‘We gave women back a sense of self’

12:37pm Monday 29th March 2004

ERIN Pizzey pads about her Twickenham kitchen, getting mugs, milk and a plate for the biscuits. I make good builder's tea'' she says. It's true, but then she's had practice - the mother of women's refuge has had the kettle on for more than 30 years.

Seasoned readers are aware of her pioneering work which began in Chiswick during the 1970s. But the firebrand who took on the world and Hounslow Council to get her battered wives housed has been out of the public eye for a couple of decades, so delight is tinged with a wry smile as she displays an invitation to a women achievers' lunch with the Queen. I'm surprised anyone remembers me.'' The twice divorced mother of two and lots of adopted sons'' was due to take her place on March 11 beside highflyers such as Cherie Booth, J K Rowling, Kate Moss and Heather Mills McCartney.

Now aged 65 with four grandchildren, she is nearing the age of another, burgeoning sector of society whose cause she has espoused. Two years ago a friend asked her to join a supporters' group which was protesting about standards of care at Lynde House care home in East Twickenham.

The story of their campaign, which attracted the support of MP Vincent Cable, broke in this newspaper and was taken up by the national press. An independent report endorsed the group's claims and the case is now with the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

As ever, Erin doesn't mince her words. The reason this can occur is because the private sector is not regulated. The venture capitalists strip the homes, trouser the money and then sell up and move on.

Relatives are plunged into a terrible trap of silence,'' she continued. If people complain, they are told to get out, knowing that they can't find somewhere else quickly for their relatives. Elder abuse is just as much of a problem as child abuse. It's The silent scream...' all over again - and more women abuse than men.

The government must stop privatising by stealth. Care is being handed over to the private sector. If Tony Blair hadn't increased bureaucracies, we could well afford what we are doing.

Do we believe that the best interests of the elderly are met in the private sector or in the hands of the state? That is the debate. I don't believe that money and medicine mix.'' In 1971 a woman walked into her community centre for young wives and showed Erin her bruises and for 12 years she blazed a trail of refuges, a blonde matriarch who openly used her bulk to get her way.

The women said that the most comforting thing was to have this very large and powerful woman saying come in. I lost weight once and a little boy who used to hug me burst into tears.'' Her book, Scream silently or the neighbours will hear', the first of many, was a revelation at a time when domestic violence - especially among the middle classes - was invisible. She estimates that around a thousand abused women and children a year were given sanctuary.

We were able to give women back their sense of self,'' she recalled. We squatted all over Chiswick. We had the Palm Court hotel in Richmond. We kept going for years with houses throughout England.'' Erin gained fame and friends, including some high level support; she acknowledged a huge' debt to Malcolm Richards, retired editor of this newspaper group, who put her on the map when he was chief reporter of the Brentford and Chiswick Times (no Isleworth then).

But hardline feminists were inflamed by her observations that a) women can be violent too - One in six men suffer physical abuse; some of my mothers had perfectly good GBH records of their own'' - and b) that some women keep going back for more (the subject of another book, Prone to Violence').

In 1982, Erin and her family left England, driven out, she says, from the movement she founded. It still rankles. I am banned from my own refuge. The National Federation of Women's Aid is run without any men and so is discriminatory. But what has grieved me most is the denial of the role of women in violence, because it denied them the help that they need.'' The work continued in New Mexico, the Cayman Islands and Tuscany, financed by Erin's prolific pen until she was thrown out'' by her publisher. She returned in 1997, first to Richmond and then Twickenham, and is still active. Her daughter Cleo also chose to work in the field of child protection, while her son Amos is a musician.

Smaller than of memory, Erin looks a little frail following a successful operation for uterine cancer. But appearances are deceptive: the voice and handshake are clear and firm; her mind lithe.

A twin with two violent parents, she has survived bomb threats, abusive letters, pickets, nervous breakdown and family tragedy when her 23-year-old grandson, a schizophrenic, committed suicide in a prison cell. Erin and her daughter Cleo are challenging the coroner's verdict in the European Court of Humans Rights. If the government is found guilty it will be historic, because it will mean that a lot more people can claim neglect.'' Her faith has sustained her, she says. A lapsed Catholic, deeply uncomfortable with all forms of organised church, she is instead a lover of God in all its aspects''. Our picture editor David Allen, who photographed her during the turbulent years, says that she is calmer and much more focused.

On February 19 Erin celebrated her birthday by taking her grandchildren to the Butterfly Park at Syon Park. She insists that she never sought the mantle of crusader: I always wanted to be happily married and have children.'' Her own father came from Brentford. One of an Irish publican's large brood at the Black Lion pub, he rose from poverty to become a diplomat in China, where she was born.

These days she enjoys cooking, reading and writing biographies, travel, her family - and drinking red wine. It's good for you and it stunned the cancer, that and garlic.

I am very grateful to Richmond Churches Housing Trust. I have a lovely life here in my garret after the life I have led, captured by the Chinese, out on the last boat - and English boarding school acclimatises you for anything!'' Another novel is on the stocks for the dyslexic with four O levels; this one on the theme of fame, though she's not optimistic of publication. There is a wealth of material to draw on, her own, that of her first husband, the reporter Jack Pizzey and her musical family - grandson Mikey Craig formed Culture Club, while her late brother Daniel Carney wrote The Wild Geese.

You don't make omelettes without breaking eggs. Life around Erin won't have been dull - or easy, but she trod where others wouldn't and was a catalyst for change. Even so, people are still surprised that family brutality exists anywhere other than a council estate. Only this week, Richmond upon Thames Council announced a new strategy for domestic violence', following shock statistics'' that one in four reported assaults are caused by violence in the home.

Erin says: My vision is for sanctuary and refuges for victims of violence and for society to recognise that violence is not a gender issue. Each person has to take responsibility for their own behaviour and their own relationships. That is my philosophy.'' Royal intervention once saved Erin from a prison sentence for overcrowding, so there will be some catching up to do at Buckingham Palace. She was going to hunt through the wardrobe for something to wear, although there is a dress shop that she likes, over in Kew, called Larger than Life.

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