A recent exchange on Facebook reminded me of one of the more absurd episodes of my life. For reasons which I won’t go into I had become involved with the Cambridge Settlement in the east end of London. I had never been to Cambridge University but the project needed a woman lawyer as a group of women wanted to establish a Battered Wives Centre and it was to be a rule that no man would be allowed over the threshold. As the Cambridge Settlement didn’t have a woman lawyer I was volunteered by a friend.
So it was that one February night I found myself climbing over the wall of a large property in the East India Dock Road and helping to force an entry into the house. The building had been the home and surgery of a local doctor who had been provided with better premises from which to work and the property had been purchased by the now defunct GLC , prior to redevelopment of the site. They were not averse to unused properties being squatted and I duly arranged for us to pay rates and for the services to be reconnected. That was the easy bit.
The group of about four women who were the first group of wives trying to escape their abusive husbands moved in and with them came a number of social workers assigned by the local authority to ensure the children were not at risk. A number of house rules were agreed including that there was to be a meeting every Monday which all the residents had to attend. The idea of the meeting was to enable any issues surrounding the running of the house to be aired, the finances to be discussed and if there were disputes between the women for them to be resolved. Some of the social workers attended as well as me.
The women living at the house each had a separate room in which to live and sleep, but they shared the kitchen, bathrooms and a downstairs living room where the only TV was installed. It was here that the Monday Meeting was to take place. One of the mantra’s repeated all the time by the social workers was ‘There is no excuse for violence.’ Sure I thought although not without some reservations.
As the hostel began to fill up – if my recollections is right there were twelve rooms – the inevitable tensions arose. Someone would jump the queue for the bathroom or spend too long under the shower; not everyone was as good at washing up their plates as they should, the fridges rota wasn’t being adhered to. I’m sure you can think of many more of the small irritations that can arise in such cramped conditions.
Then, well let’s call her Pat, arrived. She had three children all under six, who ran wild around the house. They were always filthy and I found myself bathing them more than once. She always left the kitchen in a mess, the bathrooms dirty. She was disruptive, a heavy smoker who shouted and screamed all the time. She became the centre of heated debate at the Monday meeting and each time she was threatened with having to leave she would promise to behave.
One evening her husband came to the door and I went out to speak to him. He asked about the children and asked if they were OK as his wife was a very poor carer. He volunteered that he had slapped her across the face when he had come home from work to find the children hungry and very grubby. I had some sympathy for him and said so to one of the social workers we called Etty. She was furious with me and told me there was no excuse for violence.
A few weeks later when the Monday meeting was about to start, Pat was in the living room watching Coronation Street. Her behaviour had not improved despite the many promises. Etty asked Pat to turn off the TV, and she refused. Etty asked her again to which Pat replied, ‘I don’t want to attend your f….. meeting. I’m watching TV.’
Etty got up and turned off the TV. Pat retaliated by turning it back on. Etty turned it off again, only for Pat to turn it on. This was repeated another couple of times and then as Pat went to switch the TV on for the fifth time, Etty got up, grabbed Pat by the arm, swung her round and hit her across the face with the flat of her hand as hard as she could.
So, no excuse for violence then.