Before the days of social media Facebook mutual aid groups and neighbourhood Whatsapp teams, a young woman called Violet ‘Betty’ Baxter, became known as the ‘Silver Lady’, for her support and work with those facing homelessness and destitution.
The Silver Lady Fund, administered from Bexhill, is a charity that aims to bring about positive change in the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable both in the UK and internationally. Some of the projects it supports alongside other donors and partners, are providing homeless shelters, outreach workers and counsellors, and building and repairing schools and wells in rural communities where the impacts of climate change are devastating local livelihoods.
It began as a modest enterprise to provide food and clothing to impoverished people and accommodation to stranded women in 1880 and was the idea of Reverend Michael Paget Baxter, proprietor of the Christian Herald Newspaper, and his wife Lizzie Baxter, an evangelist who, unusually for a woman of her time, had preached in Germany. The pair’s granddaughter, Violet ‘Betty’ Baxter (1901 – 1972), who lived between London and Western Esplanade on the Hove Seafront, dramatically developed the scope of the organisation
As a young girl, Betty Baxter was keenly aware of the plights of those born in less favourable circumstances than herself. Growing up, she supported and was involved with her grandparents’ charitable works and, by age eighteen, was already working at the Hostel for Stranded Girls in London’s East End.
In the early 1920s, Baxter found herself increasingly shocked at the ever growing number of people living rough on the London streets. As poverty bit harder after the expense of the First World War, more and more people faced destitution and homelessness. Whenever she could, Baxter would stop and offer people the price of a cup of tea and a sixpence out of her own purse. Soon dubbed ‘The Silver Lady’ (silver being the colour of sixpences then), it didn’t take her long to have the idea of setting up a mobile cafe that could travel the streets of London, dispensing hot drinks and food. She procured a blue and white van and, from 1929, the ‘Silver Lady All Night Travelling Cafe’ started to make its nightly rounds. Operating every night, including Sundays, around midnight, the cafe would give out hundreds of pots of tea and coffee and snacks including bread and dripping sandwiches and sausages. Appeals went out, including a twice weekly advert in The Times for donations, money, clothing and shoes. As the Great Depression squeezed more and more Londoners dry, Baxter’s blue and white van would have been a welcome sight and the difference between staying alive and starvation to London’s teeming population of unemployed. One grateful ‘customer’ of the Silver Lady All Night Travelling Cafe wrote to a local newspaper to say, ‘I have been at times on the verge of ending it all, but the kind words and smiles from those at the Coffee Stall have helped to put new life and hope in me to carry on.’ In one year alone, over 60,000 free meals were handed out.
Thanks to Baxter and a team of hard working volunteers, the All Night Silver Lady Travelling Cafe became well-known and donations were generous. Baxter was also able to put on Christmas dinners and entertainment for Londoners living rough at the coldest time of year.
In 1930 Baxter went on to to found a hostel for homeless women, the Elizabeth Baxter Hostel for Distressed Women and Girls on Lambeth Road. Learning how easy it was for homeless women to turn to the sex trade, she commissioned a film, ‘The Night Patrol’. When it was disallowed a license by the board of censors on the grounds that it might discourage young people from coming to London to work as domestic servants, she asked the playright George Bernard Shaw to step in and help. Even his support couldn’t change their minds, however, and the film, sadly, remained largely unseen. Read his letter to The Times here.
During the Second World War, Baxter moved her operations closer to home, running Silver Lady canteens on the South Coast. The Hove Home Guard canteen was open every day for the serving of hot meals to the Home Guard and troops billeted in the district.
Her life dedicated to charitable works, Baxter took over the Christian Herald group of charities after her father died and she became chairman and managing director of the group.
At the time of her death, Baxter was living in Hove. On March 16th the Times newspaper proclaimed ‘The Silver Lady is dead’. The ‘champion of down and outs’ as they called her had provided cheer and sustenance for thousands. In setting up her hostel, she had also shown an understanding of the issues facing vulnerable homeless women and had worked hard to provide a safe haven for many.
The Elizabeth Baxter Hostel for Distressed Women and Girls later moved to Peckham, with the Lambeth Road premises then housing the Elizabeth Baxter Centre, a walk-in medical centre for the homeless. The Silver Lady Fund is still going strong and keeps alive the ceaseless energy and compassion of Violet ‘Betty’ Baxter, saying on their website: ‘Miss Baxter’s indomitable spirit is something the charity aims to preserve to this day.’
With grateful thanks to Keith McPherson, Trustee, the Silver Lady Fund.
Written by social historian, Louise Peskett