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

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tion:

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.

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