27 years ago, a convoy of vehicles driven by refugees from the chronic unemployment of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain — commonly described as new age travellers, but also including environmental and anti-nuclear activists and land reformers — was set upon by police from six counties and the MoD, en route to Stonehenge, to establish what would have been the 12th Stonehenge Free Festival, an anarchic annual event that drew tens of thousands of visitors every June.
Cornered in a field by the A303, the convoy members — including women and children — were eventually set upon by the police in a distressingly violent manner, albeit one that was typical of life under Thatcher, bearing remarkable similarities to the violence meted out to the miners at Orgreave, in South Yorkshire, the year before.
I was one of those visitors to the Stonehenge Free Festival in 1983 and 1984, and the freedom and anarchy I experienced there helped to shape my belief that there are many different ways to live, and that dissent is a vital part of any functioning democracy. However, in the year that followed the Battle of the Beanfield, laws were implemented to try to make sure that the right to gather freely — and in huge numbers — would never be able to happen again, although they were not immediately successful. The new age traveller culture was severely damaged, but dissent reemerged unexpectedly in the form of the acid house movement , or rave culture, and was followed by the road protest movement, and groups like Reclaim the Streets, which helped to fuel a worldwide anti-globalization movement by the late 1990s.
Along the way, however, the British government succeeded in banning large unauthorized gatherings of those with a dissenting worldview, through the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, which followed the last great illegal gathering — at Castlemorton, in Gloucestershire — on the May Bank Holiday weekend in 1992, exactly 20 years ago, when tens of thousands of people revived the spirit of the Stonehenge festivals at the foot of the Malvern Hills.
In 1999, the exclusion zone that had turned Stonehenge into a war zone every summer was ruled illegal by the Law Lords, once more opening up access to the stones for revellers, who gather every summer solstice in huge numbers, for one day only — an irony, given that, during the festival years, only a small number of people gathered at the stones, while the majority stayed across the road at the main festival site.
In all other respects, however, the assault on our liberties that began under Margaret Thatcher only became worse under Tony Blair and New Labour, whose authoritarian impulses were given free rein through the excuses for repression offered by the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” a brutal, excessive and ill-conceived response to the 9/11 attacks, which has impacted most fundamentally on Muslims, who can be held under house arrest without charge or trial, and on the basis of evidence that is not disclosed to them.
The biggest protest in British history — against the Iraq war in February 2003 — was brushed aside by Blair as though two million people were nothing, and although that decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with George W. Bush eventually led to Blair’s fall, the repression that began under Thatcher and continued under John Major has proven to be unstoppable.
The UK now has more surveillance equipment watching its people than any other country on earth, and the all-encompassing materialism and the commodification of everything that has typified the last 15 years still dominates mainstream discourse, even though it led directly to the global economic crash of 2008, and is now manifesting itself in an ideologically motivated age of austerity, imposed on the majority of us, while the bankers and politicians who caused the crash continue to enrich themselves. Last summer’s response by those who are most excluded — the supposed “riots” — led to a savage and disgraceful response by the government, describing them as “feral,” by the courts, handing down draconian sentences for minor acts of looting, or the establishment of Facebook pages, and by a disturbingly large number of supposed intelligent middle class people who seem unable to understand that their relative wealth and contort is only possible through the exploitation of others.
With the forthcoming Olympics demonstrating everything that is wrong with the aggressive, corporate, militarised states in which we live — and this damned government bent on reducing everyone who is not rich into abject poverty or financial servitude, and, it seems, bent on the complete annihilation of the state, and the transfer of everything into private hands (except Parliament, the MoD and the judiciary) — the need for rebellion is greater than it has been for 30 years.
As I wait for people to wake up and understand that a war is going on between the 1 percent — who are turning their self-inflicted disaster into an opportunity to suppress us more than at any time in living memory — and the rest of us, I’d like to celebrate the spirit of those who were crushed at the Beanfield, but whose dissent could not be eliminated.
My book, The Battle of the Beanfield, published on the 20th anniversary of the Beanfield, is still available (as is my wider survey of the British counter-culture, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion), and I also recommend the documentary film, “Operation Solstice,” which can be bought here (although I do realize that it’s also available online).
Below, I’m cross-posting an article I wrote for the Guardian three years ago, which, I believe, remains relevant. I’m also posting ITN’s footage from the Battle of the Beanfield, following a two-minute introduction by someone identifying himself as RubbishMan1940. The eight and half minutes of footage includes ITN’s brief but disturbingly biased news broadcast from the day of the Beanfield, but also raw footage of the police’s assault on travellers, interviews with convoy members, and footage of ITN reporter Kim Sabido, visibly shocked by what he had seen.
I’m also posting “New Age Travellers,” a BBC Timeshift documentary from 2004, and a one-hour documentary about Reclaim the Streets. For more, see my articles, In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, which provides excerpts from my book The Battle of the Beanfield, and The Battle of the Beanfield 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Phil Shakesby, aka Phil the Beer, a prominent traveller who died two years ago. For more on dissent from the anti-globalisation movement to the Arab Spring, see The Year of Revolution: The “War on Tyranny” Replaces the “War on Terror”, and for commentary on how gypsies and travellers still face persecution in the UK, see my articles about the disgraceful eviction last year of gypsies and travellers at Dale Farm, The Dale Farm Eviction: How Racism Against Gypsies and Travellers Grips Modern-Day Britain and The Dale Farm Eviction: Using Planning Laws to Justify Racism Towards Gypsies and Travellers.
Exactly 24 years ago, in a field beside the A303 in Wiltshire, the might of Margaret Thatcher‘s militarised police descended on a convoy of new age travellers, green activists, anti-nuclear protestors and free festival-goers, who were en route to Stonehenge in an attempt to establish the 12th annual Stonehenge free festival in fields across the road from Britain’s most famous ancient monument. That event has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield.
In many ways the epitome of the free festival movement of the 1970s, the Stonehenge free festival – an annual anarchic jamboree that, in 1984, had attracted tens of thousands of visitors – had been an embarrassment to the authorities for many years, but its violent suppression, when police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence cornered the convoy of vehicles in a field and, after an uneasy stand-off, invaded the field on foot and in vehicles, subjecting men, women and children to a distressing show of physical force, was, like the Miners’ strike the year before, and the suppression of the printers at Wapping the year after, a brutal display of state violence that signaled a major curtailment of civil liberties.
In the context of political dissent at the time, the Stonehenge festival was a mere sideshow, but the government knew that its suppression would not cause offence to the general public, especially as most media outlets were prevailed upon to refrain from reporting on it (valiant exceptions were the Observer’s Nick Davies and Kim Sabido for ITN). As a result, the government knew that it could disguise its other motives: the curtailment in general of the British public’s right to gather freely without prior permission, and the suppression of a grassroots movement opposed to the installation of US cruise missiles on UK soil.
The most celebrated opponents of nuclear weapons in the UK were the women of Greenham Common, but as it would have been a PR disaster to have had police truncheoning a group of women, the new age travellers, who had set up a peace camp at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire (the proposed second base for cruise missiles) were a more obvious target, and the Battle of the Beanfield took place just four months after 1,500 soldiers and police – in the largest peacetime mobilisation of its kind – were used to evict the camp.
Above all, though, the major fallout from the Battle of the Beanfield was the government’s manipulation of the manufactured hysteria about the travellers and protestors to introduce the 1986 Public Order Act, which enabled the police to evict two or more people for trespass, providing that “reasonable steps have been taken by or on behalf of the occupier to ask them to leave.” The act also stipulated that six days’ written notice had to be given to the police before most public processions, and allowed the police to impose unspecified “conditions” if they feared that a procession “may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community.”
The Battle of the Beanfield was not the end of grassroots dissent in the UK – although it gutted the travellers’ movement – as a new “threat” emerged just a few years later, when the acid house scene, with its giant warehouse raves and outdoor parties, once more threw the government – and the tabloids – into an authoritarian frenzy. As with Stonehenge, the catalyst for a further assault on civil liberties was another large free festival, at Castlemorton common in Gloucestershire, on the May bank holiday weekend in 1992.
The legislation that followed – the 1994 Criminal Justice Act – not only repealed the 1968 Caravans Sites Act, criminalising the entire way of life of gypsies and travellers by removing the obligation on local authorities to provide sites for gypsies, but also amended the Public Order Act by introducing the concept of “trespassory assembly.” This enabled the police to ban groups of 20 or more people meeting in a particular area if they feared “serious disruption to the life of the community,” even if the meeting was non-obstructive and non-violent, and the act also introduced “aggravated trespass,” which finally transformed trespass from a civil to a criminal concern.
Both had disturbing ramifications for almost all kinds of protests and alternative gatherings, and were clearly ramped up after the government failed to secure convictions after the Battle of the Beanfield using an ancient charge of “unlawful assembly.” Moreover, as protestors have been discovering in the years since the passing of the Criminal Justice Act, the groundwork laid by the Public Order Act and the Criminal Justice Act provided the Labour government, which has passed more legislation directed at civil liberties than any previous government, to start from a presumption that there were few, if any instances when a peaceful protest by just two people could not be suppressed.
Back in 1997, some of us had a quaint notion that the government would repeal the excesses of the Criminal Justice Act; instead, we are living with three other changes enacted by the Act that still have resonance today: the police’s right to take DNA samples from those arrested, increased “stop and search” powers, and amendments to the right to silence of an accused person, allowing inferences to be drawn from their silence. We have an exclusion zone around parliament, in which a single non-violent protestor can be arrested, anti-terror legislation used to stifle dissent, and, as we saw at the G20 protests in April, policemen once more hiding their identification numbers – as they did at the Battle of the Beanfield – to enable them to assault civilians (or worse) with impunity.
Footage from the Battle of the Beanfield.
“New Age Travellers,” a BBC Timeshift documentary from 2004.
“Reclaim the Streets,” an independent documentary from 2000.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Adam Johannes wrote:
My older brother used to have this track on a record –
In Uniform – Flying Patrol Group
Scott Wood wrote:
culture shock- stonehenge
Lotus Yee Fong wrote:
Where did I see documentary footage of this?
Gary Parsons wrote:
Went to Stonehenge in 84 was meant to go the next year but for some reason didn’t I remember watching it on the news and couldn’t believe what I was seeing………
Thanks, Adam, Scott, Lotus, Gary and everyone who has liked and shared this – 470 shares so far, so there was obviously a Beanfield-sized hole in the news today. Lotus, there’s footage available in the article; otherwise, you can buy the DVD of “Operation Solstice,” the excellent 1991 documentary about the Beanfield, or find it online.
And Gary, many of us were in that position, I think. It was a great shock to everyone who wasn’t studying the story closely, but some of those who were there saw it differently – seeing the thread that ran from the miners to Nostell Priory, Molesworth, the Molesworth eviction in February 1985 and the harassment of the convoy for the next three months until the Beanfield.
On Digg, buzz2012 wrote:
policemen once more hiding their identification numbers – as they did at the Battle of the Beanfield
Yes, it’s always a sign of when something bad is about to happen – and it keeps happening, however much the police promise it won’t happen again …
> the convoy members — including women and children
Exactly what is emphasising the presence of women supposed to achieve?
Er, exactly what it says – to point out that there were women and children involved, as well as men. Some people might find the government’s paramilitary tactics rather more shocking when entire families were involved. If you’d like me to stress it further, there were pregnant women and small children on the convoy.
I shall have my eye out for this. From watching lots of documentaries about the Battle Of The Beanfield, the question I would most like to see answered is – what exactly were the police given orders to do. I have always hoped that, now so many years have passed, some police present at the beanfield, will spill the beans on that question.
Thanks for the comment. That’s the question I tried to answer in my book, “The Battle of the Beanfield,” in a chapter in which I specifically examine the plan, and how it evolved during the day. In his recollections of the Beanfield, Alan Lodge (Tash), the traveller and photographer who was there, writes, “At a meeting of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), in early 1985, it was resolved to obtain a High Court Injunction preventing the annual gathering at Stonehenge. This was the device to be used to justify the attack at the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ on the 1st June in Hampshire.” I’ve always thought that this explains succinctly what happened in two sentences, although there’s never been any leak of documents revealing the involvement of Thatcher and/or her ministers. Perhaps when the documents are published — in 2015?
Anyway, do check out Tash’s extraordinary site if you haven’t seen it: http://digitaljournalist.eu/OnTheRoad/battle-of-the-beanfield/
Only another example of government and establishment oppresion of the ordinary people of this land witness now the steady erosion of worker rights that we fought so hard to acheive Wake up people before its too late !!!!
Yes, Iain, I agree completely!
Selma Qurshid wrote:
Yes I remember clearly Thatcher the milk snatcher!
And then she stole our future. Thanks, Selma. The reverberations of the global economic crash of 2008 owe a lot to Thatcher, and her liberalisation of the financial markets, as well as her destruction of industry, which led to so much outsourcing.
Ben Popkid wrote:
The Levellers : Battle of the Beanfield
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
Good article, Andy. I’m digging it. I have been exhausted all week and must slow down. So I haven’t been around much.
Thanks, Ben. And thanks also, George. Good to hear from you, and do take it easy, if that”s the best course of action for you.
It’s also worth noting, I think, that this is probably my most-shared article ever – over 1200 shares so far on Facebook. Thank you, everyone, for your interest.
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
I’ll share this later this morning. I remember the events, but since I was not living in the UK but in Holland, I thought they were just a more intense version of the usual Dutch harassment of any “camping wagon inhabitants,” who were branded as “asociaal,” in Dutch.
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
Thanks, George. Yes, a bit more than harassment. A line can clearly be drawn from the Beanfield to now, when we have no right to gather freely if the authorities don’t want us to. We went from around 30,000 people gathering in the fields across the road from Stonehenge based on a traditional right of assembly to a situation, under the laws passed in 1986 and 1994, in which two people can constitute an “assembly,” and this can be stopped by police if the senior officer “reasonably believes” that it is “necessary to prevent serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community.”
Mezentian Gate wrote:
in Amerika we have the Patriot Act and the “H.R. 347: Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011″
capstone’s of obama’s war upon the American people ..
Thanks, Mezentian, for the contemporary reminders from the US – the PATRIOT Act, passed with indecent haste after 9/11, and H.R. 347, discussed here: http://www.salon.com/2012/03/07/the_inside_scoop_on_hr_347/
For those who blame thatcher, No ‘state’ funeral petition, http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/2979 Please add Names and share with vigour.
Excellent. Thanks for that, Keith.
i find the police so scary right now jeezz they just love to stop and hassle me god you couldnt make it up how twisted the governments of this country have been over the last 40 years
Sadly, yes, Damo, although I think we found ways to challenge them until 1997, when the rot really set in with Tony Blair, and what I refer to as his “psychic cosh.” After 18 years of the Tories, we were supposed to think that things could only get better, but in fact what happened was the transformation of British society into the triumph of the materialists, accompanied by the decline of large-scale dissent.
Steart Beach 2002 10,000 people gathered there have been many more “illegal gatherings” with several thousand people since Castlemorton. Nice article but it’s not over
Glad to hear it, DC. I know that no government can kill the spirit, and that there’s a lot going on below the radar, but I do miss the big public in-yer-face gatherings!
This government action was obviously unnecessary, but I guess someone had to send a strong message after all the damage the new age travellers did to farms and other places such as common land where they camped whilst en route to Stonehenge – and then to the standing stones themselves. Throughout my childhood we would stop at Stonehenge a couple of times a year on our journeys to Wales. It was beautiful. Stonehenge stood lonely on Salisbury Plain with sheep grazing at its feet, a huge sky, a narrow country road with hardly any traffic, and we were usually the only humans in sight.
Imagine 450 vehicles loaded with campers turning up and camping on the Plain – no toilets, no washing facilities, nowhere to place litter, etc. And think of all the damage they did to the fragile chalk grassland, and the “souvenirs” that the “new-agers” chipped off the stones. And think too of the mess they left behind for someone else to clean up. All this led to Stonehenge and its surroundings being totally ruined by first a high fence of razor wire (which was likened to a wall around a concentration camp) and then such things as permanent fencing, parking lots, kiosks, tourist paraphernalia and sound and light shows. It would look better standing on a plinth in the British Museum with a light switched on to replicate the sun at the Solstice!
I cannot forgive these travellers for wrecking Stonehenge, but this does not mean I condone the police action. The travellers were disrespectful of a beautiful monument that had stood undefiled for thousands of years until they arrived, and the police behaved in a manner that is unacceptable. They were both wrong. A mass pilgrimage to a sacred site is one thing, but defiling it as the travellers most certainly did is quite another. After all, millions of Muslims go on a pilgrimage to Mecca every year without wrecking the place, so it can be done as long as there is respect for the monument, the land, and others. Obviously, the travellers lacked respect, and this led to the police action. Even the title of the “Battle of the Beanfield” shows the travellers lack of respect. Did they own the bean field? Was it theirs to trample? Stonehenge as it used to be belonged to us all, but the travellers trampled it. It is no longer a sacred place because of them.
Hmm. Well, you know, Ixxy, most of those who attended the festival never even visited the Stones, and most of those who did respected the temple. The festival was certainly untidy, but its damage to the archaeology was also exaggerated. And it was the number of tourists, and not the activities of travellers and festival-goers, that led to the stones being fenced off and open access denied.
As for the reference to the Battle of the Beanfield, the name doesn’t imply ownership of the field by the travellers. if anything, the name is wrong because it was so one-sided – 420 travellers, including women and children up against 1300 police from six counties and the MoD isn’t a battle; with the laws that came in afterwards to suppress travellers and gypsies, it was more of a pogrom, and attempt to eradicate a way of life that was deemed unacceptable by the authrities.
Well, the festival was to celebrate midsummer and the sunrise over Stonehenge, and I distinctly remember photographs in the papers of stones-struck festival goers congregated in their hundreds to observe the spectacle. I don’t believe for a moment that it was the masses of tourists who caused the razor wire fencing to be installed. Tourists don’t need that kind of barrier anywhere. The book you edited, Battle of the Beanfield”, states:
“The Battle of the Beanfield’ took place on June 1st 1985, after a convoy of new travellers, peace protestors, green activists and festival-goers had set off from Savernake Forest in Wiltshire to establish the 12th annual free festival at Stonehenge. They never reached their destination. Eight miles from the Stones they were ambushed, assaulted and arrested with unprecedented brutality by a quasi-military police force of over 1,300 officers drawn from six counties and the MoD. As well as suppressing the festival and introducing a summer solstice ‘exclusion zone’ around Stonehenge that lasted until the year 2000, ‘The Battle of the Beanfield’ also marked the start of a concerted effort to ‘decommission’ the whole of the new travellers’ movement.”
You don’t deny what I had to say about the invasion of farmers’ fields by the travellers. They seem to have felt a certain entitlement to enter gates (many of which they broke open), camp in a farmer’s fields, and leave a big mess behind them. An open can or broken bottle is sharp enough to seriously hurt farm animals. I got the low-down because I come from a family of farmers. Clearly Stonehenge was not a reasonable place to hold a festival There is plenty of common land in Britain so with a bit of planning, permits, etc., perhaps the festival could have proceeded without the damage to the Stones or to the travelling beanfielders. You must admit, the way the festival was “organized” and the travellers’ lack of respect were the real cause of the problems.
The Gypsy way of life was a traditional nomadic way of life. We always had a number of traditional painted Gypsy horse-drawn caravans parked on the heath near where I grew up. They were lovely and never caused any trouble. The new age travellers, though, are not traditional Gypsies, nor is it their “way of life”. Like many things of this nature, it was just a fad.
I dont think anyone would doubt that there were overt confrontational political motives behind parts of the movement, Ixxy, elements that involved revolutionary impulses and a desire for land reform, or that some involved in the travellers’ movement had less articulated thoughts about what they were doing, but it really is important for you to recognise that the stones were shut to the public in 1978, when the festival was very small, because of visitor numbers. A claim that it was because of the festival-goers, when it wasn’t, is just inflammatory. Archeologists had been concerned for years about visitor numbers, and in 1975 the number of visitors first exceeded 250,000 a year, which particularly prompted the authorities to find a solution. A quarter of a million visitors in the stones is much more significant in terms of damage than a few hundred hippies and anarchists …
My father was uneducated, working class and had grown up to respect the police. Orgreave and the Beanfield politicised him and by default, me. We mistrusted the Police since the 80s. Hillsborough now shows we were absolutely right to.
Thanks, Howard. Very powerful comments.
excellent book seeing my brother in a protest
Thanks, Alan. Good to hear from you.
[...] I will not forget the Beanfield, twenty-eight years ago this coming June. Again, Thatcher used the policy as her boot-boys to suppress free speech and free association – this time with the only reason that beating up hippies was popular with her far right wing. Young people were beaten with truncheons, their vehicles smashed with sledgehammers. A pregnant friend of mine was dragged through the broken window of her van by her hair. little known outside the UK, the Beanfield assault was one of Thatcher’s worst, most cynical,crimes. Although courts later found the police guilty of of wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage, she herself never saw trial. [...]
Those hippies had it coming – good on the police I say!
Actually, Battle of the Beanfields took place on June 1st 1985,with the build up to the Summer Solstice – so we’re nearing the 28th anniversary. I remember because some of us from college went to the 1984 festival and that was the last one. I wish people would get their facts right ………
I was a bit young in ’85, but went over to Stonehenge for the Solstice in ’88 with a mate of mine, just after we’d just finished sixth form. We got there the afternoon before, and everyone was turfed out of the car park at 4 p.m. so they could set up a 3 mile exclusion zone. We decided to go up to Avebury and maybe come back under cover of dark.
On the way up to Avebury we passed a couple of dozen riot vans and a bus full of riot police going the other way, so we decided not to go back and just had a nice drink in the Red Lion, perhaps the only pub in the middle of a stone circle.
That year the government spent 300 grand on keeping revellers away from Stonehenge for a day, and the year before they’d spent half a million on the same pointless exercise.
Ridiculous the lengths they’ll go to to suppress diversity!
Er, the article’s from last June, on the 27th anniversary …
Great account, wonderful conclusion. Thanks.
I am totally appalled by the actions of thatchers army of thugs, I have linked this site to facebook, and intend to link it to my site also, people are asking why she was so hated, well, watch the clips on this site, and then ask.
Thanks, Andrew. And of course her assault on the travellers was just one of her many, many crimes.
I’m enormously proud to be part of the resistance to the concerted efforts, by the establishment and the desperate Tories, to make Thatcher into a national hero. Nothing cold be further from the truth, and I’m delighted to have just noticed that this article has 5,200 likes on Facebook!
[...] This tabloid bigotry has been the mirror of Conservative Party fear-mongering and institutionalized discrimination in an attempt to win votes from the large middle and working-class bigot pool who are all too ready to believe what they are told. The same people voted for Thatcher when she promised them loadsamoney and bashing hippies. [...]
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