Jenny’s Place marks a significant milestone this year. Our first women’s refuge opened in Newcastle on 14 September, 1977 – 45 years ago!
We spoke to four of our pioneers, who fought to establish the refuge to help local women and children to escape violent relationships.
Suzanne Romani, an early employee of Jenny’s Place, produced The Birth of a Dream history booklet to mark the 40th anniversary in 2017. We also spoke to founding members of the Jenny’s Place Steering Committee that established Jenny‘s Place – Cathy Tate, Judith Shanley and Wendy Couper. They remember Friday, 14 September 1977.
“We’d done all the hard work to set up the refuge and were sitting there wondering if anyone would show up,” Cathy recalled. “It wasn’t supposed to officially open until 15 September. Then we got a call from the police on the Friday, asking if we could take a woman and her children, so we opened straight away!”
Her fears that no-one would come were unfounded. Police, ambulance and taxi drivers found out about the refuge and began to deliver women and children who needed a safe haven.
The Steering Committee was formed following a public meeting in Hamilton in 1976, where the need for a women’s refuge in Newcastle was discussed. A group of committed women set about finding premises and funds to make the refuge a reality.
“I’d read a book called Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear and I wanted to get involved,” Cathy said. “We had no money, no staff, nothing.”
But the committee members were strong, passionate and persuasive. Then Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Joy Cummings, gave them a Council-owned house in Phoebe Street, Islington on a peppercorn rent. While run down, and lacking a laundry, the three-bedroom house had ‘good bones’ and was solid brick. It only had one bathroom to serve up to 15 women, their children and workers.
Some Committee members asked for help from businesses and others did their own fundraising to get what they needed.
“My husband worked for Young and Green, who did the laundry,” Judith said. “Rotary did a lot of unpaid work on the house.”
Committee members volunteered to staff the refuge on a roster system from 8am to midnight. They took turns to be on call between midnight and 8am. They all remembered being called to the refuge in the middle of the night when the police arrived with women needing emergency accommodation.
“We were housewives but we knew what we wanted and we were lucky to have husbands that supported us to do what we wanted,” Judith said.
They were supported by other committee members including Joy Ross (Women’s Liberation), Marie Flanagan (Parents without Partners), Sr. Moira Turner (Brown Sisters) and Luba McMaugh (Regional Council for Social Development). Social worker and passionate pioneer Eva Higgs, who was also an administrator for the Hunter Regional Council for Social Development, trained the volunteers to be non-judgmental and to support women without taking over their lives.
Wendy was involved in the effort to gain support for the refuge for 20 years. She attended Committee meetings for the Women’s Refuge NSW movement in Sydney, attended a national conference in Melbourne, and met with Ministers and Premiers to lobby for funding.
“We marched on NSW Parliament House to get childcare workers funded,” she said. “There were sometimes up to 15 women in the refuge, with up to 10 children. We realised we needed to get the kids out of the house!”
The government funded two childcare positions. Newcastle Council offered them a block of land behind the house and they were given a hut by the RAAF base at Williamtown, which became the children’s play hall. Support from a local union also went to support the children in care.
“We could also get women out of the house over the back fence of the refuge when abusive husbands found the house,” Cathy said. “The police didn’t want to know about domestic violence in those days, it wasn’t their business.”
The barrage of protest and entreaty from women eventually led the NSW Government to fund refuge workers.
Suzanne Romani joined Jenny’s Place refuge after completing a social welfare diploma. She had done a placement at the Salvation Army and liked helping people.
“You can only stay working in that environment for so long before you burn out,” Suzanne said.
After being trained at the refuge, Wendy moved on to Eva’s Project, a half-way house named after Eva Higgs and run by Jenny’s Place in a former police station.
“We couldn’t keep staff for more than about three years,” Wendy said.
When invited to write Jenny’s Place history for the 40th anniversary celebration, Suzanne discovered that to chronicle the rites of passage of the women who worked to bring the refuge to life would require a sustained effort. There were scores of women who worked to keep the refuge alive. There were also many thousands of women and children whose lives had been indelibly linked with the refuge since it began in 1977.
The fire and passion for social justice hasn’t diminished with the passing of years for these four extraordinary women. They lament the continuing prevalence of domestic violence in our community and the lack of meaningful change in addressing it.
“Women are still being murdered. AVO’s are useless – they can ignore the piece of paper,” Wendy said. “Refuges are band aids and why are they funded under the homelessness act in NSW?”
However, they celebrate the ongoing growth of Jenny’s Place and other support services. Cathy Tate believes that more women are prepared to step out of a violent relationship because they are getting more support to do that.
“There’s been huge changes in the last five years,” Suzanne said. “There are lots of support organisations that weren’t there then.”
As Jenny’s Place celebrates 45 years of services to women this year, all four of the intrepid women who contributed to its early years feel a justifiable sense of pride and achievement.
“I’m so proud of what we achieved,” Wendy said. “I feel as though Jenny’s Place is our baby.”
Visit our website for Jenny’s Place milestones