Totnes Women’s Centre

Goodness, how time flies. I hadn’t realised how long it was since I last posted on here. Apologies to those of you who check on here regularly for updates. I will endevour to be more regular in the future.

Anyway, here is an extract from my research about the origins of the Womens’ Centre in Totnes. As ever I would welcome any anecdotes, recollection, corrections etc.

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A women’s group was started in Totnes by Hazel Selene who had moved to the area in 1979 in order to send her two daughters to the Dartington School. She was surprised to find that there was not a women’s group already in Totnes and so placed an advert in the feminist alternative magazine Spare Rib which was published in April and May of 1979. The group began meeting in the Totnes Natural Health Centre but then was able to move out to its own centre at 4 The Plains in May 1981. This was a former library building that was owned by the husband of one of the group members, Carol Briscoe.

The Totnes Women’s Centre became the focus for a number of different activities and groups. It acted as an information centre and offered free pregnancy testing and advice. Several women owned businesses were there including a bookshop that was run by Carol Briscoe and which stocked non-sexist and feminist literature and which had a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Arcturus, the other ‘alternative’ bookshop not to stock occult or natural healing books. There were also Green Shoes, two craft style clothing companies (Schmocks and Woolnut) an English School for foreign students, as well as Hazel Selene,  who practiced reflexology and metamorphic technique therapies. The centre also offered a regular programme of meetings and workshops and provided the space for a number of groups including consciousness raising, feminist studies and a writers group. Another group, Totnes Women for Peace also met at the centre. They were one strand of the anti-nuclear political activism within Totnes and they were active both locally and through participation in the Greenham Common protests.

Like some of the businesses in Totnes, the centre benefited from the presence of the students in the area, particularly because Dartington College of Arts was itself imbued with feminist politics in the late 1970s. The group were in the process of purchasing the centre when it burnt down on 1 February 1986 and although some of the activities continued, they were not reunited in the same space. The Totnes Women’s Centre later featured centrally in the novel Mothers and Other Lovers by Joanna Brisco (1994), daughter of the building’s owners during its existence.

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