The Jewel In The Mud Award
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pg. 31.
There’s still taxis driving round London with Union Jacks flapping from their aerials. In town centres all round the country, bunting strings of red, white and blue have been left dangling from balconies; the lingering commemoration of the end of the second world war, the end of the battling.
But there are a group of people for whom the battle has not finished. Whether they be the gypsies despised and gassed by Hitler, or the new travellers despised and legislated against by the British Government, the war of survival has never ceased for those with the urge and the need to live a travelling life.
This issue’s Jewel in the Mud Award goes to a stunningly emotive reminder of one of the more blatant expressions of that war. Appearing in the second section of the Guardian (31/5/95), the article retells the story of the Battle of the Beanfield - the Bloody Sunday of the travelling movement - and was written by Neil Goodwin, director of Channel Four’s Operation Solstice documentary on the nightmare etched in the memory of all travellers.
“This month’s victory picnic at Stonehenge may not have been noticed amidst the other VE day celebrations, but the end of the second world war did not escape the notice of Britain’s travellers. ‘We have gathered with the most peaceful of intentions to honour the brave men and women who fought and died to keep this island free from a totalitarian police state,’ came the announcement at Stonehenge.
“On June 1, 1985 police ambushed a convoy of vehicles on its way to the 11th People’s Free Festival at Stonehenge. Over 1,000 officers from five constabularies cornered travellers and festival-goers in a field on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border for several hours. Having refused to negotiate an alternative festival site, the operation commander, the then Assistant Chief Constable of Wiltshire, Lionel Grundy, ordered his men to attack the convoy.
“The violence that followed was recorded by an ITN camera crew, headed by reporter Kim Sabido. In an emotional piece-to-camera he described it as the worst police violence he had ever seen: ‘The number of people who have been hit by policemen, who have been clubbed whilst holding babies in their arms in coaches around this field, is yet to be counted... There must surely be an enquiry after what has happened here today.’
“Four hundred and twenty people were arrested and taken to holding cells throughout the south of England. Travellers’ homes were systematically looted, smashed and burnt. Seven dogs were destroyed by the RSPCA.
“Interviewed in 1991 for Channel 4’s Critical Eye programme, he confirmed that ‘some of the nastier, more controversial shots, including that of a woman being dragged by her hair had ‘disappeared’ from the ITN library.”
The article then goes on to describe the history of legislative reprisals that followed the police hysteria....
“A new ban on processions meant that two or more people walking to Stonehenge could be arrested. The festival became an excuse for ‘trashing’ a lifestyle, in which, for thousands of young people, a bedsit on wheels had become a viable alternative to scratching a living in a decayed inner city.
“Once born, the Peace Convoy was identified like the striking miners, as another ‘enemy within’. Since the Beanfield incident the Government has spent millions of pounds hounding Britain’s community of (what was then) approximately 15,000 travellers in attempts to make their lifestyle untenable.”
The article concludes...
“Nearly every day there is a minor Beanfield battle, either at the hands of the police or vigilantes. For the victims of this covert war there has never been a peace from which to safely commemorate ‘battles’ like the Beanfield.”
On the same page was the reprinting of an eyewitness account written by Nick Davies, who reported the Beanfield incident for The Observer ten years ago...
“There were vehicles spinning in all directions. There were policemen trying to stop them by throwing anything they could lay a hand on - sticks, stones, even their own shields. There was glass breaking, people screaming, black smoke towering out of burning caravans - and everywhere there seemed to be people being bashed and flattened and pulled by the hair.
“The police commandeered a couple of convoy vehicles and started using them to ram loose cars. Some of the convoy turned nasty and started driving at speed into the police but, one by one they were battered to a halt and the men and the women and the children were led away, shivering, swearing, crying, bleeding, leaving their homes in pieces behind them.
“Over the next 12 months the truth was to seep out slowly in court cases which ended in humiliating defeat for the police. But that evening, I walked away in the strangest of moods. Over the years, I had seen all kinds of horrible and frightening things and always managed to grin and write it. But as I left the Beanfield, for the first time I felt sick enough to cry.”
Assemblies Of Celebration, Assemblies Of Dissent - An overview of recent decades of festivals, raves, travellers and protesters - 1998.
Watch Neil Goodwin's film about the Battle Of The Beanfield 'Operation Soltice' on YouTube here