Last year the thirtieth anniversary of the police action against striking coal miners at Orgreave Colliery (18 June 1984) was duly marked with reports, articles and photographs in the media. This year the thirtieth anniversary of another controversial police action, this time near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, has passed this week in near silence.
It was known as ‘The Battle of the Beanfield’.
Saturday, 1 June 1985 was an inglorious day in the history of British policing and an inglorious one too for Britain’s press and television news, which blatantly sided with the police, depicting them as the victims of the violence. Some newsfilm and reporter’s first hand commentary on the events was simply never shown or heard in that weekend’s news bulletins.
This week only two major articles have been published in the national media marking the anniversary and telling how the police broke up a convoy of caravans and buses and attacked its occupants. One was in The Independent newspaper – which was only launched in 1986 and so came to the story with a clean sheet. The other is by Felicity Hannah, a freelance journalist in her early thirties writing for the Comment and Analysis section of the website Politics.co.uk
It is the latter that is of most interest to readers in the Marlborough area. She has interviewed Lord Cardigan who played a significant role in the story and the trail of legal cases that followed. (Quotations from her interview are in italics.)
On the Friday, some people from the convoy of between 500 and 600 ‘new age travellers’ had broken into a campsite owned by Lord Cardigan.
In his recent interview Lord Cardigan described the convoy to Ms Hannah: “There was an element of anarchists amongst them – the more voluble and vocal ones that were sounding off – but they were a small minority. The rest seemed utterly unremarkable family groups for whom living in a motor coach was their chosen way of life. There were kids everywhere.”
He had spoken to many of them and to the police, and wondering how the police could stop the convoy getting to Stonehenge the next day for their ‘festival’, he followed it and arrived at the head of the convoy when it reached the police roadblock.
“From behind the barricade came around two dozen policemen with their truncheons drawn. They smashed through the first vehicle’s windscreen, hauled out the occupant and then hauled him off to custody.
“The second vehicle was a converted ambulance with a lone girl in it. I was standing on the roadside bank right beside that vehicle, so I could see them smash up her windscreen. I saw four or five policemen climb in and they dragged her out through a broken window by her hair, right over the broken glass.”
Seeing what was happening at the head of the convoy, most of the other vehicles turned into a nearby beanfield. Lord Cardigan points out that some of the group did throw stones and sticks at the police.
Then the Chief Constable arrived by helicopter and announced that all the people in the convoy were to be arrested. And over 1,000 police arrived to make the arrests. Lord cardigan says they had their police numbers concealed and carried shields, batons and some had portable fire extinguishers for fear of petrol bombs.
The began The Battle of the Beanfield – with its injuries, arrests and beatings: “The police would throw missiles at the windscreens, thereby covering the drivers with broken glass…”
“There were some very large flints in the field, about the size of cantaloupe melons, and the police were throwing those. They flung their shields like frisbees, and they carried small metal fire extinguishers which they also threw. By now the police had a real rush of blood up.”
In one coach Lord Cardigan saw a lone woman holding up her baby – the police threw a large flint shattering the windscreen over the baby. Then: “At some point in the crazy melee there was a heavily pregnant woman wandering around. Two policemen came up behind her with batons and clubbed her around the head and shoulders, and down she went.”
Felicity Hannah tells how Lord Cardigan has repeated his eyewitness testimony to journalists and to courts, but that he is to this day still deeply shocked by what he saw. “It seemed somehow more shocking because this was a Saturday afternoon in the Wiltshire countryside. You understood this might happen behind the Iron Curtain, but in England? In Wiltshire? On a Saturday afternoon in the summer? In a Wiltshire field?”
Some of the newspapers he told about the violence depicted him as an anarchist sympathiser and The Daily Telegraph called him a “class traitor” – Lord Cardigan sued for defamation and bought a BMW with the proceeds.
He gave key evidence in some of the trials that followed that day’s battle. And six years later 21 of the travellers were awarded damages for wrongful arrest – damages that were swallowed up by their legal fees.
Police violence at Orgreave is still a live issue and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign is organising a rally at the site of the old coking plant on 18 June 2015 to mark the thirty-first anniversary of that police action. But the Battle of the Beanfield has remained well out of view of the public – still shunned by most of the press.
In future history books Orgreave may get a footnote along the way to more accountable policing in Britain. One wonders if they will make a connection between what happened at Orgreave and what happened twelve months later near Stonehenge. It can only be speculation that police in Wiltshire decided to employ again some of the tactics they had found acceptable against the striking miners at Orgreave.
Felicity Hannah was prompted to investigate the Battle of the Beanfield by The Levellers’ song that tells its story. But she was also surprised there had never been a proper inquiry into it and wanted to find out why.
She told Marlborough News Online: “I think that what really matters is that if Lord Cardigan had not been there as an impartial witness, we may never have known what happened. Hundreds of those people could have been given an unfair criminal record.”
“How many other similar events took place, but were never heard of because there was no one from ‘the establishment’ to cry foul? I don’t know if the case could be reopened or if that would be a desirable use of resources, but I would like to see it. “
“Either way, I hope that the police officers who beat a heavily pregnant woman find it hard to sleep at night.”