Sorority of social reformers

The sisterhood of women who worked side by side with Wisbech’s most famous daughter is to come under the spotlight in a series of talks being staged at Octavia Hill’s Birthplace House.

In the year that marks the centenary of the triumph of the Suffragettes in Britain in 1918, the museum at 7 South Brink is preparing to celebrate the women who worked alongside Octavia Hill, a co-founder of the National Trust and a social reformer who laboured from the age of 14 for the welfare of working people.

The first of the monthly lectures, which are set to fit into a one-hour slot starting at 2pm on Saturday afternoons, is on April 28 on the subject of Caroline Southwood Hill, the mother of Octavia, and the speaker is Susan Cash, whose husband, James, is a great great nephew of Octavia.

In 1837 Caroline Hill and her husband, James, constructed Wisbech Infant School on part of the Wisbech Theatre site, which survives today as the foyer of the Angles Theatre, and in the school – which Caroline ran – poor children were taught ‘the importance of truth, justice and mutual kindness and forbearance’.

According to her daughter, Caroline was the first Englishwoman to teach using the methods of the Swiss educational reformer, Johann Pestalozzi, who highlighted the individuality of each child, stressing that education should be moral as well as intellectual, and who believed that society could be changed by education.

Octavia described herself as a disciple of her mother and demonstrated this by proving that the health of a society was dependent on social inclusion and that everybody needed to feel a sense of belonging.

Other events lined up include a talk on Emma Baumgartner, who lived at the eighteenth century Island Hall on the banks of the Great Ouse in the centre of Godmanchester.

Octavia made two visits to the red brick riverside mansion and wrote in a letter to her sister:  “This is the loveliest, dearest old house.   I never was in such a one.”

The talk, which in common with the other lectures is set to be limited to half an hour with a further half hour for questions, will be given by the present owner of the hall, Christopher Vane Percy, who is a descendant of Emma Baumgartner.

Mr Peter Clayton, chairman of the Octavia Hill Birthplace Museum Trust, said:  ‘”The distinctive feature of Octavia Hill’s work was that her fellow workers were women.   Two thirds of the contributors to the early National Trust were women.

“We are celebrating in this series of talks her close associates and friends who were fellow workers in this joint enterprise.”

The talks are a highlight of the new season at Octavia Hill’s Birthplace House, which is opening its doors from Saturday to Wednesday, from 1pm to 4.30pm, with the last entry at 4pm, until Wednesday, October 31.