Jim Duffy

This tribute to the late Jim Duffy was written by our Chief Executive, Sandra Horley, CBE:

Jim Duffy was a man whose integrity, compassion, humanity and sense of justice touched the lives of so many.

I am the Chief Executive of Refuge, which grew out of Chiswick Women’s Aid, the world’s first women’s refuge, founded in a blaze of publicity by Erin Pizzey in Chiswick in 1971. By the time I began working as director of the Chiswick refuge some twelve years later, Jim, a founding member of Chiswick Women’s Aid, had already fought many battles on behalf of what was then called “the home for battered wives”. This so called home was an overcrowded slum, with hundreds of women and children sleeping head to toe in an eight bedroom Victorian house on the Chiswick High Road. It was straight out of Dickens. The local authority wanted to close it down because it breached all health and safety regulations, but Jim fought like anything – and succeeded – in keeping its doors open.

When I started working in the Chiswick refuge in 1983, it was in the same dilapidated condition – it was in a shocking state with holes in the walls, rats and mice everywhere. As many of you will know, Jim was an ever so practical man. His first piece of advice to me was to contact a man he knew at environmental health. I did exactly that and was advised to plug the holes in the wall with steel wool because the rodents couldn’t chew through it. So, the next day I contacted a steel wool manufacturer who sent us tons of the stuff free of charge – it did in fact keep the rodents at bay, for a while.

Such advice was typical of Jim; he was an expert at understanding the ways of local government, knowing the right people to call, following the procedures and processes to get the result he believed in.

Jim was right to fight to keep the refuge open because the women told me, and Jim, that they would rather be in that derelict house than be beaten and abused by their husbands. For the first time, they felt safe. And that is what motivated Jim. His early life experiences shaped him – he believed passionately in fairness and justice – and in the right to be safe in your own home. Jim put the fair treatment of women and children above local authority rules and regulations.

Jim also defended me personally. There were many occasions when I needed Jim’s support – some of which have to remain a secret between Jim and me. I can however, tell you about one struggle of principle which Jim and I had to sort out a few years after I began working in the Chiswick refuge. At the time, it was considered too radical to suggest that domestic violence – hitting and beating your wife – was a crime. Assaulting a person had been illegal since 1861 when the offences against the person act was passed – but for some reason violence against women was ignored. The police didn’t want to know – ‘it was a just a domestic’.  Jim helped me persuade the management committee that domestic violence should be treated as seriously as any other crime, that women weren’t to blame for abuse. This may not sound terribly radical today, but I can assure you it was a huge challenge at the time. Jim’s intervention made it possible for me to campaign publicly for changes in policy and legislation – to dispel the many myths surrounding domestic violence: ‘she provokes it, she deserves it, she enjoys it, otherwise she would leave’. Jim supported me and believed that all women and children had a basic human right to live in safety – free from violence and fear.

Many years later, I enlisted Jim’s help with another philosophical battle. I was asked by members of the board to state publicly that some women invented stories of abuse. I clearly couldn’t agree to do this. Again, Jim, and Peter Wallach who was on the board at the time and later became chair, backed me to the hilt. In spite of all the ensuing media coverage, and the forces of the establishment, we succeeded – Refuge continued to believe and defend women. Jim fought for what was right. He was too principled to defend me blindly, but he defended me because we were standing up for the voiceless. Jim was very modest, but I never underestimated his power and his tenacity in the pursuit of fair treatment for all.

Throughout the whole of my career, whenever I was challenged, it was Jim’s voice that sounded in my head and kept me going. I always felt strengthened and empowered by his support; I trusted Jim completely. His integrity was immovable; he was always motivated by truth and justice.

Refuge now supports over 6,400 abused women and children on any given day. We celebrated our 45th birthday at the House of Lords last year. We were honoured to have Jim and Olive with us celebrating Refuge’s achievements.

I last asked Jim for guidance in February of this year. After reading some documents which I had sent him, he called me on the phone and gave me a completely different perspective. He came to support me at very difficult meeting. At the age of 92, Jim never lost his edge. He was a master of detail and negotiation. He used to help his opponents dig a hole, and then he would watch them fall into it – and he did it again on this occasion.

All these struggles sound very serious, and they were, but in between, Jim had a great sense of humour; his laughter was infectious and he was endlessly optimistic. When the chips were down, Jim always made me laugh and I am sure many others had that experience.

Jim constantly talked about his love for Olive and their love of dancing. I was amazed to hear that after 65 years of marriage they were still dancing together.

Family meant everything to Jim; he was a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He was so proud of his children, Kerry and Sharon, and all his grandchildren, and he frequently told me of their achievements.

We will all miss Jim, but I am sure we will remember him with great pride. He fought injustice. He championed the rights of women and children. Jim was a true friend of Refuge. He helped save, and change, the lives of tens of thousands of women and children. If we can develop a sense of justice like his, a spirit of generosity like his, and a determination like his, we will do well – and we will be honouring his memory.