Octavia Hill was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire in 1838, the eighth daughter of James Hill, a prosperous corn merchant and former banker. James was a follower of Robert Owen; he established the town’s first newspaper, “The Star in the East”, to propagate Owens’ ideas. It was dedicated to telling “The Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth”. It attacked corruption and self-interest groups.
James built an Infant School, run by Octavia’s mother, Caroline. According to Octavia, she was the first Englishwoman to teach using the methods of Johann Pestalozzi. The school was open in the evenings as the “hall for the people”, a community centre for adult education and recreation. Today it is part of the Angles Theatre, staging productions for local people to take part in or enjoy as spectators.
By 1840, James Hill was bankrupt; he later suffered “a temporary fit of insanity”. The family left Wisbech and Caroline brought up her children alone in Finchley, London. Octavia learned her lifelong love of the countryside from these childhood days, “leaping ditches and climbing trees”.
All of Octavia Hill’s reform work can be seen as a continuation of her parents’ efforts, but her own methods were neither confrontational nor financially reckless.