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Housing - Pioneering

Women's particular interest in housing design arose from their role as housewife and mother. They sought to make the domestic space function more efficiently.

Market Court, Kensington High Street, London typifies the squalor of many of the slum courtyards of  urban Victorian England
Market Court, Kensington High Street, London typifies the squalor of many of the slum courtyards of urban Victorian England. © (Taken around 1865) Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive

Pioneering

'The plaster was dropping from the walls, on one staircase a pail was placed to catch the rain that fell through the roof. All the staircases were perfectly dark, the banisters were gone, having been used as firewood by the tenants.'  Octavia Hill (1838-1912)

Octavia Hills first refurbishment programme at Garbutt Place
Octavia Hill’s first refurbishment programme at Garbutt Place, London © Cheryl Law (2010). Source Historic England Archive

Writing of Paradise Place (now Garbutt Place), Marylebone, London W1 (see Blue Plaques) Octavia Hill demonstrated the horror of Victorian slums she faced with her first attempt at housing reform in 1865.

With a background in public service she was one of numerous active middle class women outraged at the housing conditions of the poor. Her theory of housing fostered a spirit of co-operation between tenant and landlord - the landlord to provide a habitable property, and the tenant to maintain it.

Insisting that such schemes could be financially viable, and that social harmony could only be achieved with an interdependent community mix. She was able to put her theory into practise as her philanthropic supporters purchased further slum properties and placed them under her management, such as Freshwater Place (1866), and Barrett's Court (now St Christopher's Place) (1869/1882), Marylebone, London W1.

Hill's belief in low built cottage-style housing as opposed to tall blocks of flats guided new construction such as the model cottages with gardens at Ranston Street, Paddington, NW1.

Ranston Street, London demonstrates Hills belief in the value of the model cottage
The picturesque red brick and hung tile cottages on Ranston Street, Lisson Grove, London, designed 1895 by Elijah Hoole and now listed Grade II, demonstrate Hill’s belief in the value of the model cottage style. © Cheryl Law (2010). Source Historic England Archive

For Hill, gardens and open spaces were a necessity for people's health, so her two passions coincided from 1886 when she created the Redcross Cottages, Gardens and Hall in Southwark. Funding came from Lady Jewson and Lady Jane Dundas, Emmeline Sieveking was the gardener, and Julia Minet created a mosaic for the Hall based on a design by Lady Waterford (see Education).

The value of outside space for each family no matter how small shown in these Ranston Street gardens
The value of outside space for each family no matter how small shown in these Ranston Street gardens © Cheryl Law (2010). Source Historic England Archive

On her death, Hill controlled 2,000 tenancies for private landlords and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, with women operating her housing management system at home and abroad. In 1931 'The Times' reported that Westminster City Council, for example, was building 600 new flats based on Hill's system.

Her professional employment path for women was formalised in the Society of Women Housing Workers (later Managers), 1916 which continued until a 1965 merger with the men's organisation to become the Chartered Institute of Housing in 1965.

Red Cross Cottages, Hall and gardens Bermondsey, London
Red Cross Cottages, Hall and gardens Bermondsey, London, restored to Octavia Hill’s original design in 2005. © Historic England Archive
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