Domestic abuse is one of Britain’s most shameful secrets, the Duchess of Cornwall warns today.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily Mail, she reveals she has friends who have been victims of violence and coercive control and says: ‘No one knows what goes on behind any front door.
‘It affects everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are. That would be my message to people: whoever you are, wherever you are from, there are organisations that can help you. Go and get help. Talk to them, just get up and talk about your experiences. They will help.’
Camilla was speaking after hosting a reception at Clarence House to mark the 15th anniversary of Safe Lives, a charity which fights against the scourge of domestic abuse.
The Duchess of Cornwall talks with SafeLives pioneers Rachel Williams, whose ex-husband shot her in 2011, and Celia Peachey, whose mother was also killed by her partner, after hosting a reception at Clarence House to acknowledge the 15th anniversary of domestic abuse charity SafeLives
The Duchess of Cornwall is pictured during a reception for the 15th anniversary of the domestic abuse charity SafeLives, at Clarence House in London yesterday
The Duchess of Cornwall talks with SafeLives pioneers Celia Peachey (left) and Rachel Williams during a reception at Clarence House to acknowledge the 15th anniversary of domestic abuse charity SafeLives yesterday
It has just launched a Valentine’s campaign to celebrate the collective strength and resilience of thousands of female – and male – victims.
At least two women are killed each week in the UK by current or former partners and more than two million report domestic abuse each year – a figure many experts believe is only the tip of the iceberg. The duchess first learnt about Safe Lives in 2016, where she shed tears for the survivors she met after listening in shock to their traumatic stories.
At yesterday’s reception she vowed again to do anything within her power to help break the stigma around the issue and help encourage more victims to seek help.
‘I had [in 2016] the privilege of hearing incredibly brave women standing up to tell their stories – harrowing stories that reduced many of us listeners to tears,’ she said. ‘But with each story, the taboo around domestic abuse weakens and the silence that surrounds it is broken, so other sufferers can know that there is hope for them and they are not alone.
‘You give us all hope that those survivors can live their lives in peace, and be victors, not victims of these horrendous crimes, hopefully ensuring that domestic abuse can be made a crime of the past.’
The Duchess of Cornwall poses with guests during a the reception at Clarence House in London yesterday
Camilla tells the Mail she found it difficult to listen to some of the stories back in 2016. She adds: ‘I have known people I suspected it was happening to but they wouldn’t actually talk about it. People didn’t talk about it then. People feel guilty, they feel ashamed, they think it must be their fault. And I think you have got to convince people that it’s not their fault.
‘You have got to get them to get up and talk about it and talk to other people about it. Then their confidence improves. To actually leave your home and somebody you have probably been with a long time is very brave.’
Rachel Williams, one of the women the duchess met in 2016 and again yesterday, survived an attempt by her abusive husband to kill her.
She said of her conversation with Camilla: ‘She said it opened her eyes and was saying to people with young girls in relationships, it’s alright to talk about this. It’s an issue that should be spoken about and we should be shining a spotlight on the perpetrators of abuse and saying it’s not alright and calling them out.’
Mrs Williams added: ‘This reinforces that people are listening and to have somebody like the duchess on board is amazing. We all do our little bit to raise awareness, but to have somebody in the royal arena to shout about our cause as well is fantastic.
‘People don’t realise that the biggest killer of women aged 16 to 44 is not cancer, it’s domestic abuse.’
Safe Lives chief executive Suzanne Jacob, who was also at the 2016 meeting with Camilla, said: ‘It felt like a turning point in so many ways. The survivors, the pioneers, that took part on that day felt so strongly that they were listened to and responded to with real humanity.
‘That sounds so basic and so obvious, but it is so often missing from their experience. Even among organisations that are supposed to be designed to help them, that’s often not the experience. That was very powerful.’
The Duchess of Cornwall during a reception for the 15th anniversary of the domestic abuse charity SafeLives, at Clarence House in London
She also highlighted how domestic abuse can affect anybody, regardless of social standing or pay packet.
‘Nothing makes you immune to domestic abuse happening,’ she said. ‘We did a piece of work recently in a leafy part of the country, a very wealthy part of the country, but one of the woman there we spoke to was sleeping in the car everything night.
‘It was a very smart car and behind a very nice front door. But she would speak of not having chosen her own outfit for 15 years.’
The country’s first domestic abuse commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, yesterday said she was confident that a domestic violence bill will pass during this Parliament. It will cover a range of issues including ending the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in the family courts.
She said: ‘It is great that the Daily Mail is shining a light on this issue and the duchess’s support has been invaluable. It has meant so much to all of the survivors.’
‘The stories are so harrowing, the tears came … so I thought, what are we doing about it?’: Camilla opens her heart to the Mail
The tears came, didn’t they? the Duchess of Cornwall said as she recalled the moment she and I sat down together four years ago to listen to six of the bravest women either of us have ever had the privilege of meeting.
‘I didn’t really know the extent of domestic abuse and I think until I got to that meeting – you probably felt this too – and we all sat round, that I wasn’t sure what I was going to expect.
‘And then one after the other these ladies got up to tell their stories and they were so brave – it was one of the most harrowing experiences I’ve ever, ever had. And I thought to myself, this is going on, what are we doing about it? You know people, I know people that it has happened to. But I don’t think we ever believed it was that bad.’
The Duchess of Cornwall talks with the Rebecca English, Royal Correspondent for the Daily Mail after a reception at Clarence House to acknowledge the 15th anniversary of domestic abuse charity SafeLives
The event was a meeting of Safe Lives – a domestic abuse charity – in a grey, unprepossessing and airless room at the Oval in south London in January 2016.
Yesterday Camilla was speaking, by contrast, in the genteel grandeur of the Garden Room at her husband’s London residence, Clarence House. But the emotion was just as palpable.
Despite her clearly privileged position – and being a relative newcomer to the royal game – Camilla, it may come as a surprise to some, is fearless in her approach to royal duties.
The Duchess of Cornwall talks with the Rebecca English, Royal Correspondent for the Daily Mail after a reception at Clarence House to acknowledge the 15th anniversary of domestic abuse charity SafeLives yesterday
In 2016 I had already accompanied her on several visits in connection with the issue of rape and sexual assault – far from traditional royal fare – and been deeply impressed with her quick mind, empathy and determination to make a difference. Never, however, had I seen her break down like that.
Among the women who spoke to her about their ordeals were: Rachel Williams, who was blasted in the legs by her estranged husband who could not bear the thought of not being able to control her; Celia Peachey, whose shy mother, Maria Stubbings was strangled to death with her dog’s lead by her new partner; and Hetti Barkworth-Nanton, the best friend of Joanna Simpson, killed by her violently manipulative husband, Robert Brown, a British Airways captain.
I ask her: ‘What was going through your mind that first time we sat down in Stockwell and listened to the stories of those brave, brave women?’
An emotional Duchess of Cornwall is pictured listening to Diana Parkes whose daughter Joanna Brown was murdered by husband Robert, at Safelives Centre in South London on 27 January 2016
She recalls: ‘Those six ladies that day who got up who were the survivors of abuse or had seen it happen to their mother or daughter or sister or friend.
‘I remember distinctly the lady whose friend was killed by the airline pilot, whose children came back in and he battered her to death.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten it. It gives me nightmares still. I remember looking at you and we both had tears in our eyes.
‘The statistics are horrendous and of course it’s never been talked about. It’s been a taboo subject for so many years. Nobody has actually dared to stand up and say “Look this has happened to me”. But that day those ladies did and I will never, ever forget that.’
I ask: ‘Do you find it difficult to control yourself when you hear things like that?’
She responds: ‘I am terrible, terrible. Anything like that there is a huge lump in your throat. I think to myself “Oh dear, I do hope I have got my waterproof mascara on”.’
I remind her: ‘I remember you turning to me and saying “I cannot walk away from this”.’
‘I didn’t know what I could do,’ she says. ‘But I knew I had to do something. You have to investigate it a lot more to see what you can do. My initial response was to get people together from all the different outlets dealing with it. I don’t think they had spoken to each other before, properly anyway.
‘You have the police, you have the wonderful people in the community with their tiny little charities doing everything they can.
‘But unless they make it a joined-up programme, nothing is going to happen. I am lucky enough to have a place to be able to do it. I can get people to Clarence House, I can give them a drink and some lunch, get them to relax and they start talking to one another. When women get together they can achieve an awful lot.’
There was certainly that feeling yesterday as the duchess, 72, hosted a reception to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Safe Lives and the launch of its Valentine’s campaign which, appropriately, celebrates the collective strength and resilience of thousands of female – and male – survivors of domestic abuse.
Its mantra is: if your best friend was experiencing domestic abuse, what would you want for them? And that’s something Camilla has had cause to think about over the years. I’ve always had the impression the duchess knows more about the issue than she has ever let on.
I begin: ‘Do you mind me asking – you can tell me to mind my own business if you want …’ ‘No, Rebecca, not to you, never,’ the duchess roars, with a mock grimace and her familiar laugh.
‘You may have friends who have experienced domestic abuse …’
She looks thoughtful and says: ‘I have known people I suspected it was happening to but they wouldn’t talk about it. People didn’t talk about it then. People feel guilty, they feel ashamed, they think it must be their fault. And I think you have got to convince people that it’s not their fault.’
She then refers to someone she knows well who confided in her about their own problems.
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall is greeted by CEO of SafeLives Suzanne Jacob as she hosts a reception to acknowledge the anniversary of SafeLives yesterday
‘Yes, well I recently had somebody I know well, whose daughter was married and living in a foreign country. I said to her one day “You’re not looking quite right, what’s wrong?”
‘She said “I have this terrible problem with my daughter. I can’t believe it as I have never experienced anything like this before. She’s got this strange husband who is exercising coercive control which is undermining her confidence, getting rid of her friends, alienating her family. I just don’t know what to do about it”.
‘The fact I knew a little bit about it meant I was able to put her in touch with people who could help.’ She adds: ‘I work with another charity in Wiltshire called the Bobby Van. It used to be just helping vulnerable old people after they had burglaries, the police didn’t have time to deal with because they thought it was just a minor crime which has now diversified into domestic abuse.
‘When they get a call they go into these homes and make a safe room so that the person who is being abused can lock themselves in with a phone which has a direct line to the police so that they can call for help. It’s just little things like that that make a big difference.’
The duchess says she never ceases to be amazed by the bravery of the survivors: ‘To actually leave your home and somebody you have probably been with a long time is actually very brave. And it is not only women, it is men as well. People haven’t really acknowledged the issues of coercive control, which can be terrifying, it really is one person’s word against another.’ As our interview draws to a close, the passion that the duchess feels in highlighting the issue of domestic abuse couldn’t be clearer.
And it is something, she tells me, she will campaign on for the rest of her life: ‘You know it had hadn’t been for Safe Lives on that day I would never be doing what I am doing now. It changes you. And for that I will forever be grateful.’
My kind and funny mum was killed after police let her down
Celia Peachey describes her mother Maria Stubbings – who was murdered by her controlling, boyfriend – as the ‘kindest, funniest and most beautiful woman in the world’.
Mrs Stubbings was 50 when she met Marc Chivers while walking her dog in Chelmsford, Essex, in 2008. He later strangled her with a dog lead.
The first time Miss Peachey, 40, met Chivers he was charming and charismatic, but, seeing her mother become nervous and fearful, she urged her to end the relationship.
Celia Peachey is pictured with her mother, Maria Stubbings, who was murdered by her boyfriend Marc Chivers in 2008
Months later, Chivers assaulted Mrs Stubbings and was jailed, but released after three months.
She then learned of his murderous past – how he had just been released from prison after serving a 15-year sentence in Germany for murdering a woman.
Mrs Stubbings was assessed as being at a high risk of violence from him, but police removed a personal safety alarm installed at her house.
In 2009, Marc Chivers, 42, (pictured) admitted the murder of his former partner Maria Stubbings, at Chelmsford Crown Court
The force’s domestic violence unit later became concerned about Mrs Stubbings and officers attended her home.
Chivers answered the door and told them she was away. The next day officers discovered Mrs Stubbings’ body hidden in a bathroom.
Miss Peachey said: ‘We are talking about a calm, calculating killer who had murdered another woman. He was always going to do it again. The police gave their word to protect my mother and they didn’t. They let her down.’
Miss Peachey met Camilla in 2016 and said: ‘One thing she relayed to me was that abuse knows no class.
‘She was so down to Earth and it felt so bonding to hear that from her.’
Miss Peachey has devoted her life to changing the way people view domestic abuse and encouraging better communication and healthier relationships through charities such as Peaceful Solutions.
18 years of beatings then vile husband shot me
Rachel Williams still has the battered Sekonda watch that she was wearing the day her abusive husband Darren tried to kill her.
Its hands are frozen at the time he attacked her – 2.26pm. She keeps it as a symbol of her survival of the day he burst into the hairdressing salon where she worked in Newport, South Wales, in 2011 and shot her.
Mrs Williams, a mother-of-two, endured 18 years of beatings at the hands of her steroid-abusing 6ft 7in, 22st bully of a partner. As well as being punched, throttled, spat at and abused, every aspect of her life was jealously controlled.
Rachel Williams is pictured in an undated photo with her ex- husband Darren Williams. In 2011, Rachel was left in hospital recovering after Darren walked in to her workplace on Malpas Road in Newport and shot her. Her son Jack then killed himself three days later
His final, terrible attack came soon after she had decided to leave him after he tried to strangle her in front their youngest son Jack.
Having been served with divorce papers, he burst into the salon and shot Mrs Williams in the legs before battering her. Later that day he hanged himself in woods close to their home.
Jack, 16, took his own life six weeks later. Mrs Williams, a committed campaigner against domestic abuse, said she will always be thankful to Camilla for her support. Speaking about their 2016 meeting, she said: ‘It was very significant for me to speak to a member of the Royal Family with that platform to help us. I can remember meeting for the first time so clearly.
‘Everyone judges somebody within the first ten seconds of meeting them and I instantly warmed to the duchess because you could see that obviously it wasn’t a token gesture for her – she wasn’t there just to tick off a duty that day.
‘You could see very clearly that she wanted to be there, was really interested in what we were saying and was physically moved by it. That meant a lot to her.’ Since that day Camilla has personally kept in touch with Mrs Williams, supporting her inaugural Stand Up to Domestic Abuse conference last year.
She said: ‘Her support has been fantastic.’ Mrs Williams continues to campaign on a host of issues including making all judges undertake mandatory specialist domestic abuse training.
She stressed: ‘I want everybody to make domestic abuse their business. Anyone can be affected by it. There is no dividing line on this.
‘I was only able to leave Darren when the fear of staying with him became greater than the fear of living with him.’