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Octavia Hill – advocate of “open-air sitting rooms”

The year 2012 marked the centenary of the death of Octavia Hill, an early activist of the Open Spaces Society. Octavia became involved in the society in about 1875 shortly after her unsuccessful campaign to buy the fields between Swiss Cottage and Hampstead in west London. She joined the committee of the society, urging it to enlarge its scope to include ‘the acquisition and dedication to the public of open spaces in or near London’.

The society was then known as the Commons Preservation Society, and its luminaries included George Shaw-Lefevre (later to become Lord Eversley), Sir Charles Dilke MP, Leslie Stephen and many other Liberal reformers.

Octavia Hill is well known for her advocacy for open spaces—‘open-air sitting rooms’ as she called them—but less so for her defence of public paths. At the society’s annual meeting in 1888 she seconded a motion, proposed by Lord Thring, calling for the society to approve ‘the bill for the better protection of footpaths and roadside wastes as prepared by a committee of the society … and that the society be requested to act as the centre of advice for local footpath societies in relation to the subject’.

Octavia spoke of how the ‘little winding, quiet byways with all their beauty’ were vanishing, ‘closed by quarter sessions, the poor witnesses hardly daring to speak, the richer dividing the spoil, the public from a larger area hardly knowing of the decision which has for ever closed to them some lovely walk’. She referred to the entrance to paths ‘concealed by judicious planting, lodge gate, or hidden doors’ or of a path ‘robbed of all its charm by the erection of high, black, pitched fences which … have robbed it of all its amenities’ becoming ‘unsafe as well as unpleasant.’ …

She said: ‘Take from a path the view of all but a narrow strip of sky, deprive it of the fresh air that blew across it, the view over adjacent field and you leave but a hollow mockery of a possession. … I think those little winding ways, that lead us on by hedgerow and over brooks, through scented meadows, and up grassy hill, away from dusty roads, and into the silent green of wood and field, are a common possession we ought to try to hand down undiminished in number and in beauty for those who are to follow.’

The motion, which was passed unanimously, and Octavia’s speech, indicate the society’s shift of emphasis from primarily protecting commons to embrace public rights of way (in 1899 it amalgamated with the National Footpaths Preservation Society), and it has fought for paths, alongside commons and other open spaces, ever since.

Says our general secretary Kate Ashbrook: ‘We commemorate Octavia Hill on the centenary of her death, for her far-sightedness. The words she spoke over a century ago still resonate today, when paths and spaces are at risk of being filched and diminished by moneyed landowners and developers.’

Octavia Hill was born on 3 December 1838 in Wisbech and died on 13 August 1912. Her first contact with the Commons Preservation Society was through Robert Hunter, our founder and secretary, and together they went on to found the National Trust in 1895.