Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA ©National Trust Images/John Hammond


How Octavia Hill Helped Set Up The Cadets To Help Slum Boys Find Self-Reliance

Champion of nature, the underprivileged … and the armed forces?

Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

By the time Octavia Hill was 50 she was one of the most influential people in Victorian society, yet tales of her altruistic pursuits seldom grace the pages of our history books.

Many children have probably not been taught about her in school, but for anyone living in the UK, their lives are likely to have been influenced by her in some way, for the better. 

Remembered for creating the National Trust and founding the social housing movement, she was a revolutionary campaigner and social reformer - with a particular passion for helping young boys from slums to discover the virtues of order, cleanliness, teamwork and self-reliance.

The first to campaign for clean air in London, she fought to preserve the environment, as well as stately houses to which she believed the public had the right to have access. 

Octavia came up with the term "Green Belt" to describe the underdeveloped areas outside London which she fought to protect.

Described by the Forestry Commission as "the largest urban forest in the world," today just under a fifth of the entire area of Greater London is covered in woodlands - a legacy to which Octavia Hill largely contributed. Saving Hampstead Heath from development was one of her proudest achievements.

However, it is her work in setting up a youth movement with military connections that continues to inspire young minds in modern times and while it is no longer soley a project aimed at Britain's poor, teaching teamwork and self-reliance are still very much a part of the ethos in the Army Cadets.

Young Octavia. Credit: Alamy

Born To Be An Activist And Pioneer

Called Octavia because she was the eighth out of nine children, Miss Hill was born in 1838 to a middle-class family in Cambridgeshire. She had an unusual background which ignited in her a fuse for reform and social change. Her father, James Hill, was a progressive radical whose ideas were largely formed by the Utopian socialist Robert Owen.

Passionate about the betterment of mankind, Mr Hill believed that “character was not formed by will but by circumstances”. This is perhaps the key to Octavia’s overarching outlook on life, the very principle that she applied to everything she did including founding the Army Cadets.

By the time Octavia died at the age of 73, she had improved the ‘circumstances’ for thousands of poor Victorians.

Today, areas of Marylebone house many well-off and well-heeled families and it could perhaps be considered one of the most 'desirable' postcode areas of London, but in the early 1800s it was largely a slum known as ‘little hell’. 

With the financial backing of her mentor and friend, the prominent English writer John Ruskin, Octavia bought three buildings in Marylebone Place which she remodelled to house the very poor. A decade later she was providing safe homes for 3,000 tenants across London, in effect pioneering the social housing movement in the UK.

As one of the first to campaign for clean air in London, Octavia was a visionary. She was perhaps ahead of her time in the connection she made between fresh air, green spaces, and physical and mental wellbeing.

By the turn of the 20th Century, she had established the National Trust alongside Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter.

A seed was sown that reaped the environmental movement when Octavia was the first to refer to the underdeveloped areas around London as ‘the green belt’.

She campaigned tirelessly for rights of way and heritage preservation, believing wholeheartedly that the best of Britain should be accessible to all. Especially the countryside, which she said should “be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment and rest” even for those “who have no country house”.

Octavia fought for the rights of the underprivileged to have decent housing, opportunities for recreation, access to the arts, a protected environment and a way to better oneself and it is from this concept that the idea for a cadet movement for young people from underpriviledged backgrounds was born, although she herself was far from being a military-minded person.

According to her biographer Gillian Darley, the pioneer believed that these concepts ‘were connected, and a reasonable expectation for all’. So, in the 1860s, Octavia decided to concentrate her efforts on the ‘ruffians’ on London streets, that this led to a new movement with the establishing of a cadet force.

Redcross Cottages and Red Cross Hall in Southwark. © Copyright Stephen Richards

The Establishment Of The Army Cadets

The Army Cadet Force can trace its early roots to a time when Britain faced a very real threat of invasion from France.

There had been discussions about creating a volunteer British force as early as 1859, when tensions between Britain and France were running high. 

The British Army had many commitments overseas, largely following mutinies in India, so there were few army units left behind at home and so it was thought that units of volunteers could act as a homeland defence.

By 1860, schools had their own cadet units and these would join parades with the Volunteer units. The initiative was pushed forward by Secretary of State of War Jonathan Peel as part of Queen Victoria’s review of the Volunteer units - the forerunner of today’s Reserve Forces. 

The invasion that led to the idea of cadet forces and volunteer units, including the Volunteer Rifle Corps, never materialised. However, the foundation for a youth volunteer army was established.

Thirty years later, Octavia Hill saw an opportunity to find a meaningful route out of slum lifestyles for young people and by 1889, she had formed London's first independent Cadet Battalion, the Southward Cadet Company.

Octavia Hill created the foundations for what the cadet force is today.

She believed in providing poor boys with boots first, before expecting them to be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

The organisation had clear objectives: “The provision of interesting occupation for the evening hours of London working boys, especially for those of an enterprising and active character and the inculcation of habits of order, discipline, cleanliness, punctuality and good conduct, thus developing respect at an age (13–18) when most susceptible to good or evil influences and when character is forming.” 

The pioneer was clear that the force was for the disadvantaged teenagers of Victorian Britain, saying it “takes into its ranks only genuine working boys. To allow grown-up sons of comparatively well-to-do people in the ranks, would be to miss the object of the existence of the Corps.” 

She saw the cadets as an organisation that provided disadvantaged youth with structure, rather than a tool for army recruitment.

Original enrollment form from 1889

In 1884, Octavia took over Management from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners of a desolate former factory site in Southwark. As a champion of nature, the first thing she did was build a garden where children could play, followed by a community hall and six cottages – Red Cross Hall and Gardens, like most of her work, they still stand strong today.

It was here that Octavia started her “Boys Club” which she developed into the Southwark Cadet Corps. On 31st May 1889, the recruitment register opened and 160 cadets enrolled. By the end of the decade, it had more than 400 and had absorbed other local boys clubs in the area.

It was designated as a Battalion - 1st Cadet Battalion, The Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment). As honorary Colonel, Octavia looked over everything from the enrolment forms to the uniform, even sourcing the famous red jackets. The commanding officer alongside Colonel Hill was Boar War Veteran Lt Colonel Albert Salmond.

The Victorian activist’s reasons for raising her Corps were "to see that exercise, discipline, obedience, esprit-de-corps, camping out, manly companionship... will be to our Southwark lads the very best possible education", and she wanted these ideals to be implanted before the lad "gets in with a gang of loafers … so that it may make all the difference to his life".

This has remained the ethos of the youth organisation until this day, particularly the Army Cadet Force, and is also behind the Government's cadet expansion programme in state schools. Except now girls are equally as welcome.

The direct descendant of Octavia Hill’s Cadet Corps is the 72 Cadet Company in Greater London South East Sector ACF.

Cadets at Britannia Royal Naval College
Cadets at Britannia Royal Naval College during Exercise Havoc

Who Are The Army Cadets Today?

The Army Cadets are one of the UK’s oldest and largest youth organisations. According to the latest statistics from April 2020 there are 37,410 British children aged 12 to 18 in the Army Cadet Force.

Sir Clinton Riley has spent 43 years volunteering with the Army Cadet Force, reaching the rank of Colonel.  He said:

“It's fun and friendship but there is a purpose behind it. And that is to take your place in society.”

Young cadets learn a variety of vocational skills such as mountaineering and first aid as well as weapon handling. They also have a chance to receive the Duke of Edinburgh award as part of their training.

“We provide a program which is army based but we also provide clear skills for life.”

Although the social reformer was not a militarist, Octavia's spiritual influence has remained strong with the young recruits. Army Cadet Force Colonel Riley said:

“We follow the values and standards of the British Army. And that is truly what she was looking for, she was looking for a structure that was almost a vehicle that could be used to bring those qualities out in young people.”

During the COVID 19 pandemic in particular, the Army Cadet Force has embraced the community spirit that Octavia Hill spent her life fostering.

As well as having to quickly adapt to training in the virtual world, they played an important role in helping their communities in the time of crisis.

The Colonel said: “It's been incredible what they've done in their communities, whether they made face coverings, or they've delivered food and ‘bags of hope’.

“They truly have been inspirational. And I think that Octavia would be very proud of that.

"There was this like call to arms without arms, if you get the sense of, we need to do something. We're in a national emergency. And the cadets without being told, just get on with it themselves.”

Why She Has A LGBTQ+ Following

In 2017, 50 years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, The National Trust launched a programme called Prejudice and Pride to explore its own LGBTQ history.

As one of the three founders of the Trust, Octavia Hill’s own history was one of the first to be included in the programme.

Although no one can know for sure, historians have speculated over Octavia Hill's sexuality, and this is why she featured as part of the National Trust's Prejudice And Pride event in which the Trust explored its LGBTQ history.

She is said to have had several passionate relationships with women, including Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the UK’s first female doctors. The social reformer never married and her long-term companion was Harriot Yorke. They lived together for over 30 years and are buried side by side in Kent where they spent the last years of their lives.

According to Lesbian History Group, it is important not to write this out of history as it has been done in many mid-twentieth-century biographies.

The publication stated that a “hasty engagement which lasted exactly one day was elevated into the romance of her life, with Hill holding the young man’s memory ‘sacred to her heart till the end of her life’” while her relationships with women were completely overlooked.

The Lesbian History Group was active in the late 80s and early 90s when they wrote “we should also recognize that there is a well-established economic market for heterosexual history and only a niche market for gay history.” This has changed in recent times.

Speaking on the Cadet Force's commitment to diversity and inclusion, Colonel Riley said: “It's a very different organization now than when I joined in the 70s.

“It is open to all, it doesn't matter about your background or anything. We accept people as who they are and encourage them to flourish in this organization.”