Everything that Octavia Hill did in her life's work of campaigning and active reform was interconnected. As cities grew and housing conditions worsened, public parks and open spaces were, she considered, urgently needed. At one extreme, they might provide acres of space in which to run or play, at the other, mere pocket-handkerchiefs of grass and trees. Her personal experience, during a childhood of considerable privation, was that enjoyment of natural beauty, together with freedom for children and some space and quiet for their mothers, was an essential amenity - not a luxury. She calculated that West London provided an acre of open space to every 682 residents, while, to the east, an acre served 7,481. This illustration of social disparity prompted her idea of a 'green belt' around the city.
Although Octavia mounted major campaigns to buy land to add to existing London parks (in particular Hampstead Heath), it was the piecemeal work, the securing of small spaces in which to sit or to play, all within easy reach of her tenants' front doors, that gave her greatest satisfaction. Turning the disused burial grounds and leftover open spaces of central London into 'open air sitting rooms', as she termed them, was one of the starting points for the National Trust (established in 1895). Founded by three open space campaigners, herself, the lawyer Robert Hunter and the cleric Hardwicke Rawnsley, they were united by the urgent need to obtain - and secure - places of historic interest or natural beauty for the national benefit.
Miranda Hill founded the Kyrle Society in 1876, which campaigned to reopen the impenetrable jungles of old graves, chest tombs and untouched vegetation dotted across London. The Metropolitan Public Gardens Association did the lion's share of the work but it was the Hill sisters' powers of persuasion and zeal, backed up by a succession of eloquent essays by Octavia, that had started the process. Her own personal favourite was Red Cross Garden in Southwark, the setting for her own Red Cross Cottages and Hall, transforming a degraded industrial site. Recently HLF money and BOST energies helped transform it once again into a cheerful oasis in a still dense urban area.
Although most of the National Trust's London properties which are open over the Open Garden Squares Weekend in June came to the Trust well after Octavia Hill's death, the plethora of small public open spaces, from the City of London to Paddington, from Holborn to Waterloo, many recently restored, many with active friends' groups, collectively form one of her most telling memorials. Many are included in the weekend's itineraries, even though they are regularly accessible, being local authority-run.
No single garden better memorialises Octavia Hill and that campaign than St George's Gardens, tucked away from any roads, in London WC1 - a couple of minutes walk from Russell Square. Laid out in the early years of the 18th century as a burial ground for two churches dedicated to St George, closed in the mid-19th century, reopened thirty years later as a re-landscaped public garden, it is regularly cited as one of the hidden gems of central London.
Gillian Darley is the author of Octavia Hill, Social Reformer and Founder of the National Trust (Francis Boutle Publishing, 2010), a revised edition of her 1990 biography. She chaired the Friends of St George's Gardens for several years and sits on the National Trust Council, nominated by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB).