The idea of a Women’s Centre in Brighton was conceived as early as 1969 during meetings of the Brighton Women’s Liberation group. During the late 1960s and 1970s, Brighton had a thriving community of women’s interest groups which came together in 1973 to form Brighton Women’s Centre Committee (BWCC). BWCC secured a one-year tenancy from Brighton Council for premises on Buckingham Road, together with a £6,000 renovation grant. Brighton Women’s Centre (BWC) operated there for two years, 1974-1976.
It seems that BWC had an unsettled time and a number of temporary homes during the next few years. There was a brief stay in a flat in Moulsecombe, then a move to a room in the Resource Centre on North Road, where BWC was initially without a phone and could offer only a very limited service. In the late 1980s, it operated from a vegetarian food shop on George Street.
By the late 1980s BWC was in desperate need of permanent accommodation. A determined contingent of women of different races, ages and backgrounds worked together. They approached the local city council and obtained their first grant to obtain the lease. In 1987/8 BWC operated from 6 Malborough Place. This was an amazing step forward. It however offered very limited opening times and had limited space. The priority was to move to bigger and better premises.
In 1987, negotiations started with a private landlord to secure Lettice House, 10 St Georges Mews. This property became the home of Brighton & Hove Women’s Centre for 12 years. It was in need of a great deal of work, but alterations began to reform its four rooms into a space offering women counselling, information, pregnancy testing and a kitchen area. Although the work was incomplete, it was first used in March 1988 to host Brighton’s first International Women’s Day (IWD). This event honours women’s advancement and calls for continued vigilance and action to ensure that women’s equality is gained and maintained in all aspects of life.
The Lettice House work completed, BWC opened its doors officially in June 1988. A public meeting was held at Brighthelm to promote the centre. BWC offered a drop-in, and space for an informal chat and a “cuppa.” It was also developing as an important resource for women in the area. Receiving 40 to 50 enquires a week, it became increasingly well known for its referral service and developed strong links with other crucial women’s services. It was seen as a channel to Women’s Aid (for women experiencing domestic violence).
Their first newsletter, the ‘BROADsheet’ (BWC magazine) was published in December 1988. Running for 12 years, the broadsheet collective aimed to produce an issue four times a year. Each issue included global news items, an information directory, a letter page and information about BWC, Lesbian Interests, Black Sisters in Unity Page, a Book Review (women’s interest by women writers, non-sexist, non-racist), Creative Writing, Poetry & Autobiographies. The focus was on giving women a voice on their experience of using BWC and also on the wider world.
BWC received charitable status in 1991. By 1992, it was widely recognised that BWC was at the centre of the development of integrated services for women in Brighton & Hove. BWC’s now registered ToyBox Crèche was open to mothers in B&H experiencing deprivation due to low income and to those facing language barriers. The Women’s Aid Project closed in 1993 but reopened as the Brighton Women’s Refuge (now RISE). BWC took 100 enquiries, self-referrals and agency referrals in just three months.
In July 1994 BWC suffered a break-in and arson attack. A kind local landlord allowed them exclusive space to continue a limited service in the building opposite for a short spell until refurbishments were made.
In 1995 BWC was run by two teams of trained volunteers on rota and no paid staff. It was the only centre of its kind in the Sussex area. Now open five days a week, it added to its facilities a computer and printer, a legal aid service and the capacity to host meetings and women’s groups.
Over the next few years, various projects developed. Amongst the first was the SPB and Urban Interreg urban development project, aimed at improving women’s prospects by gaining qualifications, improving employment opportunities and reducing women’s dependency on benefits. The Women’s Drug Project developed from ToyBox staff responding to the needs of mothers who used their crèche. With growing credibility and reputation for the services offered, BWC received referrals from Brighton’s Drugs Dependency Unit and the Probation and Community Alcohol Team. In 1997 the Women’s Drug Project expanded, finding its own premises and changing its name to Brighton Oasis Project.
By 1996 BWC had its first paid employee, Michelle Pooley. She was a part-time coordinator who was funded for three years by a grant from the Lottery Board (Community Fund). In 1999 the lease expired on Lettice House and BWC moved to the Brighthelm Centre, which housed a number of organisations. This basement space was far from ideal and was seen only as a temporary measure – in fact it was home for seven years.
By 2001 the B&H Council grant had ended and BWC faced uncertain times. The BWC fundraising committee secured funding for a part-time centre manager, and over the next five years, BWC’s work continued to expand. But by 2006 BWC was facing a funding crisis and had no home. A major campaigning wide publicity finally resulted in the move to our present home, 72 High Street, in May 2006. Thanks are due to everyone involved and a particular mention should be given to community activist Shirley West (1950 – 2006), who was a co-founder, treasurer and long-term volunteer at BWC. She was instrumental in the negotiations with the sympathetic landlord Michael Chowen to secure number 72.
More funding enabled the appointment of the present director, Lisa Dando in 2008. BWC continued to develop its services and has taken the initiative in developing stronger links between women-only organisations in the city. By networking and co-operating with other organisations, a partnership group was formed to work together strategically to maintain and develop services to identify gaps. Their priority is to develop support, advice and counselling services for women who have experienced sexual violence. ‘Women’s Services Strategic Network’ (WSSN) is a partnership of BWC, Brighton Oasis Project, RISE, Survivors Network and Threshold (BHT). In 2009, WSSN secured funding for the Inspire project for work with women who have offended and those at risk of offending.
BWC’s expanding activities led to serious overcrowding, and so securing a bigger centre became a long term goal. In 2013 the BWC Inspire Project and ToyBox Preschool moved to 22 Richmond Place. Counselling and drop-in services remained at 72 High Street, which is still an important centre. BWC currently has a Management Committee made up of six trustees and a Director. It employs eighteen staff and is supported on average by approximately forty volunteers. Baroness Joyce Gould is the patron of BWC.
BWC aims to empower and support women and children and promote independence in a safe, women-only space. For over forty years now, BWC has protected and preserved the physical and mental health of women and promoted the education of women in Brighton, Hove and in the surrounding area and has helped to relieve poverty amongst women in the area. It has achieved this by providing holistic and integrated women-centred services to vulnerable and socially excluded women and children. BWC continues to develop and grow and meet the ever-changing needs of women.