40 Women and Girls
West End Women and Girls Centre are celebrating their landmark 40th anniversary
The centre is Newcastle’s first and only open access women and girls centre, and has been a vital part of the local community in the city’s West End since the 1980s. More than 10,000 women access the centre each year, and five generations of families are a part of the membership.
‘We run youth clubs every night of the week, women’s groups every morning, and we’re an inclusive family of women and girls,’ says centre coordinator, Huffty McHugh. Children from the age of five attend these youth groups and the oldest members are in their 90s – so the whole community is welcome here. ‘What we’re very good at is growing our own staff,’ Huffty adds. ‘We have young women who work here who have been coming to the centre since they were five. They come to the youth groups, volunteer, then we employ them as workers.’ These staff include an award-winning team of domestic abuse peer educators (whose work is known nationally and has been discussed in Parliament), and a team of gender equality peer educators who go into schools and launch campaigns alongside other young women about gender inequality and staying safe on the streets. There’s also a community garden where women and girls are encouraged to grow their own fruit and vegetables, and a community kitchen where they can cook them.
‘I think certainly in the last couple of years we’ve seen that what people need is a sense of community,’ Huffty says. ‘Women and girls need to know their neighbours, they need to feel safe where they live, and they need to see a friendly face. If they’ve just moved to the area, whether that be from a different country, or a different area of our country, they need to feel at home and safe. That’s what we do as a community centre. When the centre first opened, Elswick was full of youth clubs and community centres, but because of cuts and 10 years of austerity, a lot of them have shut down.’ West End Women and Girls Centre is one of the last independent women and girls centres in the country. ‘It doesn’t matter whether they’ve come from Afghanistan or from Byker, women and girls still need somewhere to feel at home and safe. That’s why we’re still here, we’re here to meet those needs.’
And that’s exactly what’s worth celebrating. The 40 Women and Girls exhibition is supported by Newcastle City Council’s artists in residence programme, Hadrian Trust and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Writer Catrina McHugh (who works at Open Clasp Theatre Company, which has partnered with the centre for more than 20 years) and photojournalist Phyllis Christopher have been commissioned to gather stories and portraits for the exhibition and an accompanying book. Members of the community voted for 40 women and girls who reflect the ethos of the centre and Newcastle’s West End. They range from Margaret Robinson, who sadly passed away in 2016, to eightyear-old Kacey Connor who lives in Cruddas Park and comes to clubs three nights a week. These members reflect the local community and the membership as a whole – chairs of the board of trustees, staff members, volunteers and local women and girls. ‘This book is a real historic tribute to the West End of Newcastle and the centre,’ says Huffty.
‘The idea came about because we knew we wanted to celebrate this anniversary. We came up with the idea inspired by all the women and girls who’ve been a part of our history. Who are those people? Where are they now? One of our earliest members, Mrs Robinson, who we named our hall after, is no longer with us but she was here from the very first night and it’s her and the five generations of her family who have brought everybody together. This is about recognising all of these women and girls. They make our community what it is.’
While the whole region should be proud of and inspired by these women, Huffty has a close connection with them all. ‘I wouldn’t be here without these women,’ she reveals. ‘I’ve worked here since I was 17 when I first started on a youth training scheme, and the women who were here taught me everything about being a youth and community worker. They taught me how to work with women and girls and as soon as I walked through the doors of the Pool Girls’ Club (as the centre was called then because we were based in the upstairs of Elswick’s swimming pool), I felt like I’d come home. That’s the ethos of the centre that we want to keep. Everybody is welcome here. It doesn’t matter if you need help or just want to make friends – we’re one big family. ‘Mrs Robinson took me into her family, and just before she passed away, her family rang me and said she was asking for me, and I went and sat with her,’ says Huffty. ‘Kacey Connor, as an eight year
old, is part of our family. I’ve been at the birth of many girls in our community because I’ve driven women to hospital when their waters have broken. My family are part of this community too, we were born and brought up here. People sometimes say that in this day and age that there’s no such thing as community and that you don’t know your neighbours, but we support each other, and we did that more than ever throughout the pandemic. This is about getting together and celebrating that. If you need something, you knock on our door.’
The centre’s plans don’t stop there. Their most recent project is an extension of their community spirit. ‘The project is growing our work within rural Northumberland,’ Huffty explains. ‘We’ve just taken on a lease for a farm where we can grow fruit and veg, plant seeds and camp. That came about in the pandemic when women were trapped at home and didn’t have anywhere else to go. We needed to see big skies, greenery and we needed to have somewhere where children could run around freely.’
There are also plans for a new library to celebrate women’s lives, voices and achievements. There are only two dedicated women’s libraries in the UK: in Glasgow and London, so the centre want to create a dedicated space for the North East. ‘We’ve dedicated a room that’s going to be free to access for everybody,’ says Huffty. ‘We’ve had students from Newcastle University’s architecture department draw us some beautiful designs and we’ve employed a female joiner who has been coming to the centre for six months and has been training women and girls in joinery. We’re actually going to build the library ourselves. We’re asking everyone to share their favourite book and we’re going to fill the library with them. We have women who are Arabic and Bengali speakers and it would be great to get some translations of books in those languages, and books in English so we can all share the stories and a love of books.’
The 40 Women and Girls exhibition launched on 8th March, International Women’s Day, and the exhibition continues within the building for the remainder of the month. Entry is free but donations are welcome and the book will be available to buy. For more information visit westendwomenandgirls.co.uk.