Octavia Hill's Letters to Fellow Workers
edited by Robert Whelan
Kyrle Books, 2005
827 pp., $70.00
In twentieth-century America a new method of fighting poverty arose—an ever-expanding welfare state overseen by “scientifically” trained social workers. The result: a dysfunctional underclass dependent on the dole. This failure prompted welfare reforms that emphasized personal responsibility and shifted more of the poverty-fighting burden to the private sector, especially religious institutions. And as the modern welfare state recedes, donors have begun to look back at Victorian-era poverty-fighters for lessons on the best ways to help the poor become responsible, productive citizens.
One of the more cogent of the Victorians was Octavia Hill (1838-1912), whose articles on poverty-fighting have begun to be reprinted in recent years in collections assembled in America by James Payne and in Britain by Robert Whelan. But most of Hill’s writings are in her “letters.”
Because Hill never formed an organization to help the poor, her supporters sent payments to her directly. She then accounted for these donations in her “letters,” which in effect served as annual reports. She marked her annual letters “for private circulation only.” This restriction gave Hill the freedom to be more candid about her successes and failures than she might have been in a more public document. These letters are now quite rare and have never been reprinted until this collection.
Robert Whelan, the editor of this book, is deputy director of Civitas, a British think tank that studies welfare, education, and civil society. Whelan, along with associate editor Anne Hoole Anderson, has added a great deal to our knowledge of Octavia Hill’s methods and ideas.
Hill pursued three separate but interconnected projects during her life:
- Her primary job was managing low-income housing for a variety of landlords, most notably a branch of the Church of England. Hill offered landlords who hired her the opportunity to make a decent return on their property investments. Her management thus became commonly known as “philanthropy and five percent.”
- Hill was also a founder of what became known as the “open spaces” movement. This movement began with an effort to turn closed inner-city churchyards into parks for the poor. It then expanded into an effort to preserve romantic country vistas for future generations. Hill, along with Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, founded the National Trust in 1894 as a vehicle for these preservation efforts.
- Finally, Hill, a devout Christian, was interested in the spiritual improvement of the poor through such methods as planting flowers in inner cities and hiring artists to produce works that would inspire poor people to lead more moral lives. To promote these artistic efforts, Hill, along with her sister Miranda, founded the Kyrle Society in 1876 (it survived until 1917).
Of these three ventures, Hill’s efforts in aiding the poor and preserving land make the most sense to modern philanthropists, while her activities with the Kyrle Society make little sense at all. As Anne Hoole Anderson notes in an essay that concludes this volume, the Kyrle Society has “often been portrayed as a rather silly organization led by well-meaning but deluded middle-class women.” She quotes historian David Owen, writing in 1965, as saying that “to crass modern eyes some of the Society’s projects appear almost whimsically Romantic.” (Owen was particularly bothered by a Kyrle Society project to paint such uplifting slogans as “do noble deeds” on railway station walls.)
But the Kyrle Society’s efforts are the key to understanding Octavia Hill’s thoughts. We now understand that the problems of the poor are not primarily financial, but moral and spiritual. Today’s highly successful KIPP schools, for instance, echo the Society’s painted slogans with signs that read “Work hard, be nice” and “No excuses.” Giving a guaranteed income to a poor person won’t help him learn how to get up every work day and not talk back to his boss when given an unpleasant assignment.
As Hill wrote in 1880, “much has been done in various parishes for their bodily wants, but few people seemed to think that the poor, as well as the rich, needed something more than meat and drink to make their lives complete.” Throughout her career, Hill strived to attend to the spiritual as well as the financial needs of the poor.
Hill’s methods of aiding the poor began with the informal nature of her organization. Hill wanted the renters to think of her and her lieutenants as friends, not as corporate employees. She thought that a poor renter would be more receptive to a friend’s loving advice than the impersonal commands of a rent collector whose only concern was to keep the cash flowing.
Hill only lived to see the beginning of the age of modern “scientific” social work, but she knew that rule-laden bureaucracies were less willing to address an individual’s needs than her Christian workers were. In the last decade of her life, Hill saw the city of London buying more and more housing and offering it to the poor at artificially low rents—paid for by hiking the property taxes on the surviving private owners. In her 1911 letter, Hill saw little good arising from this nationalization. “No municipal or state ownership can supply the place filled by the representative of conscientious owners,” Hill wrote. “Such a one [of Hill’s workers] can secure most elasticity in the rule; has greater power of swift decision; finds a place for generous action; has the possibility of making various arrangements for various families; and may, above all, realise the human relationship which, where it exists, makes life full and happy.”
Hill also knew that the best cure for poverty was work. As early as 1870, when she conducted her first venture in poverty-fighting at Walmer Street, she saw that aid unconditionally given to the able-bodied does more harm than good. “A working man in London,” she wrote, “now need pay for no medical attendance; he seldom buys all of his coals; he pays only a part of the value of the clothes of his family, if his wife buys them at a work-society; she need purchase no baby-linen; at many schools his children are provided with dinner once or more in the week; and his blankets are perhaps lent him in the cold weather.”
Rather than giving the poor more food and clothing, Hill offered those who could work plenty of opportunities to earn a decent living maintaining and improving the homes under her supervision. Such labor, she wrote, “raises the self-respect of those helped. We must not suppose that our gifts will do instead of adequate wages. We cannot dispense them fairly; we can never give back the sense of responsibility and duty to the head of the family; and we cannot restore to him the natural joy he feels in winning by work the comforts of life for those who trust in him, if we have once destroyed these feelings by our alms.”
Hill maintained these tough-minded views throughout her life. Complementing this emphasis on personal responsibility was her belief that productive workers also needed a pleasant living environment. Her interest in “open spaces” arose because she knew that poor people crowded in inner cities needed room for children to play and parents to relax. She hoped to preserve the rural landscapes in which such great poets as William Wordsworth found an inspiration for their verse. If poor people could see the same views, she believed, they might return to their cities inspired to live a grander and nobler life.
Today’s donors can learn two lessons from Hill’s life and work. First, never forget that the best way out of poverty is work and that those who can work should work. Fighting dependency on the dole was as much a problem for philanthropists a century ago as it is today, and Hill reminds us that indiscriminate aid does more harm than good.
The second lesson Hill provides is subtler: in the battle against poverty, there is a place for donors whose primary interest is the arts. The caricature of Octavia and Miranda Hill as dimwitted Ladies Bountiful smothering the poor with hugs and flowers is as unfair as it is misleading. Why shouldn’t a donor give money so that a painter can visit inner-city schools and teach elementary school students something about art? What’s wrong with a foundation funding string quartets that travel to deprived areas that have never seen a classical musician perform? There are many other ways art-loving philanthropists can help the poor, and innovative program officers should feel no compunction in coming up with smart ideas.
Octavia Hill’s Letters to Fellow-Workers is an important achievement that reminds us that Hill was one of Britain’s greatest social entrepreneurs—and one whose advice is worth following today.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster wrote about Octavia Hill in his monograph By Their Bootstraps.