This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Octavia Hill, philanthropist and founder of 4,000-home Octavia Housing. When the social housing pioneer acquired her first property in 1865 her aim was to ‘make lives noble, homes happy and family life good’. Simon Brandon visits three of her original properties and discovers that social homes mean every bit as much to the families living in them today
Vinah Cadavona, 32, lives with her children Jessica, seven, and Callum, 18 months, in what must be some of the most exclusively located social housing in the country: Sarsden Buildings, situated just off Oxford Street in the heart of London’s West End.
The entrance is inconspicuous, hidden between the upmarket clothes shops and bistros of St Christopher’s Place. It leads to a surprisingly quiet block of housing, with communal walkways and a large terrace, which Octavia Hill began managing in 1869.
Thirteen years after she took over, the block was full of working-class families like the Clertons. Their patriarch, Charles, was a bootmaker. Whoever filled in the census on behalf of his four children, aged between six and 14, had high hopes - the occupation of each is listed as ‘scholar’.
Today the building is again filled with children’s energy. Callum, in particular, is irrepressible. Every few moments his mother stops what she is doing to pluck him from whichever piece of furniture on to which he has clambered. ‘His dad takes him to the park every day to tire him out,’ Ms Cadavona says. ‘He never stops.’
His elder sister Jessica is building houses from coloured bricks. She likes living here, she says. ‘She is in a good school nearby, and the neighbours are great,’ explains Ms Cadavona.
This two-bedroom home has, she adds, ‘been a lifeline’. She does not live with the father of her children - they are not a couple - and social housing has meant she can raise them independently.
‘It was difficult living with my parents - my father is quite domineering, but I couldn’t afford to move out,’ Ms Cadavona, who works as an office manager, recalls.
What’s it like living in a place where the nearest greengrocer is probably Selfridges’ Food Hall?
‘We get deliveries from a Tesco van,’ smiles Ms Cadavona.
‘But they hate delivering here - the van gets a parking ticket every time.’
Marie Lavoile, 60, lives in one of St Botolph’s cottages, just north of Marylebone Road in London. They were built in 1895 and, like other Octavia Hill properties in London, this pretty row of cottages on a quiet cobbled street seems a survivor of the city’s relentless encroachment.
‘It’s quiet, there are nice neighbours here,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t afford to buy, even if I was working. From here I can walk to Oxford Street or to most of the interesting places in London without paying the fares. It is ideal.’
Ms Lavoile is a published writer. She shows me an example of her work, a letter to her mother in Haiti - she left her home country in 1977 to look for a better life in the UK. Her letter, published in April by charity PEN International, which promotes literature and freedom of expression, explains how she hopes to one day have enough money to visit her mother, but it’s not easy.
‘I don’t want people to think I am one of those people who doesn’t work; I am trying all the time,’ Ms Lavoile says. ‘I want to start my own business - to run my own workshop and make clothes.’
She lives with her son, who has a job as an electrician thanks to their landlord. ‘My son was 19, too old to start an apprenticeship normally,’ says Ms Lavoile. ‘He told the [Octavia Hill] housing officer he was interested in becoming an electrician, and she arranged an interview with Durkan [one of the association’s contractors].’
Before moving to her cottage in 2007, Ms Lavoile lived in a tower block elsewhere in the borough of Westminster. And although she much prefers her current home, she says she owes a huge amount to social housing. ‘It has enabled me to bring my two children up on my own in a stable, secure and loving environment,’ she says.
Eileen Ross, 77, lives in Gable Cottages, which you can’t see until you are standing at their gate. This pale cluster of late 19th-century homes nestles among the low-rise offices and upmarket residential blocks south of London Bridge rail station, all crowned by the steeply pointed features that give them their name.
They form a quiet oasis amidst the buzz of the city. In fact, as long as you don’t look up, it is possible to maintain the illusion that someone wearing a bustle could squeeze through one of the front doors at any moment.
Gable Cottages were developed by Octavia Hill in 1889. By today’s standards they are small homes, but when they were built, they were for families. In 1911 a family of eight - a gossamer cap maker called Charles Donaldson, his wife and six children, ranging in age from one to 15 - lived at number 10.
Today the communal gardens are an explosion of colour, particularly outside the one-bedroom home of Ms Ross. She moved here in 2006 and immediately began restoring the outside space. ‘It was in a bit of a state,’ she recalls. ‘And I love pottering. I don’t like being shut in.’ In 2008 Ms Ross’ work was rewarded. A plaque on the wall commemorates her Southwark in Bloom prize for best community garden.
Ms Ross, a retired nurse, comes from County Clare in Ireland. Her job took her and her late husband, who was in the RAF, to postings in Aden and Singapore. She talks fondly of her travels but wouldn’t live anywhere else but London.
‘I absolutely love it,’ she says. ‘It’s like living in the countryside. It’s beautiful. There’s only me and Harriet [the cat]. I plan to spend the rest of my time here.’