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Octavia Hill and the National Trust

by Vicky and Tim Scott

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To reveal who Octavia Hill was and how what she did contributed to something we can enjoy 100 years later.

Preparation and materials


  1. How many of you have heard of a lady named Octavia Hill?

    Do not expect many hands to go up. Show the portrait of her painted by John Singer Sargent. 

    This is Octavia Hill. She was born in 1838 and died in 1912.

  2. How many of you have heard of The National Trust? The two are connected, because it is largely through Octavia’s vision and reforms that the National Trust was founded.

  3. Octavia was born into a family that was passionate about helping those in poverty. Due to her father’s financial misfortune and subsequent mental breakdown, she was brought up under strained circumstances with financial assistance from her maternal grandfather.

    Her mother, Caroline Hill, had strong views concerning reform and encouraged her daughter to read about those in extreme poverty in the working class, which, in turn, led to her involvement. 

    At 14 years old, she was introduced to the rich art critic John Ruskin and the Reverend Maurice. When she was 17, Ruskin provided Octavia with £750 to purchase 3 cottages, each with 6 rooms. Octavia turned these derelict buildings into a home for the numerous drunken and homeless people she had been caring for and she named it Paradise Place. With her own property she could provide decent accommodation and act as a caring and fair landlady.

  4. She was a founding member of the Charity Organisation Society, now known as Family Action, which arranged charitable grants and pioneered a home-visiting service that formed the basis for modern social work.

  5. One of Octavia’s fundamental beliefs was that human beings need to have access to the countryside as well as a building to live in. She was the first to use the term ‘Green Belt’.

    She therefore campaigned against development taking place on existing suburban woodlands and helped to save London's Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on. Now, thanks to her pioneering work and that of others since, hundreds of beautiful homes, gardens, moors and cliffs and open spaces have been preserved for visitors to see and enjoy today and in the future.

  6. Octavia had known real poverty herself, yet she was able to show true kindness to people who had lost their homes and turned to alcohol. With no formal education, she founded an organization that has helped to preserve hundreds of properties and beautiful places.

    The National Trust is now one of the largest landowners in the United Kingdom, with over 200 historic country houses. 

Time for reflection

Octavia faced hard personal circumstances in her early life. These events could have limited her vision and blinded her to the needs of others. Instead, she was moved by what she read concerning the lower classes in London and felt compelled to do something about it.

She worked hard and her commitment was rewarded by men such as John Ruskin, who invested large amounts of money in her scheme. She was only 14 when she started helping the poor and 17 when she became a landlady to some of them.

I wonder how we might each help another person today? 

Dear Lord,
Thank you for Octavia Hill and her life’s work, helping the poor and preserving natural beauty.  
Help us to care for those worse off than ourselves and look after the world we live in.


Publication date: August 2014   (Vol.16 No.8)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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