Sara Maitland on the forgotten Battle of the Beanfield, 30 years ago.
The Battle of the Beanfield was a black day for civil liberties and access to the countryside
This month is the 30th anniversary of the largest mass arrest since the Second World War. On top of 537 arrests, 140 homes were razed, 24 people were hospitalised, pregnant women were clubbed, five dogs were destroyed. The Observer described the event as “extremely violent and very sickening”. Despite the arrests, there were very few convictions – and one was against a policeman for Actual Bodily Harm. This was the Battle of the Beanfield. You may not remember it, but we still live with its repercussions.
The destroyed homes were mobile ones, belonging to about 600 New Age travellers making their way to Stonehenge, where the annual free festival had been banned. It remains unclear why anyone thought it would take over 1,300 police officers in riot gear to disperse the convoy. Most independent eyewitness accounts – from TV reporters, photographers and even the Earl of Cardigan – claim the police used excessive, savage violence against the travellers.
Perhaps it’s easiest to see it as a phase in the ongoing struggle between those people who want to be of no fixed abode, and the authorities, who have found this a problem since 1350, when the Black Death killed over a third of the population. This led to an agricultural labour shortage, as
Lynn Hatzius people left their villages to seek better paid work, threatening the feudal system. Laws were passed to force workers to return home; vagrancy became illegal.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries 200 years later, the legal responsibility for travellers fell on the parish rates (previously, monasteries cared for travellers). For settled communities, travellers of all kinds became an expensive nuisance. At a similar time, the Roma gypsies arrived – different, foreign-speaking and thus ‘obviously’ dangerous.
Out of this complex history came five centuries of prejudice. In the late 19th-century, nostalgia for folklore presented the roaming freedom and colourful painted wagons as a traditional feature of British rural life, such as Toad’s delightfully innocent caravan expedition in Wind in the Willows. Sara Maitland is a writer who lives in Dumfries and Galloway. Her works include
Unfortunately this romanticism divided travellers into ‘pure’ Roma – ‘real gypsies’, seen as an ancient, free people deserving support – and other travellers, perceived as vagrants and work-shy petty criminals.
When the Roma gave up horse-drawn transport in the 20th century, it became impossible to tell who was ‘real’ on sight, and the Roma were relinked with other travellers as disruptive and undesirable. This long history prepared the ground for the Battle of the Beanfield. All the frustrations of a society moving away from the libertarian movements of the 60s and 70s could focus here – the convoy was both New Age and travellers.
Despite recognition that the police had generated the violence, subsequent years saw legislation (in the 1986 Public Order Act and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act) that was punitively anti-traveller: withdrawing the obligation (only established in 1968) on boroughs to provide campsites; increasing police powers and introducing new legal concepts such as criminal trespass and ‘trespassory assembly’.
The Battle of the Beanfield remains as it was described then, “a black day” for British justice, civil liberties and rural access. It should not be forgotten.