Sydney’s history is filled with stories of change-makers, gangsters, workers, writers, ordinary and extraordinary individuals; the possibilities of historical inquiry and discovery are endless. Yet, many stories from Sydney’s past remain hidden, visible only to those who have studied them at university, read about them in miscellaneous local history publications, or, if lucky, played a part in their creation. Unlike those histories that are ingrained in Australia’s Eurocentric historical consciousness — think the ANZACs, the “pioneers”, the “pioneering politicians” — many local histories counter the mainstream, those which acknowledge and valorise the stories of the marginalised, those which, often, remain invisible.
One such site that encapsulates Sydney’s “hidden history” is that of 73 Westmoreland Street, Glebe. Only an eleven-minute walk from The Great Hall, this little terrace house witnessed the onset of a radical and game-changing initiative for Australia’s women, an initiative that is still affecting our lives today. Of course, this site has received little recognition as to its historical importance. I am writing to change this.
This little terrace house — or Elsie, as the house is named — hosted the first secular refuge for women and children in Australia. In early 1970s Australia, it seemed almost impossible that a refuge for women and children fleeing domestic violence could be established and successfully run independently by women, for women. Yet, such was the work that occurred at Elsie in November, 1973. Spurred by the ethos of “solidarity and sisterhood” that shaped the Second-wave Feminist Movement, the Elsie Refuge was established and run by Anne Summers, Jennifer Dakers, and Bessie Guthrie, along with other members of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Indeed, it was not the church or the state that ran the refuge. These “Women’s Libbers” viewed Elsie as an essential service for Sydney’s women. Namely, in early 1970s Australia, domestic violence was not legally considered a crime — often, the police force was reluctant to intervene in what were dismissively called “domestics”. Moreover, women were not eligible for emergency housing as long as the matrimonial home existed and, at this time, the Department of Housing would not house women and their children without a husband.
Thus, Elsie filled this void, aiming to operate “for any woman needing to escape a violent home, needing advice and friends when faced with the legal, welfare, and health system.” This aim made Elsie extremely popular — only six weeks after opening, Elsie had provided accommodation to forty-eight women and thirty-five children. As Anne Summers recalled in her 1999 autobiography, Ducks on the Pond:
Elsie never just provided women with a refuge. It was a shining light, a call to the conscience of society to deal with violence against women and children, a prod in the sides of the law enforcement and court systems to get them to start taking the subject seriously.
Summers’ remark highlights not only the radical nature of Elsie as a safe place for women and children but also illuminates the power of the Second-Wave feminist movement in “prodding” Australia’s archaic policymakers and government agencies. Although Elsie has since closed down after operating independently and with limited funding for forty years, the refuge set a precedent for the establishment of other female-focused services around Sydney and Australia more broadly that continue to operate today. These include rape crisis centres, health centres, and counselling services. Elsie, therefore, has an influential and ongoing legacy. And luckily, this legacy has gradually gained some attention in recent years. In 2012, the walkway that connects Derwent Street to Glebe Point Road next to Glebe Public School was renamed as the “Elsie Walk” as an ode to the refuge. Finally, Sydney is beginning to remember its hidden histories.
It is very likely — actually, it is certain — that if you ever go on a walk with me through Glebe, I will mention the Elsie Refuge. While there is little commemoration of this site in terms of plaques, statues, and signs, it is now up to us to illuminate this hidden history, a history that highlights the power of radical action to engender sweeping, positive changes for large groups of people. What happened in November of 1973 at 73 Westmoreland Street, Glebe was radical — hopefully, in learning about this history, we can generate a different sort of radicalism through revealing the stories that are currently concealed — albeit not too far from the surface — under Sydney’s sandstone scenes.