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Ham&High  10 February 2015

Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town celebrates 40 years fighting for women’s rights

Hannah Al-Othman

Founder Selma James outside the first Women's Centre in Kentish Town

A trailblazing women’s centre that began life in a squat near Euston station is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Crossroads Women’s Centre is now comfortably settled into its permanent home in Wolsey Mews, Kentish Town, but its history is one of struggle. The centre was first founded as the Wages for Housework (WFH) campaign back in 1975. It is reportedly the oldest women’s centre remaining in London and possibly in the UK.

Its first premises in a squat at 129 Drummond Street in Euston became a base for a diverse range of women’s groups, and many organisations were conceived in the original headquarters, including the English Collective of Prostitutes and Women Against Rape.

Both groups still meet at Crossroads today, and the centre is now a base for 16 diverse independent organisations with their own projects and services, including Legal Action for Women, Single Mothers’ Self-Defence, and disability campaign group WinVisible.

Selma James, 84, who founded WFH in 1972 and co-ordinates the Global Women’s Strike, said: “I didn’t think it would still be going 40 years later. I thought women would have wages for housework years before that. I had absolutely no idea that we would lose single mother benefit and that child benefit would be threatened.

“But I’m pleased with how the centre has progressed. Not only that, I’m pleased that the fundamental principles haven’t shifted.”

Crossroads’ journey from Drummond Street to Wolsey Mews has not been without its obstacles.

In 1977 the women were evicted from their original premises, and moved into a squat further up the road, at 138 Drummond Street.

WFH did not stay in the new property for long – evicted again in 1978 when the area was redeveloped. Campaigners walked into Camden Town Hall with one woman dramatically chaining herself to a first floor balcony in an attempt to gain council support, from where she unveiled yards and yards of petition signatures from local people demanding a women’s centre.

The protest worked and then chair of housing, Ken Livingstone, offered the group a small run-down empty shop for a peppercorn rent.

WFH moved into 71 Tonbridge Street, and became known as King’s Cross Women’s Centre.

One key initiative to come out of the centre during this time was the 12-day occupation of Holy Cross Church, in King’s Cross, by the English Collective of Prostitutes, who were protesting against police illegality and racism.

More upheaval came in 1995, when Tonbridge Street was redeveloped. But the centre was saved thanks to the commitment of volunteers finding a home in a youth centre and a church hall.

It was in 1996 that the centre first moved to premises in Kentish Town and became Crossroads. It was named in honour of the women squatters of Crossroads, South Africa, who had refused to be moved.

But it was only in 2012, after a huge fundraising and renovation effort, that Crossroads was able to move into its permanent, larger home at 25 Wolsey Mews, which is owned and run by the charity Crossroads Women.

Today, Crossroads brings together women from different ages, backgrounds and communities to share experiences, and learn from and support each other. The centre is now a well-used drop-in and community resource centre, and a place of safety for vulnerable and low-income women.

Men ready to work with women in a mutually supportive way are also welcomed.

The centre is busier than ever. Women asylum seekers of the All African Women’s Group meet twice weekly. The Global Women’s Strike campaigns for a living wage for mothers and other carers internationally.

The centre’s landmark birthday was celebrated with an evening of entertainment, featuring a premiere of a short film about its history made by a group of young people, an exhibition, and live music with the legendary pianist June Turvey.

Ms James said: “What was striking to me was that we had real friends, not only people who came to pat us on the back, but people who came because they loved what we did, because they felt part of it, and felt it was their centre.”

Around 150 attended, with standing room only left for latecomers.

Petra Dando, of Camden Association of Street Properties, who has campaigned alongside Crossroads against the government’s welfare reforms, said: “It’s very difficult to convey just how much they do for people in the community.

“I think what’s unique about the centre is the really hands-on approach.

“They really care about the people they try to help. They don’t let go until they’ve done their best to get a result.”

 

 Crossroads Women, Registered charity no. 1134495, Company limited by guarantee no. 7087291