Skip to content


NSW Women’s Refuge Movement

The story of Guthrie House is based around two very different women with one common vision. Bessie Guthrie and Sandra Willson, both from vastly different backgrounds, they touched each other’s lives in the seventies at a time when the NSW Women’s Refuge Movement was in full swing.

It was a time commonly referred to as ‘second wave feminism’ grounded in feminist activism and housing campaigns; they fought for the rights of oppressed, disadvantaged and marginalised women which would inspire services for women and children experiencing domestic violence and disadvantage across New South Wales and Australia.

The movement was in full swing by 1974 with Sydney women organising themselves and beginning to passionately speak out. Many of these women were based in Glebe, as was Bessie Guthrie.

In the early days of autumn 1974 a group of Sydney Women’s Liberation members, led by Anne Summers with Jennifer Dakers and Bessie Guthrie, broke into two adjoining vacant houses, ‘Elsie’ and ‘Minnie’ at 73 and 75 Westmoreland Street in Glebe, Sydney. Armed only with broomsticks, shovels and energetic determination, they changed the locks to establish residency and claimed squatter’s rights. On that day, 16 March, the women declared Elsie Women’s Refuge Night Shelter open as Australia’s first emergency safe haven for women and children subject to domestic violence.

Bessie Guthrie (1905-1977)

During the 1950s Bessie€s house in the working class part of Glebe became the backdrop for the many relationships she and husband Clive developed with girls who were victims of homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, substance abuse and the welfare system.

She bombarded bureaucrats, journalists and politicians with letters demanding changes and disclosure. Her focus and information was always street-based, her loyalty always to the girls. Over the years her network of contacts grew. Young runaways became adolescent, moved on from homes to gaols, had babies or abortions, disappeared and returned€bashed, drunk, tattooed. Some survived, some did not. She ran what amounted to a private half-way house at 97 Derwent Street where runaway girls could write on the ‘message wall’, obtain support and receive unconditional love. ‘Aunty Bessie’s’ was a safe house.

Guthrie, Bessie Jean Thompson (1905–1977) by Suzanne Bellamy, published in the Australian Dictionary of biography

In 1970, she walked into the political home of Women’s Liberation Movement in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Glebe. She was carrying a bundle of papers under her arm. Bessie Guthrie had arrived. So began a concerted campaign to close down Parramatta Girls Home and Hay Institution for Girls.

Bessie Guthrie was one of a small group of women who established ‘Elsie’ in 1974, the first refuge in Australia for women and children who were the victims of domestic violence. The shelter was not far from her home. She worked on the roster at Elsie’s, contributing her years of research and knowledge on homelessness, continued tireless projects as a feminist activist within the community, marched through the streets of Sydney on every International Women’s Day and joined the campaign to free Sandra Willson, the State’s longest-serving woman.

Sandra Willson was found not guilty of the murder of a Sydney taxi driver in 1959 on the grounds of insanity and was sentenced to an indeterminate period of imprisonment at the Governor’s Pleasure. After 11 years in prisons and psychiatric hospitals, authorities declared Ms Willson sane; but it took a further seven years for her to be released from prison following a rigorous campaign by Bessie Guthrie and the activist group Women Behind Bars.

Bessie Guthrie died in 1977 at the age of 72. That year, Sandra Willson was released from prison after serving 18 years in custody as the longest serving female prisoner in NSW. She was 38.

Two years after her death in 1977, Sandra Willson founded the Women’s Emergency Shelter and Training Scheme, established as a half-way house for women who had become part of the criminal justice system. It was re-named Guthrie House in 1995.

Sandra Willson (1939–1999)

The following excerpt is from an article by Les Kennedy from the Sydney Morning Herald on 18 November 1999, after the passing of Ms Willson. It gives clarity to her life’s journey:

When Sandra Willson was released from Mulawa Women’s Detention Centre on October 14, 1977 she emerged with the prison cat and a bag full of clothes. Willson, who died at the age of 60, left much personal baggage behind her. Her 18 years in prison included 11 years in the Parramatta Psychiatric Centre; the rest was spent as a Governor’s Pleasure inmate at the Mulawa Complex. Her period of incarceration gave her the title of Australia longest-serving woman prisoner, a term marked by controversy. In 1960 aged 21, Willson was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity of the murder of a taxi driver. By 1970 a psychiatric prison medical panel declared her sane and gave rise to the Women Behind Bars movement who championed for her release. Among her supporters were Virginia Bell, Pat O’Shane, Janet Walquist, Wendy Bacon, Anne Summers, Meredith Burgmann and Bessie Guthrie. Their campaign for Willson’s freedom saw many arrests from demonstrations and sit-ins which even included the storming of the office of the Minister for Justice.

When she emerged from prison Willson, who had converted to Hinduism and studied 23 languages while inside, said she was fortunate to have friends outside to help her assimilate. Jail can do one of two things to you. It can either make you sensitive to other people’s problems or it can make you so embittered that all you want is revenge against a society that has kicked you, she said. Finding that most women did not emerge into a supportive environment, Willson lobbied government welfare organisations for funds to establish the State’s first halfway house for female parolees.

In 1979 under the banner of the Women’s Emergency Shelter and Training Scheme, she established Guthrie House, first located in Liberty Street, Enmore; named in honour of Bessie Guthrie (1905-1977). Willson took a course in counselling directed at drug and alcohol abuse, was appointed to the executive of the Network of Alcohol and Other Drugs Agencies (NADA) and was an advisor to the TV drama Prisoner in 1982.

In 1992 Willson retired to Gympie, Queensland, where she died at her home from a stroke.

Bessie Guthrie and Sandra Willson’s legacy remains thriving today …

A ‘Women and Labour’ conference poster was commissioned by Suzanne Bellamy in 1978. It was produced by Toni Robertson from the Earthworks Poster Collective Workshop. The poster is now part of the National Gallery Collection (reference number 82.693).

References and excerpts:

Forty years of the Elsie Refuge for Women and Children by Catie Gilchrist, 2015

Creating a Space: The Life of Bessie Guthrie 
28 October 2007Researcher Judy Rapley, Presented by Lorena Allam

Guthrie, Bessie Jean Thompson (1905–1977) by Suzanne Bellamy, published in the Australian Dictionary of biography

Tit for Tat: The Story of Sandra Willson 
20 November 2011Presented by Lorena Allam