Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences



Committee Chair

Joseph M Hodge

Committee Co-Chair

Joshua Arthurs

Committee Member

Robert Blobaum


Ideas about nature change over time, yet the term is often used as though its meaning were universal. This study of the uses of nature in working-class housing reform in Victorian and early twentieth-century London deconstructs concepts of nature to reveal the social and cultural norms on which these concepts rely. The first efforts to provide sanitary housing to replace the London slums began in the 1840s. Model dwellings companies built housing blocks designed to give the poor access to three natural resources important in sanitation: clean water, fresh air and sunlight. They operated on a model of commercial philanthropy, that is, aiming to provide a social benefit while turning a modest profit. This, they believed, would prevent their efforts from causing harm by distorting the working of the free market, which they perceived as a system of natural laws. These ideas are investigated through the writing of architect and model dwellings advocate George Godwin, as well as other writers and activists. Octavia Hill, an important contributor to the housing movement and a pioneer in nature conservation, was deeply committed to an idea of nature as a source of truth and beauty, inspired in large part by the influence of John Ruskin. This concept of nature was rich in ideas about community and society that are explored in chapter two. Hill's collaborator in the 1870s, Henrietta Barnett, would go on to found the Hampstead Garden Suburb in the early twentieth century. The suburb was one of the first developments inspired by Garden City ideals. Barnett believed that the division of classes into separate residential areas in cities was artificial. This conviction led her to create a space that not only incorporated green space, gardens and trees, but was intended to produce natural, friendly relationships between people of different classes. In all these endeavours an underlying understanding of the city as the antithesis of nature led reformers to attempt to reintroduce nature to the urban environment in order to cure the moral and physical ills of the slums.