Thirty-five years ago today the ancient and mystical site of Stonehenge was witness to a most savage and brutal attack from Wiltshire police on the Peace Convoy, a CND-affiliated community of some several hundred New Age travellers, who had arrived at the prehistoric monument for (what was then) the annual Stonehenge Free Festival.
The free festival had been a regular summer solstice fixture for ten years until that point, having previously replaced the Windsor Free Festival, which itself was violently suppressed by the authorities in 1974. By the 1980s, the Stonehenge Free Festival attracted up to 30,000 people, with bands and artistes such as Hawkwind, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Damned, Wishbone Ash, Buster Blood Vessel, Roy Harper, Joe Strummer, Killing Joke, The Thompson Twins, The Selector and Benjamin Zephaniah all performing at one time or another over the years. The authorities viewed the festival as a thorn in its side, taking a dim view of its open drug use, of travellers trading without licences and without paying tax on the earnings accrued during the event. English Heritage, who had taken control of the site in 1984, also expressed concerns for the preservation of the monument itself, claiming that valuable archaeological information was being lost each year by the attendant crowds. As a result, a high court injunction was obtained to stop the festival from going ahead on June 1st, 1985, and some 1,300 police officers lay siege to the travellers, determined to enforce the letter of the law.
Resistance was first encountered some seven miles from Stonehenge when the convoy of 140 vehicles, having set out from their overnight camp at the Earl of Cardigan’s Savernake Forest, suddenly found themselves met by a police roadblock of three lorry loads of gravel on the A303 at Shipton Bellinger. The convoy evaded this impasse by taking a side-road, but came into contact with a supporting roadblock further ahead – the police having formed a four mile exclusion zone around Stonehenge. Here, Wiltshire constabulary began to smash the windows of the travellers vehicles and made a series of arrests. Those travellers who weren’t beaten or handcuffed made their way to an adjacent field (the now infamous ‘beanfield’) were a tense stand-off soon developed. As is so often the case, the government mouthpiece of the BBC later reported that the travellers had attacked the police first; ramming their roadblock to progress to the landmark and pelting officers with stones and even petrol bombs. Remember, this was the same BBC who, in the previous June, had conveniently reversed the tape of their footage of the Battle of Orgreave to make it look as though the pickets attacked the police first – and we all know how pro-establishment the BBC currently is with its incessant defence or the Conservative government and its contempt for former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the case for Scottish independence. Likewise ITN reporter Kim Sabido was astonished to find that much of the footage he had shot of the viciousness of the police attack had disappeared in the editing suite, and was only unearthed six years later in 1991. In contrast to this blatant media bias, the Guardian reported that the travellers were in no way armed and that police statements that suggested otherwise were blatantly ‘false’, whilst eyewitness reports claim that the travellers attempted numerous negotiations with the police. Unfortunately, their appeals fell on deaf ears when the officer in charge, Assistant Chief Constable Lionel Grundy, gave the order to arrest all those present. Outbreaks of violence swiftly developed, with several travellers being dragged from vehicles through broken windscreens and receiving serious head injuries as officers attempted to enforce Grundy’s edict in the most brutal of fashion. At some stage in the afternoon, an ambulance was allowed to access the site and take the wounded to hospital.
At 7pm, the innocuous beanfield that harboured some 600 travellers – men, women and children – became a battlefield whose name echoes down across the decades. Grundy instructed a final and vicious assault of riot police to take the field. Nick Davies, journalist with the Observer, recalls officers hitting anybody that they could reach, which included heavily pregnant women. This account is also corroborated by the Earl of Cardigan who, having followed the travellers on his motorbike from Savernake, testified to witnessing a very pregnant woman being repeatedly clubbed over the head by police, many of whom had their ID numbers covered up; a tactic that had been established by the police during the miners’ strike of the previous year. Perhaps most damning of all is the evidence that the police would not even allow egress from the battlefield; vehicles that did attempt to leave were immediately attacked by officers in riot gear who were seen to throw truncheons, fire extinguishers, sheilds and stones at windscreens, before dragging the helpless and terrified travellers from the wreckage to physically set about and assault them in the open. Now abandoned vehicles – the very homes that these innocents lived in – were subsequently smashed, looted and set on fire by police officers.
Whilst it is a miracle no one died, the toll of the day is still horrifying to recount. Five hundred and thirty seven travellers were arrested, making it the largest mass arrest of civilians since the Second World War and possibly one of the biggest in our nation’s legal history. Whilst scores of travellers were assaulted and injured that day, sixteen were considered serious enough to be hospitalised, including one case of a fractured skull. Eight police officers also required hospital treatment. Seven dogs were also seized from travellers and destroyed by the RSPCA. The following day, Wiltshire police presented themselves to the Earl of Cardigan looking for permission to remove those travellers not in custody from his land at Savernake where they were recuperating ; “They said they wanted to go into the campsite ‘suitably equipped’ and ‘finish unfinished business’. Make of that phrase what you will. I said to them, that if it was my permission they were after, they did not have it. I did not want a repeat of the grotesque events that I’d seen the day before”
Twenty-four of the convoy present that day went on to sue Wiltshire police for wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage to their person and property. The court found it difficult to identify individual police officers on account of their ID numbers having been hidden, but one sergeant was identified and charged with ABH as a consequence of his assault of a traveller. The extent of police malpractice didn’t just end with the despicable cowardice of officers hiding their ID either; police radio and video used in evidence for the court proceedings was discovered to be missing a significant gap in their recording, whilst evidence that recording logs of radio conversations between officers that day had been clearly altered. Appearing for the prosecution, the Earl of Cardigan testified that the force employed by the police had been excessive. Bill Deedes, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, subsequently called him a class traitor for speaking against the police in favour of the travelling community, and Cardigan subsequently and successfully sued the paper for defamation.
In February 1991, a verdict found in favour of twenty-one of the travellers, awarding them £24,000 in damages. Unfortunately, the establishment had the last laugh: the judge refused to award them legal costs and much of their compensation was ultimately swallowed up by their legal bill. Thatcher’s government continued their vendetta against the working classes and those who resisted the conformity of society, passing the Public Order Act of 1986 in an attempt to make the life of travelling communities difficult to sustain. Michael Howard’s later infamous Criminal Justice Act of 1994 continued in this tradition, with no dissent from Tony Blair’s New Labour. Since 1985, Stonehenge continues to have a four-mile blockade for all summer solstice events ensuring access is severely limited. Despite repeated calls, an inquiry into the events of June 1st 1985 has never been honoured. But it is important to remember the cruel suppression of a marginalised community. The following songs depict what has now become known as the Battle of the Beanfield..