Battle of the Beanfield
The Battle of the Beanfield took place over several hours on the afternoon of Saturday 1 June 1985, when Wiltshire Police prevented a convoy of several hundred New Age travellers (known as "The Convoy") from setting up at what would have been the 11th Stonehenge Free Festival in Wiltshire, England. The incident resulted from a local branch of the English Heritage society, then custodians of the site, concerned about new age travellers, persuading the High Court to grant an exclusion zone of four miles around the stones. The incident is notorious, in the context of mid-1980s social unrest in England, as an example of police violence.
Convoy members testified, and video evidence supports, that after a stand-off lasting several hours, members of the police attacked the procession by forcefully entering the field in which the vehicles were contained, methodically smashed windows, beat people about the head with truncheons, used sledgehammers to break and damage the interiors of their vehicles and arrested the convoy members. The accounts were supported by independent witnesses and upheld by subsequent court verdicts. The Beanfield was the field neighbouring the vehicles' location. When a large number of police entered the first field many of the convoy vehicles attempted to escape by breaking through the Beanfield, but most were pursued and arrested.
The police alleged that they retaliated after they had come under attack, being pelted with lumps of wood, stones and even petrol bombs. They did not repeat these allegations in any of the subsequent court cases and no proof for them has ever come to light. Whilst the full account of events remains in dispute, a court judgment six years later found the police guilty of wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage.
Historical context and events leading up to the battle
Stonehenge used to be part of the Antrobus family’s estate but was given to the British nation in 1918. Up until 1984, Stonehenge – and the patch of land that it rests on – was managed by the Department of Environment. Its management was then passed to English Heritage in 1984.
The general public has utilised Stonehenge for centuries as a place for casual visitors and a place for special occasions. As early as 1680, a fair took place here. It was used for a midsummer sports day, as early as 1781. It was also used in the Victorian era for picnic parties and entertainments. Stonehenge’s solar alignment was discovered in the 1800s, which caused the focus of celebration to turn to the summer solstice. In 1901, Stonehenge was fenced off and an entry fee was imposed, much to the frustration of the general public who fought in court to gain free access again, but failed. People continued to come to Stonehenge in midsummer to watch the sun, and also to watch different neo-Druid groups conducting ceremonies in and around Stonehenge.
Whether these Druid groups actually have a real connection to ancient druids or a real connection to Stonehenge itself is heavily disputed. However, most agree that authenticity cannot be the major determinant as to who is allowed access to Stonehenge.
A more recent addition to the festivities surrounding Stonehenge includes the festival which came to Stonehenge in 1974. Many different groups came to the Stonehenge People’s Free Festival, many belonging to pagan religious groups. The festival grew in size. Critics said that in 1984, the festival had resulted in the destruction of archaeological information and on the site itself, "holes had been dug in Bronze Age barrows for latrines and as bread ovens, motorcycles had been ridden over them, churning the surface. Fences had been torn down, and a thousand young trees cut down for firewood" (Chippindale, 1986). The clean-up cost upwards of £20,000, besides the priceless archaeological information that was lost.
After staying the previous night in Savernake Forest, the Convoy on the morning of 1 June numbered some 80 to 120 vehicles, most of them buses and vans converted into living spaces; it is estimated they contained several hundred people. The police had laid down an exclusion zone four miles (6.4 km) around the perimeter of Stonehenge, which the convoy hoped to breach. The Convoy met resistance when the police set up a roadblock near Shipton Bellinger about seven miles (11 km) from Stonehenge. This was achieved by tipping three lorry loads of gravel across the road. When it halted the Convoy, the police allegedly moved down along the line of vehicles, smashing windscreens and arresting occupants. The majority of the Convoy members attempted to flee by driving through a hedgerow into a nearby grass field, with some Convoy vehicles ramming police vans to escape the encirclement having witnessed the police violence.
The Convoy found themselves trapped in the field, unable to continue their journey towards Stonehenge, and the police refused to allow them to return to Savernake with their vehicles. There were attempts by Convoy members to negotiate with the police, over several hours. The Chief Constable of Wiltshire, Donald Smith ordered the arrest of all the members of the Convoy, stating that he was convinced that they were intent on breaking the exclusion zone that had been imposed around Stonehenge by the judiciary at the behest of English Heritage.
There were outbreaks of violence in which several members of the Convoy received head injuries. An ambulance was allowed through to take them to hospital.
Eventually the police, many in riot gear, entered on foot. This allowed the Convoy only a couple of minutes notice of the operation. Many attempted to escape in their vehicles, crossing over into the adjacent Beanfield: but the rough field terrain meant their vehicles were so slow that they were quickly overtaken by policemen on foot. As a result, almost all of the members of the convoy were arrested.
From convoy member Phil Shakesby's account:
|“||The police came in [to the grass field] and they were battering people where they stood, smashing homes up where they were, just going wild. Maybe about two-thirds of the vehicles actually started moving and took off, and they chased us into a field of beans.
By this time there were police everywhere, charging along the side of us, and wherever you went there was a strong police presence. Well, they came in with all kinds of things: fire extinguishers and one thing and another. When they'd done throwing the fire extinguishers at us, they were stoning us with these lumps of flint and such.
There are many similar reports from the travellers, all of which are denied by the members of the police. Most independent eyewitness accounts do, however, relate that the police used violent tactics against men, women and children, including pregnant women; and purposely damaged the vehicles used by the convoy. Official figures said eight police officers and sixteen travellers were taken to hospital with minor injuries. One traveller suffered from a fractured skull.
The miners' strike ended earlier in the same year, and comparison was made with the tactics that were used by the police during the strikes. The news section of the Police Review of 8 June 1985 reported "The Police operation had been planned for several months and lessons in rapid deployment learned from the miners' strike were implemented."
There were insufficient holding cells in local jails to hold all those arrested. Convoy members were transported throughout the Midlands and even to northern England. Not all children and parents ended up in the same region. The Convoy vehicles were all towed to a single site where they could be claimed after their owners were released from custody.
Photographic evidence of the police action is extremely scant. Freelance photographer Ben Gibson, engaged by The Observer that day, was arrested on charges of obstruction. Although he was later acquitted, the arrest removed him from the scene. The Observer later claimed to have lost the negatives during an office move. 
Another freelance photographer, Tim Malyon, was chased from the field by police.
ITN reporter Kim Sabido, recorded a piece-to-camera:
|“||What I have seen in the last thirty 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 inquiry after what has happened today.||”|
When broadcast that evening, the voice-over was removed, as was footage of the more contentious police acts. According to Sabido:
|“||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 we'd shot was no longer there. From what I've seen of what ITN has provided since, it just disappeared, particularly some of the nastier shots.||”|
Some of the missing footage has since been rediscovered, and was incorporated into the Operation Solstice documentary shown on Channel 4 in 1991.
|“||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.||”|
After nearly six years, a verdict was given in the court case taken out by twenty-four of the travellers, who had sued Wiltshire Police for wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage as a result of the damage to themselves and their property.
In the main, they were only able to take action against the police force – it proved difficult to pursue charges against individual police officers as none of the riot police involved had been wearing identifying numbers. Despite this, one police sergeant was convicted of an assault occasioning actual bodily harm on a member of the Convoy.
The police radio had been recorded, and was used in evidence against Wiltshire Police. It was to prove inconclusive as there were gaps in the recording at vital points.
The travellers had left from Savernake Forest, land managed by the Earl of Cardigan (David Brudenell-Bruce, Earl of Cardigan) on behalf of his father, the Marquess of Ailesbury. Lord Cardigan decided to follow the convoy on motorbike, together with his friend John Moore.
Lord Cardigan witnessed the events, and later testified in court against Wiltshire Police, saying that he had seen a heavily-pregnant woman being "clubbed with a truncheon." He was criticised as an unreliable witness by several national newspapers. On Monday 3 June 1985, the editorial in The Times even went as far as to state that being "barking mad was probably hereditary", probably a reference to a previous Lord Cardigan's involvement with the Charge of the Light Brigade. Lord Cardigan started legal action against The Times, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror for their attacks on him, and received written apologies and damages from each.
Lord Cardigan also described how he was approached by the police the following day, who wanted permission to remove travellers who were still at Savernake:
|“||They said they wanted to go into the campsite 'suitably equipped' and 'finish unfinished business'. Make of that phrase what you will. 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.||”|
After four months of hearings, twenty-one of the travellers were successful in their case and were awarded £24,000 in damages. The judge refused to award them their legal costs, thereby significantly reducing the amount received.
British progressive-rock band Solstice wrote a song which comments on the Battle. "Circles" is found on their 1997 album of the same name, and includes what sounds like reporting from the battle, with Kim Sabido's voice-over.
- Ed. Andy Worthington, 2005, The Battle of the Beanfield, Enabler Publications, ISBN 0-9523316-6-7
- Hippies clash with police at Stonehenge (1985), BBC News archive Accessed 22 January 2008.
- Chippindale, Christopher (June 1986). "Stoned Henge: Events and Issues at the Summer Solstice, 1985". World Archaeology. Perspectives in World Archaeology 18 (1): 38–58. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
- What happened next? | From the Observer | The Observer
- The Battle of the Beanfield, Edited by Andy Worthington Accessed 22 January 2008.
- "Police damage to vehicles" BBC article
- The Battle of the Beanfield, In A Criminal Culture? by Jim Carey, Accessed 22 January 2008.
- Birch, W. Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography (2011), London: Pan Books, ISBN 0-330-5114-83, p.329.