Principles meet practice

Founders’ core values

A one-time abused woman, who later spent the better part of 20 years working for a refuge, first as a volunteer and later as a paid worker, recalled in her interview the moment she’d first sought official help:

… he’d beat me up… physically hurt me… And I can remember going (with my baby) to the Health Visitor… She’s got all the mums coming up with their babies and she’s saying… ‘How are you?’ And I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to tell her that I’m not… I’ve got to tell somebody’… So when I got to the front of the queue… I said, ‘Can I speak to you?’ ‘OK, If you wait till the end of baby weighing’… At the end… she took me into a room and sat down at the desk… and I just told her it all and sat there and held my breath thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to lose my kids.’ And she said to me, ‘Have you thought of a new lipstick or a hair-do?’

White British interviewee, July 2017


Volunteers decorating the house made available by the local authority for a refuge,
Essex County Standard 16.9.77

This captures the tone of common responses in the 1970s to white women seeking to escape domestic violence. They included thinly veiled disbelief, brisk advice about trying harder, generally trivialising what they were told or pressurising women to keep quiet. From the beginning refuge campaigners energetically rejected such responses. In the case of Asian women families also commonly connived to gag them and keep them quiet.

By contrast, the founders of refuges, White and Asian alike, listened attentively to the women who came to them and believed their accounts. They also championed women’s ability both to think for themselves and to live independent lives and aimed to make refuges places which allowed women the space to make their own decisions about their futures. At the same time they recognised that women often needed both a range of practical information and emotional support if they were to sustain independent living after leaving the refuge and they tried to provide this. Play Audio 3

But they did not try to pressurise women into taking particular actions:

… there was never pressure put on the women to say ‘don’t go back’… that was key… to give a woman the choice. Obviously you can highlight all of the options… but at the end of the day it’s their decision… In that respect the women involved… in setting up the refuge were very supportive.

British Asian interviewee, April 2017

Even when a woman’s decisions didn’t seem the most advisable refuges respected this as part of helping women, who had been systematically bullied and degraded, achieve self-esteem.

In the 1970s and 1980s such an approach to the insecure and vulnerable marked refuges out as pioneering organisations.

If you wanted to offer this kind of service, however, the first thing you needed was a house for the women and children who came to your door.

She said to me, 'Have you thought of a new lipstick or a hair-do?'”
Audio 3

Living Accomodation

Above all and before anything else abused women, whatever their background, wanted a place where their perpetrators couldn’t get to them. Somewhere safe. Only when a woman felt that she and her children were safe was she ready to start thinking about what to do next. So, unless founders could provide accommodation, their programmes of support, however fine, were unlikely to be effectively employed or developed.

Unfortunately, when councils made a house available, it was usually an empty shell and few refuges received any funding to furnish and equip the sorry properties they were offered.

White British women set about approaching Women’s Institutes, Townswomen’s Guilds, the churches, friends and family. Well-to-do suburbs were leafleted with requests for usable second-hand goods and founders spent their evenings traipsing around making collections. Any friend with a van was much in demand. In this way refuges acquired beds, cots, sofas, cookers, bedding, towels, pieces of lino, old curtains, pots and pans, mugs, plates and cutlery. It was not very different from collecting things for a village fete. And the quality of the goods was comparable. Some people, seeing an opportunity to avoid a trip to the tip, dumped their dirty old cookers, stained and torn sofas on refuges. Others offered thoughtfully selected items in good repair. Talks about what refuges were trying to do were offered to, indeed sometimes requested by, various groups. This afforded an opportunity to solicit money donations to help purchase a washing machine, for example, so that the women didn’t have to traipse to the launderette. Money was also raised by running jumble sales, cake bakes and coffee mornings. The sums collected were tiny though gratefully received at the time. And both British Asian and White British refuge founders began to spread the word among sympathetic people and refuges were able to start providing clothing and other necessary items to those women and children who came to them with nothing.

By the 1990s, though challenges remained, it became easier to access funding through charities and other sources to renovate and equip refuges and this helped those Asian refuges which opened somewhat later. In the meantime, however, refuge properties needed maintaining. Doors threatened to fall off their hinges, walls needed papering or painting, floors needed covering. As women themselves, refuge founders tried hard to make the dreary houses they were given as fresh and pleasant as they could. With the help of friendly sympathisers they rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in. Such activity could harness a great deal of enthusiasm, bond people and generate energy so that small, inexperienced groups often achieved disproportionate levels of success:

We decorated it in bright colours… they could cook their own food and that kind of stuff. It was… just a big house. It was a space for them to put their heads down and make sure that their kids… had a safe space to sleep… they had a room and sometimes they shared rooms but there were no frills or luxuries attached to it by any means.

British Asian interviewee, May, 2017

Asian refuges had additional problems, however. The argument for specialist refuges was that mainstream refuges were so ill-prepared for meeting Asian needs that Asian women returned to violent homes. The founders of specialist refuges were therefore aware that:

It was very important that we could create the creature comforts to keep a woman out of a violent home, rather than just simply give them overnight stay.

British Asian interviewee, January 2017


'Leaving Violent Men', bathroom, Women's Aid, 1981,
Gina Harkell

Asian refuges also received a huge mix of women, many from different religious backgrounds and with their own dietary needs. Refuge founders had to think carefully about how to arrange cooking facilities and supply the right utensils so that women felt comfortable making their foods and Asian interviewees repeatedly raised the issue of the kitchen:

… it would be small things around pans being used and… we’d separated out the pans for the vegetarians, the non-vegetarians, and then, within the non-vegetarians, the people who eat Halal, because it started off with somebody using a pan to cook some sausages in and that erupted into a big row.

British Asian interviewee, June, 2017

Language and culture were also very important in refuges catering for South Asian women:

Even if they came from different parts of India… there wasn’t that sort of strangeness of others… Often a lot of the women just didn’t speak English. So having somebody who could speak… Gujarati, Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi… [and] they could watch Hindi movies, DVDs… there was a camaraderie just by virtue of… their race and gender.

British Asian interviewee, May 2017

Such arrangements weren’t available in mainstream refuges and this strengthened the argument for dedicated Asian refuges.

Setting up services

Once they had usable accommodation, refuge founders were able to turn their attention to setting up the practical services they wanted to offer.


'Leaving Violent Men', drying the washing, Women's Aid, 1981.
Gina Harkell

Letter received in the first week one East Anglian refuge opened.

This involved them in knuckling down to acquire a working knowledge of such things as benefit payments, how one got a non-molestation order or an injunction and how these differed. Understanding housing legislation was always important as re-housing women was a major priority:

We were genning up on all social security stuff, which we thought we would have to help with… never having had any experience in anything like this before… we plunged in… expecting to help other people… When I look back on it, I mean, the sheer audacity of it…

White British interviewee, June 2017

He is a very clever man because this is one of the ways he has tried to get rid of me, by saying I am mental.”

The founders of British Asian refuges also had all these things to learn plus tackling issues such as immigration law and the plight of women with no recourse to public funding, prominent concerns in Asian refuges and secondary ones in mainstream refuges.

The range of information needed was considerable and workers had to exercise their initiative to set up networks of people who could help them such as solicitors, welfare rights workers, community organisations and other women’s groups. Later on refuges would offer their workers training programmes.

Workers’ efforts were appreciated however. Three months after this East Anglian refuge opened, staff received the following letter:

Thank you letter, 17.3.1978.

Understanding housing legislation was always important as re-housing women was a major priority”


Initially refuges were set up to help abused women. Few women escaping perpetrators were prepared, however, to leave their children behind and simply brought them to the refuge with them. The result was that refuges could find themselves with twice as many children as adults. When they opened mainstream refuges were completely unequipped for this. Facilities in many of the houses founders were offered were also desperately unsuitable for children.

Addressing children’s needs rapidly became a major concern. Opening a decade later Asian refuges were somewhat better prepared though catering for children remained a major concern for them too. Later on thought was given to creating spaces where workers could support children in the same way that refuge workers supported their mothers, though the funding available for such work was frequently pitiful.

Working life in an early refuge

Work was commonly done under completely inadequate conditions in the early years:

Hah, call it an office! It was like an average toilet-sized room. It was tiny, because clearly we had to make space in the house for the six residents that there were.

White British interviewee, April 2017


'Leaving Violent Men', children's play area, Women's Aid, 1981,
Margaret Murray & Chrissie Rawnsley.

My office really used to be a box. I used to carry it around in my car, a cardboard box from Sainsbury’s.

White British interviewee, December 2016

It was also the era before the personal computer. Most people wrote by hand, though anyone who could touch type was in great demand to bang things out on old-fashioned typewriters.

Nor were hours regular. One interviewee, who gave up paid work to become a refuge volunteer, summed up what working in a refuge in the early days was like:

It was almost 24/7. It didn’t matter what you were doing… you’d still get a phone call to say something ghastly had happened or was going to happen. So you ate, drank, and slept Women’s Aid at that time because you had to. ‘Cause part of those times there wasn’t any funding.

White British interviewee, September 2017

Another interviewee recalled that:

I remember it being very tiring and very stressful because of the amount of work and it felt relentless and never ending and you were never going to be able to save everybody, you were never going to be able to do enough, there was never enough money… it was hard but it was also incredibly rewarding.

British Asian interviewee, May 2017

It felt relentless and never ending and you were never going to be able to save everybody”

Refuge work was not only hard, it could be dangerous. Refuges did not sport the security systems most now enjoy. Both mainstream and Asian refuges had to develop tactics for dealing with perpetrators who persisted in pursuing the women they had abused. This made refuge security a constant matter of concern. For Asian refuges it was a particularly acute problem and an ongoing source of danger for both women and support staff. Play Audio 4 Play Audio 5

Audio 4
Audio 5

Financial considerations

Once opened refuges almost immediately filled to overflowing and running them was soon too much for a volunteer force if it was to be done properly. Paid staff were required. Refuges, however, have never attracted funding easily in the way that cancer and animal charities do. Although there was growing sympathy for abused women, a solid section of the population still recoiled from the idea of domestic violence as a distasteful subject that nice people kept their distance from. To pay staff founders had to learn to fundraise seriously.

To begin with refuge founders took on this work too and were soon spending a great deal of time searching for sources of funding and learning how to write grant applications. It quickly became apparent, for example, that you had to learn how to describe what your refuge needed so that it fitted with what funders wanted to give money to. And Asian founders had to make the case for dedicated Asian refuges, something not always readily accepted by funding bodies, so requiring a well-prepared argument.

One constant problem was that funders always wanted to be seen as giving money to new, ‘innovative’ projects while refuges were desperate to ensure the continuance of their core services. The tension between funders’ desires and the needs of the different refuges turned funding applications into an art form.

Addressing these issues in funding applications also brought home the importance of having data to back up your requests, so that became another job to be learnt.

Over time funders, anxious to avoid any financial scandal, also increasingly demanded detailed reports on how their funding was used. Though a completely proper concern, this created more and more form-filling for the beneficiaries. And as most refuges couldn’t consider employing a fundraiser there were times when founders and workers really wondered whether they were spending more time reporting on what they had done than actually doing the work the funding had been secured for.

Fundraising skills were acquired, however, and, as time went on, refuges started to turn over considerable sums of money. This created a growing need to employ staff with financial skills. In the first few years refuges might manage with someone who could learn how to do basic double entry book-keeping and simple reconciliations, particularly if they had the support of a nice, retired accountant who would undertake an annual financial review. Handling money correctly could still be a source of anxiety for founders:

I remember the bank manager came… to the organisation one day… to check it out… They were used to male businesses but they weren’t used to these voluntary groups… He came to check… there wasn’t something fraudulent going on… that we were genuine.

British Asian interviewee, June 2017)


An Asian refuge building.
Newham Asian Women's Project

But after a while the early arrangements installed no longer sufficed. Professional accountants, sometimes charity specialists, were increasingly employed to prepare the end of year returns. Some refuges that failed to recognise this went under. Refuges that continued to flourish also increasingly employed staff with formal financial and accounting skills as well. Play Audio 6 To their credit some refuges found women prepared to specialise in financial work and started to allow staff time off to enhance their financial skills. The effect of these developments on the organisational structure of refuges was significant.

Audio 6

Organisational structures

Many founders of refuges were attracted to grass roots democracy. It had been a striking feature of the civil rights movement in America and post-colonial struggles elsewhere. Committed to securing full citizenship for Black people denied meaningful participation in American society, the civil rights movement actively involved disenfranchised Black people in creating organisations and programmes which aimed to rectify this. Similarly, the anti-racist movement in Britain sought to address the exclusions and racism faced by migrants from the ex-colonies and to achieve equal citizenship rights and justice for all Black people, through autonomous organising. Many feminists, Black and White, felt they had something to learn from these movements.

Against this background and drawing on the values of equality and justice, many mainstream British refuges began as collectives and sought to encourage the women who came to them to participate in the refuge’s organisation. Some women responded enthusiastically to this and some, once on their feet, returned in both voluntary and paid capacities, to help to enhance the services refuges offered. These women emerged as self-confident, self-assured independent women. They are a lasting tribute to the refuge’s organisational style at that time. The founders of Asian refuges were often, for the same historic reasons, attracted to collective organising though, opening ten years later, some had a more formal organisational structure from the beginning, but building up women’s self confidence and the ability to live independently and involving them in discussions about the refuge movement were equally important to them.

As they got larger, expanded their services and increased their turnover, it became increasingly difficult to run refuges as collectives, however. Jobs increasingly required specialised knowledge. And this was not the only change. As a refuge grew its organisational structure became more unwieldy. If it was to continue to prosper, a new form of organisation was required. Refuges moved increasingly towards a conventional hierarchical structure.

While the organisation’s health and growth might require this, something was lost in terms of the relationship between the women and the refuge workers. A new terminology crept in which reflected this. Women seeking refuge now became known as ‘clients’ while refuge workers became ‘staff’. It marked a significant shift in organisational culture from an activist movement to a service delivery organisation. The issue now was whether refuges could avoid becoming increasingly like the statutory sector with the attendant bureaucracy that dogged it, or whether they could retain a distinctive charity sector culture embodying the egalitarian impulse and feminist principles that had been so strong a feature of the early refuge movement.

My mummy (child, aged 3)