Life of Octavia Hill as told in her letters/Chapter 1

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Early in the nineteenth century Mr. James Hill was carrying on in Peterborough a business as corn merchant which his father had made very successful, and to which was added a banking business. Later on he removed to Wisbeach with his brother Thomas. James Hill showed much of his father’s business capacity, though sometimes carried away by an over-sanguine temperament. Both his ability and his hopefulness were to be put to a severe test, when in 1825 England suffered from a general banking panic, and Mr. Hill failed in company with other bankers of greater note. But he roused himself to meet the emergency, and to a great extent retrieved his fortunes, for a time.

His troubles, however, were increased in 1832 by the loss of his second wife; and, as a widower with six children, he found himself in an anxious and difficult position. He had always been a very affectionate husband and father; and he was most desirous to find some one who would help him in the care of his children. While thinking over this problem, his attention was attracted by some articles on education, which had lately appeared in The Monthly Repository; with these articles he was so much impressed that he obtained from the Editor the name and address of the writer. She proved to be Miss Caroline Southwood Smith, the daughter of Dr. Southwood Smith, the celebrated Sanitary Reformer.

Mr. Hill called on the writer at Wimbledon, and found that she was already engaged in teaching in a private family. When that engagement had ended, Mr. Hill persuaded Miss Smith to undertake the teaching of his children. How heartily they responded to her care will be shown by two letters given later on: and when, in 1835, she became the wife of Mr. Hill, she received a welcome from her step-children such as few step-mothers can have experienced. The marriage took place at St. Botolph's, Bishopsgate.

She assisted her husband in every way, and entered most sympathetically into his patriotic efforts to reform public abuses. He had been most successful in reforming the corruption in the Wisbeach municipal government, and had succeeded in excluding any claim for church rates from his parish. The extraordinary physical energy which he threw into all his work is well illustrated by his riding fifty miles to secure the pardon of the last man who was condemned to death for sheep stealing. This excessive energy was facilitated by a life of great self-restraint and devotion to study. He read much and accumulated a very fine library. Nor even in this matter did he limit his aims to mere self-improvement. He wished to extend to others, as far as possible, his own advantages, and he founded in Wisbeach an Infant School, which should introduce sounder methods of education. It was one of the first Infant Schools built. With a characteristic audacity he chose for the motto of this school the words in which Wordsworth embodied the advice which he sarcastically suggests that Rob Roy would have given to Napoleon, had they been contemporaries:

"Of old things all are over-old,
Of good things none are good enough;
We'll try if we can help to mould
A world of better stuff."[1]

He also started a penny paper to advocate various reforms, and at one time he bought the local theatre and invited celebrated actors to perform there. Later on he co-operated most earnestly with the advocates of Free Trade.

Into this energetic life at Wisbeach three daughters were born:

Life of Octavia Hill Wisbeach 1840.jpg

Wisbeach in 1840.

House on right side of bridge where Octavia was born December 3rd, 1838.

Miranda, January 1st, 1836,
Gertrude, July 28th, 1837,
Octavia, December 3rd, 1838.

The name given to the third child marks the close connection always recognised between Mr. Hill's different families. Octavia was his eighth daughter, and the half sisters welcomed the new comers as heartily as they had done their mother. Octavia's elder sisters were Julia and Louisa, the children of Mr. Hill's first wife, Margaret, Ida, and Kate, daughters by the second wife. There was only one son, Arthur, who proved himself a most affectionate and generous brother. Later on he built up a business for himself in Reading, where, as Mayor, he did much for the improvement of the town, showing the same public spirit which animated his father. And when he became a rich man, he welcomed to his beautiful grounds on many occasions the poor people in whom Octavia was interested.

But in 1840 a great change fell on the outward life of the family. There came another bank panic ; and, though Mr. Hill tried to struggle against his difficulties, they proved too much for him. The house at Wisbeach was given up and the children of the earlier marriage were taken by their maternal grandmother; and Gertrude was adopted by her grandfather, Dr. Southwood Smith. Mrs. Hill was complimented by the Bankruptcy Commissioners on the economical way in which she had managed the household expenses, which had facilitated a settlement of her husband's affairs ; and Mr. Hill tried for some years to fulfil all his obligations to his creditors.

In the year of the bankruptcy, another daughter, Emily Southwood, was born in her grandfather's cottage in Epping Forest, and in 1843 Florence the youngest child was born at Leeds.

For some years the family moved about from place to place. At one time they were in lodgings in Pond Street, Hampstead, where the house was discovered by an artist friend who was convinced that the children dancing round a rose-bush must be the daughters of Mrs. Hill. At last the strain of anxiety became too much for Mr. Hill. He broke down physically and mentally, and became incapable of supporting his family. Under these circumstances Dr. Southwood Smith became responsible for the care of his daughter and her children, and placed them in a little cottage at Finchley. Mrs. Hill maintained that it had been a great advantage to her daughters and herself that poverty had deprived her of the help of servants, and compelled her to do everything for the children herself; and they heartily responded to her care. Her daughter Miranda in later years wrote as follows. "It is difficult to express to those who never knew Mrs. Hill what her influence was on those who came in contact with her. On her children it left an indelible impression as deep as life itself, and as lasting. From her book 'Notes on Education' it will be seen how entirely she felt the spirit to be everything in education. She seldom gave a distinct order or made a rule; but her children felt that she lived continually in the presence of God, and that in her there was an atmosphere of goodness, and that moral beauty was a delight to her in the same way that outward beauty is to so many people. She was ardent and yet so serene that to come into her room was like entering a haven of peace where evil and bitterness could not live. Her children also learned from early infancy, from her attitude of mind, that if a thing was right it must be done; there ceased to be any question about it, and how great a help that feeling is to timid natures or weak wills only those know who have experienced it."

The children spent nearly all their time out of doors in the meadows, and on the common, and were described by one of the villagers as "the young ladies who are always up in the hedges."

Octavia early developed presence of mind and resourcefulness. One day she and Emily were sailing walnut-shell boats in a large water butt, when Emily fell in head foremost. Octavia instantly ran back to the other end of the garden to give impulse to her jump, and then, leaping on to the butt, pulled it over, so that she was able to drag her sister out. At an even earlier age, she saved another sister, who had fallen into a deep stream in Epping Forest. The nurse-maid ran away screaming, but Octavia stepped down the bank and held out a stick to her sister and so pulled her out. She was always overflowing with energy which showed itself in various ways. When about eight years old she was climbing on a high fence and fell on the back of her head; so that for some time she was forbidden to do any lessons; but her mother found that she was playing at keeping a school, and was learning long pieces of poetry, French grammar, and doing sums for the pretence children, so that she was working her brain more than she would have done in the school room.

Her love of learning and writing poetry was great; and it was about this time that she wrote the following elegy on a young pigeon:

"Little one thou liest deep.
Buried in eternal sleep,
And we oft for thee repine,
While thy grave with flowers we twine.
Thou didst not live to see the sun,
For thy short life was but begun,
When silent death took all away,
Thou lovely little Hower of May."[2]

As some of the letters given in this book will show. Octavia was somewhat inclined to exaggerate the practical as opposed to the imaginative part of her nature. As a fact the imaginative and even fanciful side of her was apparent at an early age; for on one occasion she was found to have left a party at her grandfather's and to have seated herself on the steps in the garden. When asked what she was doing, she answered, "I am looking for the fairies!" "Have you seen any?" asked her friend, "No," replied Octavia, and added with the cheery confidence which distinguished her, "but I am sure, I shall see them."

This imaginative side; of her must have been greatly stimulated by the only young companions with whom she and her sisters wore brought into contact. These were the younger son and daughter of William and Mary Howitt, the well-known writers. Miss Margaret Howitt writes, "The kind wish of my elder sister Anna Mary to afford pleasure to her small brother and sister led to a children's party being given to celebrate her twenty-second birthday on January 15th, 1846. The five little grandchildren of Dr. Southwood Smith were amongst the guests, henceforward to become our cherished friends for life. It was simply owing to suitability of age that Octavia became immediately the chosen playmate of my brother Charlton and myself; she was his junior by eleven months, my senior by eight. Although she was a very ardent, eager child, with a quick sense of the ludicrous that was partially hidden under a precise determined manner, she never forgot a smile of sympathy or a word of kindness bestowed upon her. . . . On her two playmates, though quite unconsciously to herself, Octavia enforced an exacting discipline of high aims and self-improvement, against which, I, being of a more ordinary mould than Charlton, often chafed; and more especially because her lofty standard was coupled with a quite startling humility.

"I had secretly parcelled out the house to spirits both good and bad; and I think now it must have been to humour me that Octavia joined in my daily rites of propitiation to those invisibles. I can see her now in the dim light of the cellar, the domain of hob-goblins, following Charlton who led the way, whilst I brought up the rear, with an awe-inspiring countenance either induced by some preoccupation, or by the thoroughness with which she would join in any pastime.

"When Octavia visited us later on, her sense of humour was as keen as ever, but life seemed already to have for her a set purpose. . . . At the beginning of the 'fifties, awakening one night, I saw by the light of a lamp in the road a young statuesque figure seated with folded hands in the sister bed.

"'What are you about, Ockey?' I said.

"'Praying for Poland,' was the reply."

This last story was, in one way, less characteristic of Octavia than it would have been of Miranda, but the wave of feeling about such subjects, which passed over her friends and relations, was often reflected in Octavia both then and in later times.

At this time, however, her chief contact with those problems of public life which were afterwards most to interest her was confined to her visits to her grandfather, where she occasionally assisted Gertrude in copying Dr. Smith's papers on Sanitary Reform.[3] It was in connection with this work that she gave a remarkable proof of that power of concentrating her mind on, and utilising effectively any important fact affecting the matter with which she was concerned, which afterwards stood her in good stead. Among the papers which she copied was an Order in Council, freeing tenement houses from a certain tax which had hitherto been exacted from them. Years after, when she was beginning the work of superintending the houses, she remembered this Order in Council. She made inquiries and found that it was still in force, but that it was entirely unknown to many owners of tenement houses. She was therefore able to free the tenants under her care from an undue burden.

Her visits to her grandfather also brought her into touch, unconsciously sometimes, with several distinguished men, one of whom remembered the meeting at a later period. Long after the time of which I am writing, on meeting the poet Browning at dinner, he informed her that he had seen her as a child at Highgate. She remarked that it was probably her sister Gertrude. "I remember her too," said Browning. "I was calling on R. H. Home, the author of Orion, who was on a visit there; and, when you and your sister had left the room, he said, 'Those are wonderful children; you can talk to them about anything.'"

The training which Mrs. Hill gave her children produced a certain independence and originality which was noticed at a later time of life, when a friend, commenting on a special little device, produced in an emergency, remarked, "I knew it must be done by a Hill; all you do is so original."

But this bright and free country life was soon to be exchanged for new experiences, the account of which needs another chapter.

Letter from Louisa Hill to her Stepmother.

Norwich, July 19th, 1840.

My Darling Mama, I am so delighted to know that you will soon be well and strong again, and able to lend the strength and assistance which you always have in trying circumstances.

How happy you will be, when the little ones are older, when you get beyond the merely physical part of their education. I am sure your children will all be beautiful, good and wise, for they come into the world finely organized and are watched and trained under your gentle and elevating influence.

I heartily rejoice that the baby is a girl; you will give her strength to endure and struggle with the evils which are the birthright of her sex. She will add to the number of well educated women, who, I am afraid form but a very small portion of humanity. But I forget the difference in age. This little baby belongs almost to the third generation. She will be in her bloom, when we shall be old women, if not dead. Great changes may take place before she attains womanhood.

Very affectionately yours,
Louisa Hill.

Mrs. Hill to her little daughter Gertrude.

81, St. Mark's Place, Leeds.
September 1st, 1843.

Ockey can now read quite well, and spends a great deal of time every day in reading to herself. Do you know she can scarcely walk, she goes leaping as if she were a little kangaroo—that is because she is such a merry little girl.

(Undated, probably 1843).

Ockey speaks to everything that is said to her and corrects or makes fun of any mistake. She is
Life of Octavia Hill - James Hill.jpg

James Hill.
Father of Octavia Hill.

always ready for a joke. To-day her Papa said, "Take care or you will have a downfall." "That I should not mind," said Ockey, "if the down was there when I fell," and then she laughed.

Leeds, 1843.

Ockey learns to read very nicely. She is a very funny little girl; this is the way she talks. "Mama, I am as hot as if I were on the fire." "Mama, I shall never button this shoe if I were to try till the world is knocked down." She says things are as ugly as coal. The other day she told Minnie that she should "like to have a field so large that she could run about in it for ever."

From Octavia (at the age of four).

This letter shows her early love of colour, especially red.

We have a box full of silks. I gave Miranda a beautiful piece, it was velvet and the colours were black, purple, yellow and white and green. Miranda gave me a beautiful piece of crimson plush. Miranda has a book called The Peacock at Home and it has three stories in it.

Mrs. Hill to Gertrude.

November, 1845.

On Monday it is Ockey's birthday. She will be seven years old. She intends to give me a patchwork bag on that day—and she sits on a play box placed on a window-board, and looks so pretty, sewing earnestly away, never thinking that I am watching her. Every now and then she looks out at the passers by: they know every boy and girl, cat, dog, and donkey in the village by sight, and a good many of them by name, and for those whose name they do not know they invent one.

From Mrs. Howitt to Mrs. Hill.

February, 1846.

I am quite anxious to hear something about Maggie. I hope she has been as good a child, and may have left half as sweet a memory as dear Ockey.

Mrs. Howitt to Miss Mary Gillies.[4]


Ockey goes on beautifully. We are all charmed with her; and know not how we shall part with her again.

In another letter about February, 1846.

I brought Miranda home with Maggie yesterday. We are all greatly pleased with her. She is a dear sweet creature; different from Ockey, but, in her way, quite as lovable. We find Maggie much improved by Mrs. Hill's kind care of her, and by her intercourse with those dear little children.

In March, 1846, Mrs. Howitt writes again:

Miranda and Maggie go on charmingly. Miranda is very sweet and much more cheerful than I expected to find her. She is full of life and fun, and has the same kind of ringing joyous laugh as Ockey. The same in spirit, though not in degree. Ockey 's laugh is the happiest, sweetest I ever heard.

About 1849.

Octavia to her Mother.

June 10th, no year
(evidently a very early one).

We had a delicious sail yesterday. We were out for two hours, and it was so lovely; the sun shone warm and clear upon the calm blue waters; and the waves, and the bells were very pretty and made sweet music. It is so delicious bathing; we stay in so long, and try to float and splash and dash and prance and dance.

I am so happy; you don't know how happy. They are all so sweet and kind to me, and it is so beautiful here.

Give my love to the little ones, and tell them (be sure to tell them) that I did mean to bid them good bye. It was not out of anger; but I forgot in my hurry; and though that was bad enough it was not as bad as they thought it was.

Ponney wants you and we all want you to try to get Mrs. Bugden to allow Miranda to come to the carting of the hay at Hillside, which will be about Thursday week.

From Kate Hill to Miranda.

February 2nd, 1850.

I shall have great pleasure in working for the Peace Society; but I want you to tell me when the Bazaar is to be held, because if soon, I must not make anything too large to be sent in a letter. I hope it will not be before my holidays for I like best to do coarse work. Will you tell me, too, what are the doctrines of the Peace Society? I know very little about it though still enough to engage my sympathies.

Will you give the enclosed collar to dear Mamma with my love, and ask whether I shall make some like it for the bazaar?

But Mamma is to be sure and keep this one for herself because I have made it for her, and I like my work to be round her neck, as my arms cannot be there."
Life of Octavia Hill - as a child.jpg

Octavia Hill as a Child.
From an Oil Painting by Margaret Gillies.

  1. Wordsworth wrote "frame," but Mr. Hill altered it.
  2. Octavia railed the mother pigeon "May," and the young been hatched in a dark loft.
  3. See "Dr. Southwood Smith, a Retrospect." By Mrs. C. L. Lewis. 1898.
  4. Miss Gillies and her sister Margaret were Mrs. Hill's bridesmaids, and became life-long friends of her and her children.