Easter of 1912, she became aware that her illness was serious. She at once began to plan the devolution of her work. She wrote to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and to five other owners of house property, to ask if they would appoint certain of her trained workers to take over the direct management of the houses. And she was much gratified that all these owners were ready to fall in with her suggestions; and that her lady workers were willing to undertake the responsibility of management and direction.
She decided to bequeath her own freehold property to her married nieces, the three daughters of Mrs. Charles Lewes, in the belief that they would care for the work, and continue the good management which would ensure the welfare of the tenants. Her nieces had been associated with her in many ways from their early girlhood, and their love and reverence for her made it likely that they would respond to this trust.
These arrangements entailed many letters and interviews, the looking over documents and accounts (she had no fewer than nine banking accounts for which she was personally responsible); and all this was a most arduous task in her weak state of health.
In May she went with Miss Yorke to Larksfield to try what rest and fresh air would do for her. She greatly enjoyed the beauty of the spring, and sat in an easy chair on the lawn for hours delighting in the birds and flowers, and specially in the scarlet poppies and golden broom seen against the blue distance.
However, she was fast losing strength, and when she returned to Marylebone Rd., on June 3rd, she never left the house again; but her energy never flagged. Up to within three days of her death she continued to see her friends and fellow workers, using to the utmost her failing strength, and endeavouring to arrange for the efficient carrying on of the many works in which she took such a keen interest. She was much cheered by the money sent to secure the purchase of Mariners’ Hill, and she watched eagerly for letters or news of donations.
Miss Rosamond Davenport Hill had bequeathed £500 to her sister, Miss Florence Davenport Hill, on the understanding that the latter should leave it to Octavia. When, however, Miss F. D. Hill heard how very ill Octavia was, she generously sent a cheque, which came the very day before Octavia died. This £500 was more than enough to secure the purchase of Mariners’ Hill, and Octavia’s delight and thankfulness were great. It was a specially precious gift, as coming from such an old and dear friend. Octavia was anxious that her illness should not attract public attention; but, as it became known, flowers and loving messages came pouring in, which touched her deeply. She longed to see her relations and friends, and was delighted to welcome all, as far as her failing strength would allow. One of her nieces, after visiting her, wrote, “It was like Heaven, to be with her”; and others felt the same. She seemed to glow with faith and unselfish love, and she had a sweet smile for anyone who rendered the least service.
All through her illness she was surrounded by love. Miss Sim, who for many years had formed part of her household, was unfailing in her watchful care. Her sisters were constantly with her, and Miss Yorke was devoted to her day and night. She was most tenderly and carefully advised by Dr. Turnbull, who had previously attended her sister, Miranda.
When Octavia realised that she could not recover she said, speaking of her work, “I might have given it a few more touches, but I think it is nearly all planned now, very well.” It was a great comfort to her to know that Miss Yorke, who had lived and worked with her for thirty years, would stay on in the dear home in Marylebone Road, and form a centre for fellow-workers, and old friends; and, above all, that she would take the responsibility of such a large amount of the work.
Octavia was also very happy at the arrangements made for the other house property; for she knew that each group of ladies would gather others round them. She felt that she was handing on the torch to those who were animated by the right spirit, and in speaking of this future for her work she said, “When I think of all this, it does not seem like death, but a new life.”
On the evening of August 12th, she gathered her household round her to say good-bye, and on the following night passed peacefully away.
She was laid by her sister, Miranda, in the quiet little churchyard at Crockham Hill; and, although no formal invitations to the funeral had been sent, friends and relations gathered from far and near, even one of her Dutch friends coming from Amsterdam for the occasion; and many representatives of public bodies with which she had been connected were present. Among the many lovely wreaths sent, was one from H.R.H. Princess Louise, bearing the following inscription:
“In deepest admiration and esteem for one who devoted
her whole life and energy to the advancement
and welfare of her fellow-countrymen.”
Sir Robert Hunter had been deputed to represent the Princess as he was Chairman of the “National Trust for preserving places of beauty,” of which H.R.H. was President.
Suggestions had been made that Octavia should be buried in Westminster Abbey, but her relations were obliged to decline this honour, as her express directions had been that she should be buried at Crockham Hill.
The desire for a more public recognition, however, was gratified by a memorial service which was held in Southwark Cathedral, in the centre of a district where so much of her later work had been done. This was largely attended, and a beautifully appreciative sermon was preached by Canon Rawnsley.
Many tributes were paid to her memory in newspapers both English and foreign; but perhaps the best summary of her life’s work might be expressed in the words which she herself used in returning thanks for the portrait presented to her by her friends in 1898. “When I am gone, I hope my friends will not try to carry out any special system, or to follow blindly in the track which I have trodden. New circumstances require various efforts; and it is the spirit, not the dead form, that should be perpetuated. When the time comes that we slip from our places, and they are called to the front as leaders, what should they inherit from us? Not a system, not an association, not dead formulas. We shall leave them a few houses, purified and improved, a few new and better ones built, a certain record of thoughtful and loving management, a few open spaces, some of which will be more beautiful than they would have been; but what we care most to leave them is not any tangible thing, however great, not any memory, however good, but the quick eye to see, the true soul to measure, the large hope to grasp the mighty issues of the new and better days to come—greater ideals greater hope, and patience to realise both.”