Friday, 9 March 2012

Octavia Hill’s 'vision for society'

This month, Duck Island Cottage has been absorbed and fascinated by the life and work of Octavia Hill (1838-1912). Red Cross Garden, near Borough High Street, bears testimony to her campaigns and causes. On the long list of her achievements is co-founding the National Trust, (with Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley), in 1895. Octavia was concerned by the impact of uncontrolled development and industrialisation; and the Trust was set up to act as guardian for the nation in the acquisition and protection of threatened coastline, buildings and countryside. 100 years on from Octavia’s death, it’s highly appropriate that in 2012 Open Garden Squares Weekend is being held in association with the National Trust. It’s also a great opportunity to re-consider the work of this campaigner for open spaces, par excellence.

Octavia Hill’s blue plaque on Bishop’s Hall overlooks her Red Cross Garden
(photo: Lucinda Blythe)
The first thing that strikes one is the scale of the garden. In the gloom of the densely packed streets of 19th-century Southwark, this would have been a spacious, green oasis, but it’s truly compact. Duck Island Cottage wonders what the residents of the 1880s would have made of the Shard, the garden’s towering neighbour, and the soaring heights of the City skyline just over the river.

Red Cross Garden is one element, along with Bishop’s Hall and six cottages (on the same site), in what is considered to be one of Octavia Hill’s finest environmental and social schemes. The Garden was laid out in 1887 and, along with paths, flowers, trees and a pond and a bandstand, it hosted the annual Southwark Flower Show, as well as numerous fetes and celebrations, including maypole dancing. The Hall likewise bustled with activities: it was the venue for working men’s clubs, women’s groups, concerts and plays, and the Army Cadets – the movement was founded here by Octavia. The cottages border the eastern flank of the garden, and provided an alternative to the cramped tenement buildings, which, at the time, stood across the road. 
The Cottages with their view of Red Cross Garden
(photo: Lucinda Blythe)
The original garden layout was lost to a simplistic design after World War II, but a restoration programme, with Heritage Lottery Fund and Southwark council backing, commenced in 1997 and was completed in 2005. The new design is true to the original, but is also a delightful community space. In a nod to Octavia’s own principles, recycled materials were used and the pond, originally designed only for fish, was excavated and is now both ornamental and a haven for wildlife.

Red Cross Garden is as relevant today as when created by Octavia Hill. Duck Island Cottage urges you to add it to your itinerary this June.
A mosaic with designs based on local schoolchildrens’ sketches created for the new garden
(photo: Lucinda Blythe)