Guest Post from Ben Cowell of NT: The Octavia Hill Memorial Service

Today Westminster Abbey is holding a memorial service to honour the centenary of the death of Octavia Hill, one of the co-founders of the National Trust.

The National Trust made a great noise last year about the National Planning Policy Framework, and the potential for planning reforms to impact negatively on the long-term future of the countryside and the places that people love most.

This was a cause that Octavia Hill cherished throughout her life. It is difficult to claim her as a proto-planner, since she remained resolutely opposed to notions of big Government and top-down control over people’s lives.

Nevertheless, it is sometimes claimed that the concept of Green Belts was one invented by Hill, in her struggles to secure sufficient green spaces for Londoners living in tightly packed slums.

Hill’s dedication to ‘open air sitting rooms’ bore fruit in her work, first, for her sister’s Kyrle Society, and later as co-founder in 1895 of the National Trust.  The National Trust exists to look after special places for the benefit of the nation. Many of its earliest acquisitions were landscapes rather than buildings, and it has long been associated with the protection of open countryside.

For the Trust to voice its views on planning last year, therefore, felt entirely in line with the motivations of its founders. But we should not draw from this that Octavia Hill had an iron-cast approach to questions of landscape.

 

Hers was an inspiring vision of beauty for all rather than a doctrinaire stance on development. It was ‘the quick eye to see’ the problems of the day and their possible solutions, rather than any rigid approach, that drove Hill through her long career as a campaigner on housing and open spaces.