THE WORLD'S first refuge for battered women may have to close in September because of a financial crisis.

The haven in Chiswick, set up by Erin Pizzey, now a blockbusting novelist living in the Caribbean, needs pounds 50,000 unless it is to close after 23 years of helping women and children.

Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, formerly Chiswick Family Rescue, said thousands of battered women sought help from the police each year in London. The refuge can accommodate up to 45 women and 120 children at a time.

'It's a hand-to-mouth existence. We are full to overflowing and we are having to refer many women who come to us. If we shut, thousands will be made homeless, or have to return to their abusive partners. They have nowhere else to go,' she said.

'The closure would be an indictment of a society which refuses to put the subject on the political agenda. We must rid society of the 'it's only a domestic' mentality.'

Ms Horley, a social psychologist and author, has worked with battered women for 17 years. 'I have seen an awful lot of pain and misery. The worst example was when a man took a hammer and chisel to his partner's face.'

She fears the refuge might have to close because public grants are not high enough to maintain services. The charity offers legal and welfare advice, help with re-housing and runs Britain's only 24-hour domestic violence crisis line which receives around 10,000 calls each year.

Its annual budget is pounds 525,000, of which pounds 255,000 comes from the London Boroughs Grants Unit, residents' rents and a housing corporation allowance. More than half has to be raised privately.

The Princess of Wales, Helena Kennedy QC and the rock star Bruce Springsteen have all supported the charity.

Ms Horley wants to see more official support. 'We used to survive on our grants, but they were frozen and when we added a fourth house the Grants Unit said they wouldn't be able to fund it.

'It costs pounds 19m a year of taxpayers' money to have the children at Refuge taken into care, whereas it only costs pounds 150,000 to keep them here. That's a saving of pounds 18.85m. So why no action? It doesn't make sense.'

Gerald Oppenheim, the director of the London Boroughs Grants Unit, said despite Refuge being a top priority, a grant increase was impossible.

'We would love to be able to give more money to Refuge, but we just haven't got the resources,' he said.

'London boroughs are under enormous financial strain at the moment and all the voluntary organisations we assist are basically on frozen grants.'

For Victoria, a former Refuge resident who now lives in Shepherd's Bush, the charity was her only hope. For years her husband raped her, humiliated her and imprisoned her in their home.

'I used to sleep in the loft because I didn't want the children to hear him rape me. When he went out he would lock the doors, or if I took his children to school and was five minutes late getting back he would grab me by the hair and say: 'You slut, who have you had in the car?'

Eventually she grabbed her daughter and fled to the Refuge. 'For the first time I felt safe.'

Ms Horley said September was the deadline. 'We have to raise at least pounds 50,000 by then or we will have to close.

'If that happens it will be tragic. I would be devastated, not just because I have spent half my adult life working for these women, but also because I care very deeply for them and I want to carry on saving lives.'

(Photographs omitted)