Glebe has a long association with radical causes, as Ann Curthoys reminded us in an article in the Social History section of the Glebe Society website. But none is as enduring and significant as the presence of Elsie Women’s Refuge in our midst.
The Elsie Women’s Refuge Night Shelter, as it was originally known, was established in March 1974 by the direct action of a group of women associated with Women’s Liberation House at 67 Glebe Point Rd. Anne Summers, Jennifer Dakers and Bessie Guthrie broke into two adjoining houses in Westmoreland St, Elsie and Minnie, changed the locks and began cleaning the buildings for use as a refuge, the first of its kind in Australia. Although the initial media attention was far from positive, it was successful in making women aware of the service and after only six weeks Elsie had provided accommodation to 48 women and 35 children.
Although most of the women involved with Women’s Liberation House, and Elsie, were young and university educated, a significant figure had a very different background. Bessie Guthrie was approaching 70 when she was involved in the establishment of Elsie, and had lived all her life in Derwent St, Glebe. A talented and energetic woman, whose career covered design and publishing amongst other things, she campaigned over a long period against the institutional abuse of young women, including at Bidura, a ‘receiving home’ for children, mainly girls, waiting placement in foster homes. Her involvement in the creation of Elsie grew naturally from concerns that had been a major focus of her life.
In its early years particularly, Elsie received limited government support, and remained dependent on the contribution of volunteers and support from the Glebe, and broader community. From that perspective, the project to provide ‘Kitchen Starter Packs’ for women leaving Elsie for independent accommodation continues a long association of support from the Glebe community to one of our most significant community facilities.