Something had to be done! Stonehenge appeared central to the situation. Police “Operation Solstice” was initiated.
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. Well it wasn’t a battle really ……
….. It was an ambush.
It was a magnificent convoy stretching and snaking its way over the Wiltshire Downs, as far as you could see in either direction. It was a warm Saturday afternoon as we drove through villages, people stood outside their garden gates, smiling and waving at us. A carnival atmosphere with little evidence of the `local opposition’ that we had been led to believe was one of the reasons for obtaining the court orders. A police helicopter watched overhead but there was little other sign of trouble until ……..
Seven miles from Stonehenge (the exclusion order was for four and a half miles), just short of the A303 and the Hampshire / Wiltshire border, two lorry loads of gravel were tipped across the road. Up to this point no laws had been broken. I got out of my truck to take photographs when I first saw some twenty policemen running down the convoy ahead of me smashing windscreens without warning and `arresting’ / assaulting the occupants, dragging them out through the windscreens broken glass.
I and others who saw this were fearful of the level of violence used by the police in making arrests. Clearly we were in for a beating, again! Running back to our vehicles, we drove through a hedge in to the adjacent field.
The scale of the police operation was becoming obvious. The same level of violence had been applied to the rear of the convoy. Large numbers of police, many lines deep, could be seen on the road forming up.
From then on, the situation grew more tense. More police reinforcements were brought up wearing one-piece blue overalls – without numbers!, `Nato-style’ helmets with visors and both full length perspex shields and circular black plastic shields. A `stand-off’ situation developed with sporadic outbreaks of violence.
Working with the festival welfare agencies, I was directed to a number of head injuries that had resulted from the initial conflict on the road. All of these injuries were truncheon wounds to the back of the head and some people were quite distressed. I was shown one man, about 20 years old, who was semi-conscious with yet another head wound. I was fearful of him dying.
An ambulance was called and I assisted the attendant and helped convey the casualty through police lines. The ambulance crew were initially apprehensive about their safety but assurances were given.
In between the taking of photographs, the copious first aid and concerns for my family and friends, I attempted to start negotiations and set up lines of communications with the middle-ranking `line’ officers. There was no `middle ground’ to be found, so, with others I organised a meeting with Assistant Chief Constable, Lional Grundy. He was in charge of the overall operation. It was early evening before we were able to meet him. The tone of the meeting was `do what your told or else!’ He reiterated that people should leave their vehicles or be arrested.
Because of the fear of what that might entail (after viewing the violence earlier in the day), those I met with were reticent about this. I met Grundy again a little later and attempted to reason further with him, but the ACC then threatened to arrest me for obstruction if I persisted.
Police in full kit were now massed in large numbers and obviously getting ready to charge. It turns out that police had been arresting a lot of people around Stonehenge earlier in the afternoon. At 7.00pm, Grundy had sixteen hundred policemen from six counties, Ministry of Defence police and, some believe, army officers in police uniforms!!!
They had been briefed that we were all violent anarchists (see newspaper headlines earlier), rather than a bunch of young people and families with children.
The scenes that followed were recorded by media that had evaded the police blockade. The story was international news. `Dixon of Dock Green’ type policing was dead. That which Britain was noted for had now changed to para-military operations against minority groups.
Kim Sabido, a reporter used to visiting the worlds `hot spots’, did an emotional piece-to-camera for ITN as he described the worst police violence that he had ever seen.
“What we – the ITN camera crew and myself as a reporter – have seen in the last 30 minutes here in this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I’ve witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. 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 today”.
When the item was nationally broadcast on ITN news later that day, Sabido’s voice-over had been removed and replaced with a dispassionate narrator. The worst film footage was also edited out. When approached for the footage not shown on the news, ITN claimed it was missing. Sabido said.
“When I got back to ITN during the following week and I went to the library to look at all the rushes, most of what I’d thought wed shot was no longer there,” recalls Sabido. “From what I’ve seen of what ITN has provided since, it just disappeared, particularly some of the nastier shots.”
Some but not all of the missing footage has since surfaced on bootleg tapes and was incorporated into the Operation Solstice documentary shown on Channel Four in 1991.
Public knowledge of the events of that day are still limited by the fact that only a small number of journalists were present in the Beanfield at the time. Most, including the BBC television crew, had obeyed the police directive to stay behind police lines at the bottom of the hill “for their own safety”.
One of the few journalists to ignore police advice and attend the scene was Nick Davies, Home Affairs correspondent for The Observer. He wrote:
“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….men, women and children were led away, shivering, swearing, crying, bleeding, leaving their homes in pieces…..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.”
During the charge I took photographs, but I put my camera away. My (ex) -wife and I comforting and cuddling each other from fear, before we were attacked..
530 were arrested that day, the most in any operation since the Second World War.
Photographic evidence is scant because of the nature of the action. Ben Gibson, a freelance photographer working for The Observer that day, was arrested in the Beanfield after photographing riot police smashing their way into a Traveller’s coach. He was later acquitted of charges of obstruction although the intention behind his arrest had been served by removing him from the scene. Most of the negatives from the film he managed to shoot disappeared from The Observers archives during an office move.
A friend and fellow photographer Tim Malyon narrowly avoided the same fate:
“Whilst attempting to take pictures of one group of officers beating people with their truncheons, a policeman shouted out to get him and I was chased. I ran and was not arrested”.
Tim Malyon’s negatives have also been lost with only a few prints surviving.
One unusual eye-witness to the Beanfield nightmare was the Earl of Cardigan, secretary of the Marlborough Conservative Association and manager of Savernake Forest (on behalf of his father the Marquis of Ailesbury). He had travelled along with the convoy on his motorbike accompanied by fellow Conservative Association member John Moore. As the Travellers had left from land managed by Cardigan, the pair thought “it would be interesting to follow the events personally”. Wearing crash helmets to disguise their identity, they witnessed what Cardigan described as `unspeakable’ police violence.
Cardigan subsequently provided eye-witness testimonies of police behaviour during prosecutions brought against Wiltshire Police. These included descriptions of a heavily pregnant woman “with a silhouette like a zeppelin” being “clubbed with a truncheon” and riot police showering a woman and child with glass.
“I had just recently had a baby daughter myself so when I saw babies showered with glass by riot police smashing windows, I thought of my own baby lying in her cradle 25 miles away in Marlborough”
After the Beanfield, Wiltshire Police approached Lord Cardigan to gain his consent for an immediate eviction of the Travellers remaining on his Savernake Forest site.
“They said they wanted to go into the campsite `suitably equipped’ and `finish unfinished business’. Make of that phrase what you will, says Cardigan. “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.”
Instead, the site was evicted using court possession proceedings, allowing the Travellers a few days recuperative grace.
As a prominent local aristocrat and Tory, Cardigans testimony held unusual sway, presenting unforeseen difficulties for those seeking to cover up and re-interpret the events at the Beanfield.
In an effort to counter the impact of his testimony, several national newspapers began painting him as a `loony lord’, questioning his suitability as an eye-witness and drawing farcical conclusions from the fact that his great-great grandfather had led the charge of the light brigade. The Times editorial on June 3rd claimed that being “barking mad was probably hereditary.”
As a consequence, Lord Cardigan successfully sued The Times, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror for claiming that his allegations against the police were false and for suggesting that he was making a home for hippies. He received what he describes as “a pleasing cheque and a written apology” from all of them. His treatment by the press was ample indication of the united front held between the prevailing political intention and media backup, with Lord Cardigans eye-witness account as a serious spanner in the plotted works:
On the face of it they had the ultimate establishment creature – land-owning, peer of the realm, card-carrying member of the Conservative Party – slagging off police and therefore by implication befriending those who they call the powers of darkness, says Cardigan.
“I hadn’t realised that anybody that appeared to be supporting elements that stood against the establishment would be savaged by establishment newspapers. Now one thinks about it, nothing could be more natural. I hadn’t realised that I would be considered a class traitor; if I see a policeman truncheoning a woman I feel I’m entitled to say that it is not a good thing you should be doing. I went along, saw an episode in British history and reported what I saw.”
For three days (and nights), without adequate food, sleep and many to a cell, we filled police stations across the south of England. From Bristol, where I was taken, to Southampton and London. We were then charged with the serious offence of `Unlawful Assembly’. Most charges were eventually dropped after all of this.
Some had lost everything they had. Parents where frantic in locating children that had been taken into care. Vehicles had been taken to a `pound’ some 25 miles away and people had to go through further humiliation in reclaiming what was left of their homes.
Twenty-four of us took out a civil action against the Chief Constable of Wiltshire for the wrongs that were done to us that day. Nearly six years later at the High Court in Winchester, we won most of our case and were each awarded damages against the police.
The Guardian said “Need to preserve pubic order does not permit the police to ride roughshod over the rights of ordinary people”. After a four month hearing, (during which we were made to feel like we were on trial), and on the last day, the Judge made an order on court costs that, as we were getting legal aid, meant we got nothing.
As Lord Gifford QC, our legal representative, put it:
“It left a very sour taste in the mouth.”
To some of those at the brunt end of the truncheon charge it left a devastating legacy.