The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill recognised the value of craft early on in her life. It became a constant in a lifetime of combating social problems, from the toy factory she managed for the Ladies Guild in 1852, aged just 14, to the craft classes that she later offered to Southwark tenants

Octavia Hill recognised the value of craft early on in her life. It became a constant in a lifetime of combating social problems, from the toy factory she managed for the Ladies Guild in 1852, aged just 14, to the craft classes that she later offered to Southwark tenants. In craft she saw the power to connect, to empower, to improve the social and physical environment and to contribute to both individual and collective well being.

Despite what would become a widely held perception of craft following the Industrial Revolution - as being nostalgic, rural and outdated - craft still has this power. To make with our hands is a strong inherent human impulse that has lasted millennia. However it is viewing craft not just as a means of production but as a way of thinking that will ensure it continues to be relevant and significant in the 21st century.

Connecting and Empowering

'People talk about the absurdity of teaching crochet before dressmaking. Oh the worse absurdity of teaching needlework or any theory else till you have warmed the heart and unfrozen tongues.' [1]

This extract from a letter from Octavia Hill to Mary Harris in 1857 speaks succinctly about the ability of craft to connect people, and the value holds true today. Melanie Tomlinson is a metalworker who runs workshops with women newly arrived in Birmingham from conflict zones around the world, to promote social interaction and inclusion. Tomlinson says, 'Over time, they open up - it doesn't happen straight away but it just comes through in the work. Putting something out there and sharing it - making it real and permanent - has an almost spiritual element.' Likewise the Craft Café was set up in Glasgow's Castlemilk housing estate to combat social isolation, in this case with the elderly. The project, set up by Impact Arts, has proved so effective that local GP practices routinely refer older patients to the café, demonstrating how craft can transcend barriers and connect with hard-to-reach communities and individuals.

Octavia Hill recognised that craft provided such personal sense of efficacy, enabling individuals to find a place in the world. Turner Prize winning potter Grayson Perry takes this further, stating, 'One of the great things about learning craft is that it is almost a physical manifestation of "I can change the world".'[2]

A report from the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust written by Dr. Aric Sigman, Practically Minded, showed that hands-on play and hands-on learning allowed young people 'to experience how the world works in practice, to gain an understanding of materials and processes and to make informed judgments about abstract concepts'.[3] Learning with the hands in 3D develops what are called 'haptic skills'. These are skills relating to or based on the sense of touch, which in turn aid cognitive development. The development of such haptic skills not only fosters a range of transferable skills but it can engender important cross-curricular learning benefits. It also contributes to well-being that, with sustained engagement, can last a lifetime.

This sense of personal agency was reflected in Professor Matthew Crawford's book The Case for Working with Your Hands (2010) and Richard Sennett's book The Craftsman (2008) and explored in the recent Crafts Council and V&A partnership exhibition Power of Making[4]. Crawford's book, an unexpected hit with political analysts and economists, explored our reliance on financial services and infantilisation at the hands of manufacturers. Meanwhile, Sennett reflected on the characteristics of craft makers as having 'the capacities to become better at, and more involved in, what they do - the abilities to localise, question and open up problems that can result, eventually, in good work'.[5]

Alone, the argument for well-being and sense of personal agency is compelling enough a case for craft-making; the argument for craft-making as a way of thinking, as made here by Sennett, is where - is where the case for craft is at its most powerful.

Making Value

The 2010 Crafts Council report Making Value revealed the extent of the contribution of the 17,000 contemporary craft makers in the UK to industry, education, community and innovation.[6] Most makers operate a portfolio practice - over three-quarters work in other industry sectors; over half in community contexts; and just over a third work in education settings; nearly a third work across at least two of these three areas. These makers are highly motivated in applying their practice to make a difference and we can see them at work in a range of settings. From fashion to film, hospitals to heritage, manufacturing to mental health projects and retailing to residential courses, makers bring their specialist skills and knowledge of materials into a wealth of contexts.

A further Crafts Council report, Crafting Capital, explored how makers collaborate with scientists, engineers and technologists and how these collaborations are driving innovation.[7] In the words of Andrew Witty, Chief Executive Officer, GlaxoSmithKline, 'As science has evolved it's becoming much more multi-disciplinary and actually the discoveries all occur on the interface of disciplines.[8]' Craft contributes to this process in three ways;

It encourages a different style of thinking - the creative generation of ideas and risk-taking; flexible thinking complements a more linear scientific approach.

It includes a human element - makers are able to make the connection between abstract, scientific and technological developments with the needs of the real world in mind.

It represents skills - makers have high level skills in visualising, recognising and modelling patterns and systems in ways that can advance scientific thinking.

Collaboration accelerates innovation: by working together, people with different but complementary expertise can challenge conventional thinking.

The future

So what of the future for craft? The exhibition Power of Making received over 300,000 visitors making it the most popular free exhibition the museum has ever staged. This goes a little way in demonstrating that craft is part of the zeitgeist.

In his essay for the catalogue to the exhibition, Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, former Chairman of Arts Council England and Rector of the Royal College of Art, quoted Walter Gropius from the first Bauhaus manifesto in 1919: 'let's turn to the crafts'.[9] It has long been believed that Gropius said "let's return to the crafts", but in fact it was a mistranslation. Craft was not viewed as a historic destination but a valid means of expression. Professor Frayling makes the link between the current 'maker movement' use of tinker schools, tech-shop environments, incubators for making prototypes and rapid-prototyping centres to Gropius's famous aspiration to re-position crafts as 'research work for industrial production, speculative experiments in laboratory-workshops where the preparatory work of evolving and perfecting new type-forms will be done.'[10]

The 'maker movement' is growing rapidly, especially in the USA. It is being propelled by new tools and electronic components but perhaps more crucially by a willingness to share digital blueprints. This open-source approach being adopted by active and passionate online communities is driving innovation. It forms the basis of what Bruce Nussbaum, Professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons, the New School of Design, calls 'indie capitalism'.[11] Nussbaum believes that the future of capitalism is home-grown, small-scale and independent and crucially based on a community of makers. An emerging 'indie' capitalism is local not global and is socially, not transactionally, based. It is a maker system of economics based on creating new value, not trading old value. Ultimately brands are out and communities surrounding the creation of a product or service are in.

This resonates with Octavia Hill's holistic approach to social reform. Octavia knew the importance of the domestic scale within a community, she worked on a 'hyper-local' level herself and she served a community by nurturing a spirit of individual empowerment and collective responsibility. She would have approved of an open-source culture that worked towards advancement where individuals do not lose out to corporations.

Like many of Octavia Hill's values, making is far from an anachronism in a modern world. Its strength lies in its ability to change and adapt, allowing it to create real impact. The constructive and collaborative nature of what making things entails has fed into the fabric of our society for centuries and evidence suggests that it will continue to do so.

This essay is part of a collection of essays published by Demos; The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill


[1] ES Maurice (ed), Octavia Hill: Early ideals, from letters, London: Allen & Unwin, 1928, p. 43.

[2] See Crafts Council , 'What our craft champions have to say', Grayson Perry,

[3] A Sigman, Practically Minded: 'The benefits and mechanisms associated with a craft-based curriculum, Ruskin Mill Educational Trust, 2008,

[4] See M Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands, London: Penguin, 2010; Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, London: Allen Lane, 2008; and D Charny (ed), The Power of Making, London: V&A Publishing and Crafts Council, exh cat, 2011.

[5] Sennett, The Craftsman

[6] M Schwarz nad K Yair, Making Value: Craft and the economic and social contribution of makers, London: Crafts Council, 2010,

[7] Crafts Council, Crafting Capital: New technologies, new economies, London: Crafts Council. nd,

[8] The Andrew Witty quote was taken from BBC2 series Made in Britain, June 2011.

[9] C Frayling, C, 'We must all turn to the crafts', in Charny, The Power of Making, p. 29

[10] Ibid.

[11] Co. Design, '4 reasons why the future of capitalism is homegrown, small scale, and independent', nd,


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