In the darkest corners, crypts, dung heaps, disused graveyards, smoke-wraithed tenements, gin-alleys and coal soot-blackened dens of iniquity of Victorian London one young woman lifted her eyes towards the seemingly impossible; visions of beauty. Her own mother thought of her as a day-dreamer but out of these dreams came to pass, in time, one of the world's greatest institutions. Her name was Miranda Hill. History has all but neglected her poetic imagination, her fairy stories and her. I visited a gracefully solid but unpretentious stone bench placed in her honour by affectionately grateful former pupils of hers in a nearly neglected segment of land squeezed between a South London sports academy and a housing estate this week. The gurgling river Wandle hurries past here on its way to the once grist-grinding mills of the Morden Hall parkland. Miranda gave great grist to the grim lives of her age by the audacious suggestion that 'beauty' in all its artistic forms should be placed within easy reach of the poor. In December 1875 in an era of vain-glorious statuary and military monumentaria such a hint of public art to uplift the begrudged spirits of the working poor in their daily dalliances with fates worse than death was beyond revolutionary...it was Banksy-esque with finials of purest wellbeing sprayed with glittering mindfulness.
The vehicle chosen by her to facilitate this notion was her own creation 'The Society for the Diffusion of Beauty' with the purpose of learning 'as far as I can what has been done and what wants doing in the way of beautifying in the poor districts'. She had discussed it with her close friend Dorothy Hunter but it was her ever-opportunistic younger sister Octavia who jumped on it. She had Miranda's outline appeal 'To those who love beauty' revised and re-titled as a paper "Those who love Beautiful Things' published and distributed to immediate impact and praise from the rich and influential of the age. Miranda was then persuaded by Octavia to outline her case for such a body to a sympathetic audience at a meeting of the National Health Society. This was aided and abetted by her grandfather (himself a doctor and a pioneer in sanitation) and her mother Caroline (then England's only female Pestalozzian teacher). This unusual menagerie of talents forged an amalgam that was to become an amazing force for social changes that still resonates in our lives today. Sanctioned by the good vibes the Hill sisters swung into action with their new supporters to bring 'sweetness and light into the homes of the poor', collecting and distributing bunches of wild flowers, laying out small gardens, 'happy evenings' organised in boarding schools, choirs made to sing in squares, uplifting slogans painted on blank walls (including a very large one that was planned but didn't happen near Waterloo Station to read "DO NOBLE DEEDS"). It was heady stuff. What the poor made of it all is not recorded. The story of how this morphed into the National Trust can be found in my book 'Whispers of Better Things - Green Belts to National Trust - How the Hill family changed our world' See more in LEAF