WHISPERS OF BETTER THINGS
Updated: Feb 10
Every year, the Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST), based in Southbank in the London Borough of Southwark, celebrates the birthday of a long dead Victorian social and environmental pioneer. It is an annual reminder of a legacy of thought and deed that still shapes our lives today in many meaningful ways. In December 2019 I was honoured to be invited to be the guest speaker (see speech below) at this unusual nocturnal open air event in a tiny park in the shadow of The Shard to acknowledge the life and work of Octavia Hill, born 181 years ago. The BOST 'Merry Mingle' on 3 December every year brings together local people, local children from nearby schools, local authorities and corporate business supporters of the Trust's work in maintaining open spaces and community buildings. It is held in a unique but largely unrecognised location; a place that should rightly in my belief be awarded the status of a World Heritage Site. This is Red Cross Gardens. So what, you might think, is the global importance of this garden? Much of the story leading up to the garden's creation is recorded in my book 'Whispers of Better Things' but, in short, in the mid-1880s Octavia Hill was magnanimously offered a burnt out, waste-paper storage depot by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to extend her essential, but experimental, work in social housing for the working poor. These experiments in housing improvement had begun a decade earlier in Marylebone with the financial support of John Ruskin (albeit at 5% interest on his loan). Octavia's family were a highly unusual combination of talents; her father was an Owenite Utopian, her maternal grandfather a pioneering doctor in the public sanitation movement and her mother a Pestalozzian teacher swelling on providing an all-round educational understanding of the equality of importance between head, heart and hand. Her sister Miranda's brain was filled with wildly good ideas which Octavia made into practical things.
By the 1880s the Hills were mingling with the elite via connections from Octavia's grandfather and these spun off to personal links to Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt. As a rising star, operating well above her 'station', Octavia gained a tiny slice of freedom to challenge authority and everyone wanted a bit of the stardust. Thus when a blackened, ash-filled depot arrived in her lap she made the improbable, possible. She designed a completely revolutionary concept for the urban hell-hole that was Victorian working-class London - space for people to live in - with trees, a pond, a maypole, flowers, a recreational/workspace hall and a terrace of six cute quasi-medieval cottages for poor working people. For the Commissioners she was morally unassailable and, therefore, unstoppable and in short order the conceptual and part-Utopian plans became a new reality. It is still an outstanding achievement and stands today in stark contrast to the glittering glass and steel spikes sprouting in the Southbank mud. What it led to, following its opening in 1886, was even more remarkable. The unit of multi-purpose space that is the garden and the attached housing and hall became the basic template for that other great Utopian creation - the Garden City - simply by scaling up the concept and multiplying the units. It was taken up by Octavia's talented good friend Henrietta Barnett and her husband Samuel to establish the concept for the Hampstead Garden Suburb. This roughly followed some of Octavia's key socio-environmental principles of making housing amenable and available to all classes (including the poorest), low density buildings with gardens without walls (hedges were permitted), wide tree-lined avenues for roads and accessible public open spaces. There was also a recognition that noise was a highly disturbing pollutant in city living by the strict inducement to keep the place peaceful by banning church bells! Schools were built, places of worship, space for community theatre and an adult education centre called the Institute. It took some time to overcome legal obstacles (primarily the Housing Act of 1875) and it was not until 1906 that a new Act of Parliament was passed to create Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Meanwhile that other great Utopian planner Ebenezer Howard had started to formulate his response to the privations and pollution of Victorian industrial cities by establishing his 'magnets of attraction' to determine where the people might want to go if they were offered a choice. Like Octavia Hill (who also caused smokeless fuel to be invented and used the term Green-belts) he saw 'no smoke', 'pure air and water', 'bright homes and gardens', 'good drainage', 'beauty', social development', 'low rents', 'plenty to do' and 'fields of easy access' to be some of the qualifying standards for his new amalgams of town and country. Places that became the global phenomenon of Garden Cities including (while he lived) Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City were built in the early years of the twentieth century. The idea spread beyond the UK to USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, Norway, Slovenia, Hungary, Russia, Czech Republic, Japan, China, Indonesia, Singapore and Israel.
Garden Cities and their embodied principles of socio-environmental goods (for everyone to enjoy) were described, quite perceptively, by Octavia Hill in 1883 albeit in a general concept of providing peaceful, green space thus:
'We all need space; unless we have it, we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently'
Thank you for inviting me to speak here in Red Cross Garden tonight on the 181st anniversary of Octavia Hill’s birth.
Octavia and her whole family were major instruments of change in their time and in making things better for us in the future. Here we are today still enjoying that creativity and the products of their great work such as these homes and garden and bodies like the National Trust. I feel very honoured to join in this merry mingle and, although I am not a resident here, I have found a strong and growing bond to this very special place since I first discovered it and found a warm response from the people of Southwark. I have returned numerous times. So, thank you for your hospitality to a stranger in your city.
Since we last met I have been elected to the Council of the National Trust. This is the small group of people elected by all 5.4 million members of the National Trust to have oversight of the Trustees. They, in turn, direct the work of the executive and the staff. This might sound quite dry, as a matter of corporate governance but the echo of Octavia Hill’s thinking can be seen in the job description of every Council member. It is written into the Act of Parliament that ordains the National Trust, that Council members must function as ‘Guardians of the spirit of the National Trust’. This is a unique job description in my experience. At my induction I asked the obvious question ‘What does this mean exactly – to be a guardian of the spirit of the National Trust?’ The answer seems to be a little opaque and potentially subject to wide interpretation. However, when I come here I know immediately what it’s meaning is - this special place is the embodiment of being a guardian of the spirit - I know it and I’m sure that you all know it too. Those who enjoy or keep Red Cross Garden are all guardians of that spirit. Keeping that spirit alive, well fed and perky in this very special place is of course difficult and needs funding. Vigilance is required constantly against those that might oppose its good intentions; it requires sweat and toil. Therefore, I must pause and praise the leadership and teamwork of all those here at Bankside Open Spaces Trust who keep the fabric in good fettle. To you and all your supporters I applaud you. Looking around at the surrounding glitter and glass, it is a major miracle that this place of Octavia’s spirit still exists. I hope it is still here in another 181 years time.
Apart from being a guardian of the spirit of Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter and Canon Rawnsley, the National Trust’s founders, I am also leading the Council’s scrutiny of the Trustees in the matter of its offer to urban people. I guess that many people are familiar with the National Trust’s enormous collection of castles, country estates, paintings, furniture, cottages, coastlines, whole villages and one of my favourite bits - its 39 pubs. Arguably, all of that started here, in the ruins of a burntout waste paper store, in 1886 by creating this nugget of beauty – Red Cross Garden. It also started in London’s urban fringes where the last of London’s great commons were being encroached by building. It continued with Robert Hunter’s battle to save anothergreat common, Epping Forest, from being cut down and ploughed up. That is the spirit: A zeal to do the right thing; a matter of conscience over corruption in whatever age; a pause to think before destroying things of beauty forever; the power to think that better things can be made out of the crudest materials; seeing the potential for beauty in disused graveyards and burnt out factories; giving a multiplicty of benefits that green spaces, however small, and birdsong can bring to generation after generation of residents and visitors. That is the spirit.
Today there is a partial neglect of the parks, urban green space and the green belt urban fringes. They are still under threat from housing developers that Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter first set out to save and make better for everyone, 150 years ago. The question that still needs to be asked is are we doing enough to keep pace with change in our own time and instinctively making places better for people and wildlife in cities and their surrounding green belts?
Recently I have been helping my good friend Dan Raven Ellison to bring to life his crazy idea that London could become a national park and enjoy the same amount of support that rural national parks get from the taxpayers. The idea of making cities greener, cleaner, less polluted and more habitable is not new; it started here. However, I suggested to Dan that by adding the word ‘city’ to national park a whole new set of balls could be set rolling, free from impossible laws. And so it came to pass that this year Greater London became the first national park city in the world- with other cities like Adelaide and Newcastle upon Tyne eager to follow. Some of that inspiration came out of knowledge of this special place.
In 2020 the National Trust will be celebrating its 125th anniversary and amongst other things has already set itself an ambitious target to ensure that ‘everyone has easy local access to high quality, nature-rich greenspace’. This is a massive statement of intent. It cannot be achieved alone but it needs partners – local authorities, landowners, funders, volunteers – to come together to work this second miracle – to spread further the ideal of what started here in Red Cross Garden – everywhere. The National Trust’s big strapline ‘for ever, for everyone’ portrays the spirit too but must look to the practicalities of what was achieved here to use space wisely and to achieve it equitably. When I researched my book ‘Whispers of Better Things’ about Octavia Hill’s family I was struck by the fact that they had many influences and the family sisterhood was particularly interesting. Octavia’s mother Caroline was the only female Pestalozzian teacher in England. Pestalozzi was a Swiss educator who believed in the use of head, heart and hand to form a rounded individual. A need to be practical and spiritual was of equal importance to being intellectual. You can see that philosophy replicated here in the spiritual nature of the restful garden and a practical hall to both make things and to learn.
Octavia’s sister Miranda was the visionary and storyteller in the sisterhood. They were very close. It was Miranda who supplied many of the ideas and Octavia the push to get them out there. Miranda thought up ‘the Society for the Diffusion of Beauty’ - to place objects of beauty within reach of the poor, but it was Octavia who had Miranda’s idea published in a paper, organised the meetings to spread the word and indeed changed the name to the Kyrle Society. They were a great double act but history has neglected Miranda who dedicated most of her time to teaching, and writing fairy stories, whilst supporting her sister into greatness. I have recently discovered a simple stone bench dedicated to her memory on the banks of the Wandle river near Mordern Hall Park that is worth a visit. I have blogged about it for those who want to learn more.
So, in conclusion, thank you again for inviting me to be here at the very merriest of merry mingles. I hope you have many more and keep the spirit of this special place alive. Thank you for listening. Enjoy the rest of the evening.