Hildur Ottelin was a gymnastics instructor, a housing inspector, and the first woman to sit on Uppsala town council. She also set up Rickomberga egnahem AB in Uppsala.
Hildur Ottelin was born in 1866 in Gamla Karleby, Finland. Her father was the town mayor. Her mother was originally from Haparanda. When Hildur Ottelin was two years old her brother Odal was born and shortly thereafter her father took ill and died. Her mother and the two young children then went to live with their maternal grandparents in Haparanda. Two years later her mother died and following the subsequent deaths of their maternal grandparents the children were taken into the care of a maternal aunt who lived in Piteå.
Whilst her brother Odal Ottelin gained his school-leaving certificate in Härnösand, Hildur Ottelin began to study in Stockholm. First she attended the Åhlin school and then, from 1891–1893, she was enrolled at Gymnastiska centralinstitutet (GCI) (central institute of gymnastics). Those who graduated from the institute went on to become gymnastics instructors and physiotherapists and Hildur Ottelin followed suit. Following her graduation she moved in with her brother in Uppsala, where he was enrolled at the university. She began working as a gymnastics instructor at the Lind school and also worked at the Anna Wikström school for blind women. Before the latter employment Hildur Ottelin audited classes at the Tomteboda school for the blind in order to learn more about how the blind managed.
The Ottelin siblings had gained a considerable inheritance and Hildur Ottelin used her money to make what she considered to be socially necessary contributions. In 1903 she purchased two buildings in Erikslund, a poor suburb of Uppsala, each containing small dwellings for workers. A ‘nomadic’ notebook, which was exchanged over a 50-year period between students on Hildur Ottelin’s GCI course, includes a letter in which she states that she acquired the buildings in order to provide adequate housing for workers. She was heavily involved in social issues and was doubtlessly aware of the efforts made by the likes of Agnes Lagerstedt in Stockholm. Hildur Ottelin’s goal was to make the accommodation provided as smart and as comfortable as possible. As she wrote to her friends: “Windows to open, the possibility to wash and to read – that is what I can provide”. She herself lived in one of the houses, along with her friend Alice Thunberg.
In 1904 she bought some land. A large field outside of Erikslund had already been parcelled out and was intended for smaller individual homesteads but when Hildur Ottelin learned of these housing development plans she bought the entire area for 15,000 Swedish kroner cash. At that time this was a considerable sum. Shortly thereafter Rickomberga egnahem AB was established, with Hildur Ottelin at its helm. She held that position until the company was dissolved in 1923. The shareholders included well-known politicians and Uppsala celebrities such as Johan von Bahr, the secretary of the Swedish Academy, Elisabeth von Bahr, Elsa Eschelsson and her brother-in-law Professor Johan Hagströmer, as well as county governor Axel Olivecrona. Hildur Ottelin provided the Egnahem settlers with agency loans for their homes and it was not long before the area was completely built up. Premises for a Verdandilodge, of which Hildur Ottelin was an active member, were also established.
Hildur Ottelin’s involvement in the housing sphere resulted in her appointment as the first female housing inspector in Uppsala in 1908. This was a new profession: in 1906 Kerstin Hesselgren had become the first female housing inspector in Stockholm. Housing provisions for those on lower incomes were extraordinarily poor. Hildur Ottelin took her position very seriously and was much-loved by the people she helped. Hildur Ottelin believed this to be her ‘real’ job and she gradually ended her involvement with gymnastics instruction and working as a physiotherapist. In 1911 she was also given the role of taking charge of the town’s erection of small homesteads in another run-down area, Svartbäcken. The town erected a new type of housing here in the form of terraced housing. Hildur Ottelin was very particular in checking on both building and selling practises.
During the Swedish general strike of 1909–1910 Hildur Ottelin funded food aid for the children of those on strike, for which she became famous and much-loved. She then stood for election to the town council on behalf of the Social Democratic party and in 1912 she became the first (and until 1919 the only) woman in the assembly. In 1915 she also got a seat on the town treasury. She always championed those most in need. In 1917 she proposed that a disused fire station be transformed into housing for single mothers with children. The fact that there was to be a female superintendent and crèche gave rise to controversy. Nevertheless the proposal was accepted by the town treasury, although it was contested and the decision was revoked by the king. During these years of crisis she also worked for the parcelling out of allotments among lower-income families, proposed Sällskapet Hjälp by working to set up a shoe-repair shop as well as assistance for girls’ schools and orphanages during inflationary periods; in each case her input led to success. She and her fellow party members also saw to it that rental accommodation comprising small apartments was built to provide for homeless families in Uppsala. A few years later, when a new old people’s home was to be erected, she argued that they should be given more homely environment and that shared living spaces for elderly couples should be made available.
In her last letter in the nomadic notebook, dated May 1927, Hildur Ottelin recounted how the previous year she had stopped working as a housing inspector. She had turned 60 years old by then, which was retirement age in Stockholm, which she felt should also apply in Uppsala. Further, she believed that the elderly should not stand in the way of young people. She died in September 1927, just a few days before she would have turned 61. The various tributes printed in the local press were extremely positive. Uppsala Nya Tidning wrote that everyone who had worked with her learned to “respect and value this simple and unassuming woman who always knew how to engender sympathy and to draw out that which in other social classes was not so easy to expose”. Her funeral at Uppsala cathedral was a solemn ceremony and very atmospheric, with the florally bedecked red flags of the workers’ movement on display inside for the first time. Hildur Ottelin is buried at Uppsala old cemetery. She has had a street named after her in Rickomberga in Uppsala, Hildur Ottelinsgatan.