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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?