Woman who witnessed domestic violence in childhood has set up ethical fashion label to help others in need

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My earliest memory is of my mum being threatened by my then stepdad with a knife. Walking into the living room of our Glasgow council flat to find him pinning her to the floor with a blade against her throat is an image I’ll never be able to shake.

No child should have to witness that, and when I see my own four-year-old with his Play-Doh or trucks, lost in his own little world, it’s a reminder of how differently our lives started out.

The knife wasn’t an isolated incident. The yelling, the scuffles, the finding Mum in tears happened all too often. My stepdad (my half-brother’s dad) frequently beat her with his fists but, disturbing as it was, it was all I knew.

If I ever screamed at him to stop, he’d just pick me up and put me back to bed. Fortunately, I was never on the receiving end of his temper, but it did make for an unhappy childhood, and it has had an impact on my life ever since.

My mum was 17 when she had me, but my biological dad was absent from day one, in and out of jail for petty crime. Sadly, her choice in men didn’t improve and, when she married the guy who later fathered my first brother, she became the victim of ongoing domestic abuse.

She did her best to protect me from him, and that’s why one day, pregnant and at breaking point, she sought refuge at a hostel for women in need.

Christina Harvey
Christina as a child in Glasgow

The youngest of eight kids, my mum had recently lost her father, so I presume that this, and pride, stopped her from going to her family for help. She wanted immediate protection for her kids and unborn baby, and she knew she would be safely hidden in the hostel.

The day we went into the refuge was fairly routine and Mum did her best not to make a big deal of it. It wasn’t like we suddenly fled, we were out in the park and I had no reason to suspect I would never see home ever again. One minute we were on the swings, the next we were at this unfamiliar place being shown a room.

It wasn’t particularly inviting. It was a run down block of flats with the most basic of fixtures, and none of the doors locked. Every night Mum would barricade us in with a chest of drawers when it was time to go to bed. Although we knew her husband would never find us, we still felt vulnerable.

The grim surroundings had us on edge – it smelled funny and was always noisy, so it wasn’t easy to sleep in the lumpy, shared bed. We ate in our room and we had to share a bathroom, taking it in turns to have lukewarm baths and go to the toilet while the other held the door shut. I hated it, but Mum reassured me it was only temporary. It had to be, we had no belongings but the clothes on our backs. ‘Whatever you do, don’t get them dirty,’ Mum would warn, as we had no access to a washing machine.

As a result, I’m obsessed with washing – I now have several laundry baskets that are constantly over-flowing. I’m also vigilant about keeping my socks on, even at home on my nice clean carpets, because the hostel carpets were sticky and threadbare and Mum banned me from going barefoot.

I never saw any other children at the hostel and Mum didn’t encourage interaction with other residents. The months spent there were lonely. There was no television and no toys, although I must have had one doll, the one I’ve had since birth, because I still have it now. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.

When we eventually checked out, my gran took us in. That was the period of my childhood when I was happiest, most settled. Fortunately, we never saw my stepdad again. As kids, you move on quickly, and later, when Mum remarried and had my second brother, I was grateful she had found someone who looked after her.

But these experiences never leave you. I wasn’t scared of men exactly – I just thought domestic violence was normal. My first boyfriend at 14 used to pull my hair when we disagreed. I remember a time when I wanted to go to an under-18s disco and he grabbed me off the bus to stop me going. And when I was 18, I had a close friend whose fiancé would beat her.

After that, my only criteria for a future husband was that he wasn’t from Glasgow. I’m not saying all men from Glasgow are like that, but for me, it was a way of drawing a line under that part of my life.

In my early 20s I met my now husband Jon on holiday in Magaluf. It was like the chain was broken. I moved to London to be with him, we got married and had our son. One of the things about coming from nothing is that I like having lots of ‘things’ now. I get comfort from possessions – much to Jon’s annoyance because he’s more minimalist.

I started donating a lot to a local women’s refuge called Hestia, giving them pushchairs, clothes and various bits of baby paraphernalia. Over time, I’ve got more involved in collecting donations from families in my neighbourhood. At first, going to the refuge brought back painful memories, but now I think how much nicer it is to the one we lived in.

Hardly luxury, but it’s clean, secure and the staff are friendly. I’m not qualified to deal with women in distress, so I can’t mix with residents, but when I happened to meet a lady who I’d sourced a sewing machine for, it was nice seeing how delighted she was.

People are generous with second-hand donations, but you can’t donate essentials like sanitary products, underwear and towels. So earlier this year, with the help of my friend Georgie, I launched an ethical fashion label with all profits going towards covering such costs.

Sweatshirts with the WIN [Women In Need] logo on the front have been huge sellers online and nothing makes me happier than spotting someone out and about in one. I get a buzz seeing people like Sadie Frost, Tamzin Outhwaite and Kate Thornton wearing theirs on Instagram too. Gaby Roslin loved hers so much she even invited me on her radio show to discuss it!

I’m so proud of the line we’ve created. Not only do they look good, they keep the conversation about domestic violence going. It wasn’t talked about anywhere near as much when Mum was looking for a way out, but at least she managed to get us out of harm’s way. I just want to make sure any women in her situation can do the same today.

Are you in an abusive relationship?

The National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge) is available on 0808 2000 247, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are unable to call you can also email the helpline workers at helpline@womensaid.org.uk and get a response within five working days.

If you are in immediate danger but can’t vocalise your distress
in any situation, not just relating to domestic abuse, here’s what to do…

1. Dial 999 and wait for the operator to ask what service you require.

2. If you can’t speak, you may be asked to cough, tap the handset or make a noise to establish whether the call is valid.

3. Follow the operator’s instructions and key in the digits 55. This will alert the operator to your predicament and they will contact the police.

IMPORTANT

Owing to hoaxes and misdials, emergency services don’t have the resources to investigate every silent 999 call, so it’s crucial the above steps are performed so the call isn’t terminated.

To purchase WIN sweatshirts and t-shirts visit womeninneedlondon.com or on Instagram: women_in_need_london. For more information about Hestia go to Hestia.org

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