When charities drop their illustrious founders' names, we all lose
In going around London, there is something inspiring in the constant reminders of real philanthropy. From the best streets in Chelsea to aspiring parts of the East End and gloomy backwaters south of the river, there are countless solid blocks of dwellings built for the poor by rich benefactors of the 19th-century. The names of those philanthropists are plain for all to read on plaques displayed on their buildings – Guinness, Peabody and Samuel Lewis, for example. A great 19th century benefactress in my part of London, which was miserably poor in her lifetime, was Octavia Hill. She was an outstanding social reformer, campaigning for housing and also for open spaces for the poor; her ideas contributed to the founding of the National Trust and to the development of council housing. Hers is a name to remember with respect.
So I found myself infuriated to come across a sign -locally referring to Octavia Housing. Octavia! The irony is that she herself never allowed anybody, apart from her most intimate family, to call her anything but Miss Hill. The Octavia Hill Housing Trust appears to be transmogrifying quite unnecessarily into Octavia, or Octavia’s, with all the matey, non-elitist accessibility such changes are meant to offer. It is almost as if a rich woman devoting her life to good works for the poor were something to be ashamed of; it was indeed frowned on by the post-war -socialism that is still endemic in public services today.
Octavia Hill is not alone. There was a move in 2006 to dump the name of Leonard Cheshire from his famous charity for disabled people. A spokeswoman said at the time: “Many people do not recognise the name and it is not taught in schools any more” — an excellent reason in -itself, surely, for keeping the name.
Other charities are changing their names. The Church of England Children’s Society now calls itself the Children’s Society, though it remains Christian. The Marriage Research Council has become 1 + 1, and the National Marriage Guidance Council became Relate. These changes are the signs of a state-sector orthodoxy imposing itself on charities, through the power of its funding and the increasingly politicised Charity Commissioners. It’s an orthodoxy that is against Christian charity, against marriage, against inconvenient history and against rich do-gooders. It’s important to -remember that things weren’t always so.