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Seebohm Hill - Connecting social entrepreneurs and social investors to deliver innovative ways of meeting social need

Octavia Hill


Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) was a social reformer who worked with the poor and unemployed living in some of Victorian London’s poorest quality housing.

Using money provided by the art critic John Ruskin, she initially bought 3 houses in Marylebone, renovated them and let them to tenants on intermittent and low incomes. The collaboration with Ruskin may have been one of the earliest examples of a social entrepreneur using social investment to fund their operations. Ruskin provided the capital on condition that he was paid 5% interest per annum – a return that was 7% to 10% lower than other landlords were demanding at the time.

Octavia used the funds to upgrade the properties to acceptable standards and to ensure they were maintained in good repair. By insisting on the personal responsibility of tenants to pay rent on time, the need to pay a reasonable return to investors and regular close contact with tenants in order to understand their needs, Octavia developed a successful social enterprise. Actual returns were higher than the 5% required and the surplus was spent on further improvements that were suggested by the tenants, with residents themselves also contributing to the maintenance and upkeep of the properties.

Octavia went on to manage property for around 3000 tenants in London and her work extended to helping residents of her properties find employment, organising activities for young people, and engaging communities in regeneration efforts. Her approach was designed to strengthen the self-respect of tenants and to trust in their capabilities. She believed that “every individual has a contribution to make to the common life and is immeasurably poorer if he is not enabled to make it”.

Octavia Hill linked social, political, environmental and aesthetic concerns. To her they were not distinct issues but part of the same cause. A truly holistic approach. This philosophy led her to become a founding member of the Charity Organisation Society, which organised charitable grants and pioneered a home visiting service that formed the basis for modern social work. Her belief in the importance of open spaces for everyone brought us the concept of “green belt” and led her to become one of the founders of the National Trust.

Octavia Hill was many things but above all she used her deep understanding of the issues faced by those she worked with, formed through close relationships with them, to deliver innovative solutions to a number of social problems faced at the time.

Seebohm Hill will adopt a similar spirit of seeking to understand the roots of a problem based on working relationships with those who are closest to it - community-based social enterprises. Once we identify social enterprises who have innovative, market-based solutions to social problems we will match them with social investors who are interested in funding the development of the social enterprise such that it realises its full potential and achieves financial sustainability. By bringing together socially motivated investors who are passionate about tackling social need with social enterprises capable of providing radical solutions we expect to support the delivery of significant social impact and financial returns over the long term.