Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Erin Pizzey, women's refuge founder and writer

'I was educated to be married'


The writer Erin Pizzey, 68, set up the first refuge for battered women in 1971, and now campaigns on behalf of male victims of abuse. Her many books include Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear, which was turned into a television film

I was born in China. My father was in the Diplomatic Service and posted to Tianjin. We were captured during the Second World War by the Japanese but were very lucky: we were exchanged for Japanese prisoners and put on the last boat out of Shanghai.

We ended up in Kokstad in South Africa. I have memories of walking through the jungle with my twin sister and our black nanny to my first nursery school. When I was five, we joined my father in Beirut, and I went to a Catholic convent. I already spoke English, German and Mandarin, but suddenly had to learn French. There was a big orphanage attached and the children from there sat at the back of the class. Their fingers were terribly pricked because they had to earn their living from embroidering tablecloths and bed linen.

At the end of the war, we went to Canada and joined my godmother in Toronto. At Moulton College I won a prize, the one and only prize I ever won in any school. My mother was very violent, and at her worst during this time. I remember standing in front of a teacher and showing her my legs, which had been whipped with an ironing cord. The teacher virtually said she could do nothing about it.

When I was seven or eight, we joined my father in Tehran, in what was then Persia. There was an American school but I was expelled. My mother found a little English school but one Friday I put a wasp's nest in the teacher's desk and she was stung when she opened it on the Monday. For that and other crimes, I was expelled again.

By this time, I'd learnt to read and saw no reason to go to school. I was reading my way through the books in my parents' bookcase: Walter Scott's novels, and, in particular, a medical dictionary of abnormal diseases and Gray's Anatomy.

We came to England in 1948 and, with my twin sister, I was sent to boarding school at St Antony's, the junior school of Leweston Manor in Sherborne, Dorset. I was very happy in the holidays when we stayed at St Mary's, a big old house with 240 acres. Miss Williams, who ran it, was my mentor and let me browse through her books.

At 11, we moved up to the senior school run by Mother Eleanor, a vicious, evil woman. I was punished because nobody realised I was severely dyslexic. She couldn't expel me because my parents, back in Tianjin, were captured by the Communists and put under house arrest. My sister and I thought they were dead. Admittedly, I must have been an absolute nightmare. I took pride in being bottom. I had to sit outside the refectory, eating on my own, and every playtime I was sent to the library to study.

A supply teacher once held up an essay of mine and said that I could be a writer. But we were educated to be married: we spent a lot of time learning how to darn our future husband's socks so that he didn't get blisters. At the end, I was surprised to get four O-levels.

My parents were posted to Africa and my mother enrolled us, at 16, at Dakar University, to study French and English. Most of the students were men who had been educated in Russia. I ended up leading a demonstration; my French wasn't sufficiently sophisticated to realise that it was organised by the Communist Party – and my father was the acting consul general.

At 18, I spent a miserable year at a secretarial school in Devon, then joined my parents in Macao and joined MI6 in Hong Kong. It was all very Graham Greene, but I didn't last long. I discovered alcohol and men.

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little