I wonder what Octavia Hill would have thought of the hit TV drama Downton Abbey? Hill, who died one-hundred years ago this month, was a co-founder of the National Trust in 1894. But historic buildings were not her immediate interest. Indeed, she is known first and foremost as a social reformer, where, influenced by Christian Socialism and the aesthetics of John Ruskin and William Morris, she would become a driving force behind the development of social housing and poverty alleviation in England in the second half of the nineteenth-century.
Showing Ruskin’s influence, Hill believed that everyone, no matter what their economic circumstances, deserved to have access to the life-enhancing, soul-enabling things of life. Here she was especially influenced by the contrast between country and city, nature and squalor, and believed that access to open spaces to play and stroll were vital to the spiritual and physical wellbeing of London’s poor. Nature, and artistic production, had more than mere monetary value—a cause that she pursued as a co-founder of the Commons Preservation Society and the Kryle Society; campaigning against the building on existing suburban woodlands, and helping to save Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill from development in the 1880s. The establishment of the National Trust was a natural evolution of this earlier work, and Hill’s first acquisitions for the Trust would be “bit[s] of England as the common playground, study, resting place, vantage ground for seeing the lovely things of nature, open to all.” The first buildings were not stately homes, but small, vernacular properties, expressive of meaningful industry and community.
When, in the late 1930s the National Trust began to actively acquire country houses, it moved a long way from Hill’s principles. Indeed, it was only due to the efforts of the caustic self-professed snob James Lees-Milne, who was “acutely conscious of and amused by class distinctions”, that the Trust began collecting country houses—a process helpfully accelerated by the economic distresses of the Second World War. Indeed, as recent scholarship has noted, between the 1880s and the late 1940s, hostility toward the aristocracy saw the country house become unfashionable in the minds of the upper classes, and a target of popular anger. So would Octavia Hill be a fan of Downton Abbey? She’d appreciate the craftsmanship of the castle, but I think not!
Dr Kynan Gentry is a Post-doctoral Fellow with the School of History. He is currently completing a history of heritage preservation in colonial society for Manchester University Press, and is also writing a history of the Australian heritage movement.