It’s 28 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Crushed Travellers at the Battle of the Beanfield


It has become something of a tradition that, on June 1 every year, I add another year to the counter and write an article explaining how many years it has been since the Battle of the Beanfield, and why it is important for people of all ages to recall — or to find out about — the day when, in a field in Wiltshire, the late and unlamented Margaret Thatcher sent a militarised army of police from six counties and the MoD to decommission, with outrageous violence, a convoy of new age travellers, free festival goers, green activists, anarchists and — most crucially — those opposed to the establishment of US nuclear weapons based on British soil. Last year, I wrote, “Remember the Battle of the Beanfield: It’s the 27th Anniversary Today of Thatcher’s Brutal Suppression of Traveller Society,” incorporating an article I wrote for the Guardian on June 1, 2009, and I’m pleased to note that my commemoration of the Battle of the Beanfield a year ago has been liked on Facebook by over 6,700 people — the majority, I believe, since Margaret Thatcher’s death in April.

Unlike the women of Greenham Common, opposed to the establishment of a US cruise missile base on UK soil, who couldn’t be truncheoned en masse for PR reasons, the convoy of men, women and children who had set up a second peace camp at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire in the summer of 1984 could be — and were — evicted by 1,500 police and troops on February 6, 1985, with further violence obviously planned. The Molesworth eviction was the single largest mobilisation of police and troops since the war, and, for the Royal Engineers, their largest operation since the bridging of The Rhine in 1944. Afterwards, the travellers were harried around southern England for four months until their annual exodus to Stonehenge, to set up the anarchic festival that had occupied the fields opposite Stonehenge every June since 1974, when the planned opportunity came for them to be violently attacked, the festival stopped, and the travellers’ movement crippled.

To commemorate the anniversary this year, I’m posting below excerpts from the opening chapter of my book The Battle of the Beanfield, published eight years ago, and still in print, in which my analysis bookends transcripts of accounts by many of the major players. You can, if you wish, buy it from me here.

The first sign of a serious clampdown began at Nostell Priory in the summer of 1984, and as I explained in The Battle of the Beanfield:

At the end of a licensed weekend festival, riot police, who had only recently been suppressing striking miners at the Orgreave coking plant, raided the site at dawn, ransacking vehicles and arresting the majority of the travellers — 360 people in total — with a savagery that had not been seen since the last Windsor Free Festival in 1974. The travellers were held without charge for up to a fortnight in police and army prisons, finally appearing before a magistrate who found them all guilty on allegedly trumped-up charges, and the events of that time are vividly described in a sometimes harrowing and sometimes hilarious account by Phil Shakesby [available here].

Some of the battered survivors made it to Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, a disused World War II airbase that had been designated as the second Cruise missile base after Greenham Common, where they joined peace protestors, other travellers and members of various Green organisations to become the Rainbow Village Peace Camp. In many ways, Molesworth, which swiftly became a rooted settlement, was the epitome of the free festival-protest fusion, cutting across class and social divides and reflecting many of the developments — in feminism, activism and environmental awareness — that had been transforming alternative society since the largely middle class — and often patriarchal — revolutions of the late sixties and early seventies.

One resident, Phil Hudson, recalled the extent of the experiment: “There was a village shop on a double-decker bus, a postman, a chapel, a peace garden, a small plantation of wheat for Ethiopia (planted weeks before Michael Buerk ‘broke’ the famine story in the mainstream media), and the legendary Free Food Kitchen.” The Rainbow Village was finally evicted in February 1985 by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in the UK, and the unprecedented scale of the operation, and the effect it had in creating even stronger bonds between the various groups of travellers, are brought to life in the interview with Maureen Stone in Chapter Three [of The Battle of the Beanfield], and in the recollections of Sheila Craig in Chapter Six.

The convoy shifted uneasily around the country for the next few months, persistently harassed by the police and regularly monitored by planes and helicopters. In April they were presented with an injunction, naming 83 individuals who supposedly made up the leadership of the convoy, which was designed to prevent them from going to Stonehenge. As Sheila Craig put it, however, “it was difficult to take it seriously, it seemed meaningless, almost comical, just a bit of paper … So the festival was banned, but we were the festival. It didn’t seem to make a lot of difference, especially as we seemed to be banned anyway, wherever we were.”

Such was the awareness that a noose was tightening around the travellers — through the well-publicised banning of the festival, as well as the constant persecution and the injunction — that even those like the Green Collective, who continued to assert the right of people to attend the 1985 festival, knew that they were effectively drawing up “battle plans.” In the face of the National Trust threatening further injunctions against organisations like Festival Welfare Services and the St John’s Ambulance Brigade if they showed up at Stonehenge, Bruce Garrard wrote in a Green Collective mailing newsletter, “After years of talking about it, this year it seems the authorities will be making a concerted effort to stop the next midsummer festival … but they won’t succeed; what they’ll probably do is to politicise the 50,000+ free festival goers who will arrive there anyway … Thousands of people will be on the move this summer. We’ll all look back and remember the Spirit of ’85.”

As it transpired, people would remember the Spirit of ’85 for far different reasons. On June 1st, after groups of travellers from around the country had stopped overnight in Savernake Forest near Marlborough, 140 vehicles set off for Stonehenge in the hope of setting up the 12th free festival. The atmosphere, as described by many eye-witnesses in the accounts that follow, was buoyant and optimistic. It remains apparent, however — especially in light of the persecution of the previous nine months — that behind this façade lurked generally unvoiced fears. Mo Poole, for example, recalled, in a conversation with Roisin McAuley for an edition of ‘In Living Memory’ that was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2002, that “When the convoy had left Savernake that day, there was a police helicopter that had followed us all the way. There was police everywhere, really. It was obvious to us that we were being followed by the police and that they were monitoring our journey, and therefore I knew that something was going to happen, because they’d never done that before.”

Sid Rawle was so convinced that the state was planning a disproportionate response to the threat posed by the convoy that he stayed behind in Savernake, arguing that if all the travellers stayed put and waited for thousands more people to join them, the authorities would be powerless to break up the ever-growing movement that he had worked for so long to encourage. While it’s also apparent that some of those who set off for Stonehenge that day were prepared for some kind of confrontation, few could have suspected quite how well-armed and hostile their opponents would be. The violent ambush that followed has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield, but it might be better described as a one-sided rout of heart-breaking brutality, and a black day for British justice and civil liberties whose repercussions are still felt to this day.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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40 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Dessie Harris wrote:

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Alistair Livingston wrote:

    The Mob – Witch Hunt

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Yes Andy, true.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dessie, Alistair and Willy – and everyone liking and sharing this. Always a sad day.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Dessie Harris wrote:

    Yes always a sad day…..but will never be forgotten xxx

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    And young people do keep finding out about it, Dessie. What we need now through is some mass programme of anti-capitalist civil disobedience that will revive meaningful dissent to the status quo. Our hyper-materialistic, self-obsessed, environmentally suicidal society, enslaved to banks and corporations, is not being challenged sufficiently – and that’s putting it mildly, I think!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    And a leader in some far away country who is not liked by the government and then they will go to war!!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Actually, just regarding all Muslims as terrorists, and all the people without jobs and all the disabled as spongers and scroungers seems to be working to an alarming degree, Dessie.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Dessie Harris wrote:

    We have such a caring government in this country…..who voted them in I wonder?

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Turnout for the 2010 general election was 65%, Dessie, and the Tories took 36.1% of the vote. So the answer is that 23.5% of the eligible voting public voted for these callous scumbags. In addition, I think it’s a safe bet to say that almost 0% of those who voted Lib Dem did so in the hope that they would form a coalition with the Tories and preside over the most savage cuts ever to the welfare state.

  11. Alix Miller says...

    Who are you calling crushed? Speak for yourself.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I meant the travellers’ movement, Alix, as something that had been growing from the late 70s onwards, and not individuals.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Dessie Harris wrote:

    Personally Andy, I have given up with the three major parties and I don’t vote any more and certainly did not vote in 2010….sorry suffragettes ♥

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    I can understand that, Dessie, and some people will complain that you have an obligation to be engaged in the process, or you can’t criticise anything that happens. I think that wold be true if we had a genuinely fair voting system – genuine proportional representation, with the total number of votes cast countrywide divided by the number of seats – but as we have “first past the post,” an antiquated “winner-takes-it-all” arrangement, there is no point in voting except in marginal seats.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Lorna Watson wrote:

    Thanks for posting the excerpt from your book Andy. I found out about you when researching Sid Rawle. I stayed with him not having a clue who he was in the days before he died and have written about it with my photos of his garden here:

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lorna. I’ve seen your lovely post before. Glad other people will have a chance to see it. Great recollections and gorgeous photos.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    John Hare wrote:

    Hi Andy – your figure of 23.5% “of the eligible voting public” is a significant over-estimate of tory support in 2010 since, although the exact figure is hard to calculate, voter registration rates are also falling along with turnouts and votes for the main parties. Registration in 2010 was probably about 85% so the actual tory support was less than 1 in 5 of those eligible to vote. Some discussion here –

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    John, great to hear from you, and thanks for the fascinating link. OK, so 19.98% of eligible voters voted for these Tory scumbags. I am sharpening my pitchfork and waiting for my fellow citizens to wake up from their self-obsessed, materialistic, neighbour-hating, proto-Nazi slumber. Oh hang on, it seems that’s where the problem lies …

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    For the first time in his life, my English husband is NOT going to vote for our local council election. He doesn’t trust anyone at this moment. It’s so sad.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s not great news, Dejanka, although I don’t know what the political balance of power is where you are, so it may be that one party or another has such a huge majority that voting doesn’t make any difference. That’s why we need genuine PR. But also, are there no candidates outside of the mainstream – Green, for example? Here in Lewisham we have People Before Profit:

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend Monique D’Hooghe posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    28 years? Good grief. Where did all the years ago? And what the hell happened to the spirit of dissent? Is it really the case that materialism – look, more cool stuff to buy than ever before in history! – and living carefully circumscribed lives in a world dominated by banks and corporations is such a panacea?

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Monique D’hooghe wrote:

    just show up at the peace camp, Andy, there still are some soft spoken, hardcore dissenters about 😮

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Jo Defyn wrote:

    may she rust in hell

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Monique, and thanks, Jo. Yes, hard to argue with that.

  25. Nick Lento says...

    By failing to vote we give the opposition exactly what they want.

    The WANT us to give up on the one most effective power we have.

    The one thing that scares the CRAP out of the corrupt political/corporate establishments is the prospect of an informed and outraged citizenry using democracy at rates above 95%!!!

    Virtually everything they do is designed to cause discouragement and apathy. It is no accident that most people don’t bother to be politically active.

  26. Nick Lento says...


    Voting is the beginning and not the end. It is the least we must do. Even if there is no progressive on the ballot, you can still write one in as a protest………and if EVERYONE actually voted some of those write ins would win!

    Again, failing to use the most legally potent power at our disposal plays into the hands of the corrupt status quo.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m not sure, Nick. At present, some politicians must be wondering about their legitimacy, and it’s good for them not to feel complacent. However, I think the biggest problem is with the vast numbers of people who feel disengaged from politics but don’t turn that into alternative political agitation. I think we genuinely need a grass-roots alternative that starts outside of the mainstream and builds into a new mass movement.

  28. Thomas says...

    There are no decent parties with a chance of winning. Tories are Tories, Lib Dems are Tories, Labour are Tories, and UKIP are Fascists.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s it, Thomas. If people wake up to that, we can get a new movement going, but at present far too many people are still gorging on materialistic nonsense, obsessively engrossed in their own perceived self-importance.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Gosh so long ago – when hair was long and time was short.

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Adriana Pacheco wrote:

    disgusting human being….

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Ann. And Adriana, I do hope it’s Margaret Thatcher you’re referring to!

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    Adriana Pacheco wrote:

    Yes of course…Thatcher that sociopath

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    I thought so, of course, Adriana. Just wanted to hear more. “Sociopath” is good. Ever since that wretched woman destroyed Britain, people with closed minds and an interest only in money have become more and more dominant.

  35. damo says...

    i think maybe just maybe people are starting to wake up…well they are abroad ..people are starting to want an alturnative to how things are right now..people are becomeing sickened by the the banks the the corruption which is everywere people want to live simpler lives to be left just to be left alone to live there lives rather than like it unfortunately is in this country were from the moment we wake to the moment we sleep somone wants money of us,lol i mean it costs a tenner to walk down the street and fifty to walk back up it,lol enuff is enuff so hopefully we will see some dissident in this country if were not all to busy watching towie,lol

  36. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Damo. I wasn’t expecting such an optimistic intro from you, but then it turned out you were talking about other countries! Here we’ve just had people getting Islamophobic, and also far too many people bothering to give the time of day to UKIP and that drip, that twit Nigel Farage. The good news is that young women dressed as badgers scared off the thugs of EDL in central London on Saturday, but we’r enot close to revolution yet, are we really? I like your line, “people want to live simpler lives,” which reminds me of the 70s and 80s, and the free festivals, and our lives in general before everyone got materialistic, and into “stuff”, and busy busy busy measuring themselves and everybody else by how much money they’re making.
    I haven’t forgotten about a trip out west, by the way. I just need to find a day when I don’t have to be back in south east London too early …

  37. damo says...

    no andy it was here i went to some pop do with my mate and his sons who were in there early 20s and just got talking to thease youngsters and they were saying all the things we talk about ..YES THIS WAS HERE IN i was very impressed by them ,by there passion and there honesty they wanted simpler lives..made me feel quite teary maybe just maybe things could change as they drasticaly need to..dxxx

  38. damo says...

    and im a jaded old bag who isnt impressed very easily,lol,lol dxx

  39. Andy Worthington says...

    Everywhere I go I meet people and start talking to them, Damo, and they’re all sick of the Tories, and the property scam, and the horribly inflated cost of living – ordinary people, not traditional “lefties.” Perhaps we all want a change – except for the minority of the rich, the super-rich and their pimps in government.

  40. Andy Worthington says...

    “Jaded old bag” – that’s funny!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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