Towards the end of her life, Octavia Hill wrote:
“New circumstances require various efforts; and it is the spirit, not the dead form, that should be perpetuated. When the time comes that we slip from our places, and they are called to the front as leaders, what should they inherit from us? … We shall leave them a few houses, purified and improved, a few new and better ones built, a certain record of thoughtful and loving management, a few open spaces, some of which will be more beautiful than they would have been; but what we care most to leave them is not any tangible thing, however great, not any memory, however good, but the quick eye to see, the true soul to measure, the large hope to grasp the mighty issues of the new and better days to come—greater ideals greater hope, and patience to realise both”.
Today we are celebrating beauty: the wonder of creation, and the impact – for good and ill – of humanity on that inheritance. We are doing so through the eyes of Octavia Hill, whom we are honouring today: an extraordinary woman by any standards but particularly of her time; a social reformer and housing pioneer whose efforts led, with others, to the establishment of the National Trust. And so finally we are celebrating the work of the Trust – past, present and future.
Joining us today are many people whose life and work has been carried out in the light cast by Octavia’s vision and ambitions. You are all welcome.
Above all, beauty is our theme. Beauty in space and time, beauty as an idea, and beauty as a human and spiritual necessity.
Beauty mattered to Octavia Hill. “We all want beauty for the refreshment of our souls” – that powerful line read by Simon Jenkins from Space for the People. She saw access to beauty as a basic human need, as important to people’s lives as a roof over their heads and enough to eat. Beauty – in Octavia an intuitive sense, sharpened by her association with Ruskin, drove her life forward.
All the more interesting then is the modesty and humility apparent in the remarks with which I opened. Surely she undersells her achievement when she talks about leaving behind a “few open spaces” and “a few newer and better” houses? She certainly undersells her legacy.
Present here are representatives from the social housing movement that traces its roots to Octavia Hill. Today, over 1200 housing associations provide affordable, quality homes for five million people.
Here also are representatives from the conservation movement and especially from the National Trust which Octavia Hill founded in 1895 with fellow reformers Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley.
The National Trust today has four million members and 67,000 volunteers. We care for 630,000 acres of beautiful coast and countryside, more than 300 beautiful and historic buildings, hundreds of gardens (many of whom have provided the beautiful decorations for the Abbey today) and innumerable sites of natural and historic significance.
From the first – Dinas Oleu, the four and a half acres above Barmouth that I visited last week – to Stoneywell, the arts and crafts cottage which is our most recent acquisition, they are all inspiring and important places. And we are but a part of a rich tapestry of conservation and heritage organisations active throughout the United Kingdom and the world, many inspired by Octavia’s vision. So she left behind more than ‘a few’.
But the point of Octavia Hill’s message is clear. It is not the things that matter most, not the organisations or the associations. It is what those organisations and individuals achieved: the green belt in place, the right of access to the countryside secured. And, of course, the houses, the land and property bought and protected for ever. But she was saying something more.
What matters most, she was saying, is that the spirit which guided those activities lives on. The spirit that inspired Octavia and others to find the right solutions for the right moment, which may – but may not – be the same as the actions we need to take now to ensure future generations have the opportunities Octavia strove for. What matters most is what we find in our consciences and in our hearts – the way we honour the principles she stood for rather than copy what she did.
Circumstances change, she says. Meet them with the same spirit: with good judgement, with truth, and with hope.
And so it is to Octavia’s conscience and beliefs that we look for inspiration – beliefs derived from the radical reformers of her childhood, the inspiration of Christian socialist F D Maurice and her study of Ruskin’s ideals.
So, at this moment, as we commemorate her life and celebrate her legacy, we have a new duty to consider. Do we think enough about why we do things as well as what we do? What are the mighty issues facing society today? Do we, I wonder, grasp them with ever greater hope and ever greater ideals, rising to new circumstances with renewed effort?
And when the time comes that we too slip from our places and a new generation takes our place, will we have done enough to ensure that what we leave behind is sufficient in spirit and philosophy; and sufficient in belief in the power of beauty, history, nature, equality and justice.
And if that sounds daunting, we can, at the last, look again to Octavia Hill for guidance. Meet the future with judgement, truth and hope: with a quick eye, a true soul and greater ideals, hope for the new and better days to come, and the patience to realise them. Octavia Hill: we honour, thank and remember you.