The Beginning of the End for Britain's Illegal Raves: Remembering the 'Battle of the Beanfield'
Thirty years ago today, a convoy of new-age travellers – including men, women and children – on their way to a free party at Stonehenge were savagely beaten by 1,200 cops.
"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."
These were the words of The Observer's Nick Davies, who, 30 years ago today, was one of the few journalists to witness a lopsided clash between 1,300 police and a convoy of new-age travellers congregating at Stonehenge. The event would become known as the Battle of The Beanfield, a misleadingly comical name for what was a milestone in Thatcher's iron-fisted assault on dissent.
The morning of the 1st of June, 1985. A convoy of around 600 travellers was making its way to The People's Free Festival at Stonehenge, an annual event that had been running since the mid-1970s. Some knew a High Court injunction had been taken out prohibiting the gathering, but no one was stressing. Dubbed the Peace Convoy, the procession of vehicles wound haltingly through idyllic countryside, all swaying wheat, sunshine and fluffy clouds of hash.
Alan Lodge – a former paramedic in the London Ambulance Service, turned photographer, traveller and charity volunteer – was used to this shambolic form of locomotion. "A convoy of two or three hundred motors doesn't get more than five miles before something happens and you all have to stop," he tells me.
When the convoy ground to a halt for the fifteenth time, Lodge assumed it was just another flat tire. He got out to take pictures. It wasn't until he heard screams that he knew something was wrong.
"There was shouting and the sound of glass smashing," Lodge says. "A group of coppers were running down the road towards me, smashing windscreens."
Lodge and his friends jumped back into their vehicles and drove through the nearest hedge. Police followed, eventually trapping a group of travellers in the eponymous bean field. An order was given that all the travellers be arrested.
The tribes were mismatched. On the one side, a newly coordinated police force, fresh from quashing the miners, eager to flex its politically-hitched might. As the Police Review reported a few days later, the operation at Stonehenge "had been planned for several months and lessons in rapid deployment learned from the miners' strike were implemented".
On the other side, new targets of what the miners called "Thatcher's army": the travellers. "We were weedy little dope-smoking hippies," says Lodge. They were also families.
Sensi was part of the Peace Convoy that day. She was 21, and had two small children in the bus with her.
"We were near the back, but we could hear screams and smashing glass," Sensi tells me. "We drove into the next field. We were chased by the police but we were some of the lucky ones. My friend Sheila was dragged from her bus holding her baby, Poppy. I ran to try and reach her, but I was hit back by the police. We took another lady and her partner into our bus with their two-year-old child. Her partner had been beaten and was bleeding. She was in shock. They'd lost their home that day and most of their belongings."
At 7PM, police charged into the field in full riot gear. Chaos raged.
"I was trying to give first aid to people who'd been injured," Lodge says. "An observation I made was the number of people who'd been clouted around the back of the head. They must have been running away. One lad in his early-twenties had gone into a bit of a coma and I was concerned about his welfare. He had quite a serious head injury. I went up to a police inspector in the line and told him I'd like an ambulance. We took him out on a stretcher."
In total, eight police officers and 16 travellers were hospitalised. More than 500 travellers were detained, the largest mass arrest of civilians in English legal history. (Few of these arrests resulted in a prosecution.) There wasn't enough space in local holding cells so some people were taken to the midlands, others to the north. Parents and children ended up in different counties, dogs were put down.
ITN news reporter Kim Sabido, who witnessed the battle, filmed an emotional report, saying:
"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."
Sabido's report was never broadcast and, he claims, much of the footage shot that day, "particularly some of the nastier shots", subsequently disappeared. Some years later, parts of it were rediscovered and incorporated into a documentary, Operation Solstice.
Back in 1985, however, most of the media was toeing Thatcher's line: the travellers were a bunch of dangerous, armed anarchists.
An unlikely ally came in the form of card-carrying Conservative, the Earl of Cardigan, whose land the convoy had just left. The Earl followed the convoy on his motorbike and described seeing a pregnant woman "repeatedly clubbed on the head" while vehicles – people's homes – were smashed with hammers by police whose ID numbers had been covered.
When 24 of the travellers, including Lodge, sued Wiltshire Police for assault and criminal damage, the Earl's testimony was key. The right wing press was furious and Cardigan was branded a class traitor ( The Telegraph) and "barking mad" (The Times). He later sued every news outlet that had suggested his testimonies against the police were false.
Seven years later, the travellers won their case and were awarded damages. However, something had been permanently broken.
"There had been an optimism, a way of trying to sort our own lives out," Lodge says. "An awful lot of hope went that day. There was an influx of bad drugs that hadn't been allowed before. Suddenly people succumbed. They sold bits of their bus that had been broken. Vehicles were in a low state of maintenance because of police action, and there was a certain amount of 'fuck everything' attitude. Heroin use and Special Brew use increased dramatically. That's casualties of war right there. It was completely against the ethos of what we were trying to do."
The following year, 1986, the Public Order Act became the first major legislative attack on free festivals and the traveller's way of life. Although the free party scene of the late-80s and early-90s would provide a temporary adrenaline shot, after the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 – which give police powers to shut down events featuring music "characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats", i.e. all raves – the way was paved for your V Festivals, "Morning Gloryville" raves and nightclubs that charge £20 on the door and £5 for a bottle of water.
It seems unbelievable now that 60,000 people once gathered for a six-week-long free party in the British countryside; getting your rave shut down by police in riot gear sadly seems so normal today. The Battle of the Beanfield was the date that set this all in motion, so if you want to mourn what's been lost, today's your day to do just that.
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