Octavia Hill was born in Cambridgeshire. Her father was a banker and her mother was the daughter of Dr Thomas Southwood Smith, a campaigner for sanitary reform. Under her mother’s influence Octavia and her sister Miranda grew up with an interest in social reform and the alleviation of poverty. They worked throughout their lives to improve the housing, education and lives of those in need.
Today, Octavia is most famous for her campaigns in housing reform. In 1864, John Ruskin assisted her in this by paying the lease on three slum properties in Marylebone and setting her up as house-manager. Although she and Ruskin later fell out, she had by her death in 1912 around 2000 properties available to poorer tenants. Octavia also campaigned for better recreational spaces for poorer workers and the preservation of open spaces and countryside. From this, she became a founder of the National Trust.
Octavia first met Ruskin when she was about 17 and was teaching at the Ladies Guild, an educational college for working women. She had had artistic training from an early age but she also began to receive art lessons from Ruskin, both in person and from his book The Elements of Drawing. Ruskin also seems to have tried to involve Octavia in the Guild of St George, although their relationship seems to have broken down by this point.