Fewer and fewer people remember the harrowing details of Battle of the Beanfield; a day when violent confrontations broke out on the Wiltshire plain which resulted in the largest mass civilian arrest in the United Kingdom since World War II. To those who were there on that day, June 1st, 1985, it was a profound moment in history. A day in which a large convoy of travellers was intercepted by thousands of police officers near the historical site, Stonehenge, in a bloody one-sided battle that highlighted brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement. At the end of the day, 537 travellers were placed under arrest and 24 people were hospitalized, 8 of those being police officers.
In the summer of 1985, a convoy of hippies, green activists, peaceniks, and modern-day nomads were en route to an annual festival being held near Stonehenge. The group was rather large, with over 600 men, women, and children traveling in 140 vehicles. The group was on their way to attend the People’s Free Festival when they were stopped seven miles from Stonehenge and violently assaulted by a huge police force. This caravan was known as the Peace Convoy by the members, but were termed ‘travellers’ by law enforcement; a term which was clouded in crime, drug use, and general lawbreaking. Both sides felt justification in their movements, however unbeknownst to the Peace Convoy members, the British courts had already issued an injunction against the event due to rampant lawlessness and drug use from the prior year. The police were backed by a High Court decision and were determined to stop the convoy from reaching its destination. The travellers seemed unaware and were unprepared for the hell that was about to be unleashed on them.
The people who were caught up in the Battle of the Beanfield were a collection of New Age Travellers; people who espoused hippie-like beliefs, freedom, and lived a carefree lifestyle, often traveling between different festivals across the United Kingdom. They lived in converted buses, campers, and motor homes, often stopping in open areas or ont he outskirts of population centers for a few days before moving on. The traveling lifestyle is not uncommon in the British Isles and still exists today in small numbers. Irish Travellers, Romani Gypsies, and Scottish Gypsies still move around the lands. This particular group however, was not part of one of the traditional groups nor were they gypsies; one might equate them to “deadheads” which are people who follow the Grateful Dead, an American band, around the nation while on tour. The term traveller is highly stereotypic and lumps everyone of a similar lifestyle into one group, which was unfortunate for the Peace Convoy and they took the brunt of years of rage that had been building in the law enforcement community. For additional information on travellers, check out this link.
The local police had been tipped off to the coming caravan and were making preparations to stop the group by whatever means necessary. With the lawlessness and rampant drug-use at the previous year’s festival still fresh in their minds,the Wiltshire force built a massive roadblock using tons and tons of gravel. The size of the convey caught the locals off guard, so they called in reinforcements and officers arrived throughout the day, including members of the Police Support Unit, which specialized in riot control. At the end of the day more than 1,200 uniformed police officers were assembled. Unfortunately for the festival goers, the police had developed an extreme prejudice for travellers and anyone living the traveller lifestyle.
The Battle of the Beanfield
As the convoy approached the blockade, it was obvious that someone had to give. The travellers made the first move and attempted to ram the most forward positioned police vehicles. The Battle of the Beanfield was unofficially on. The police pounced on the leading vehicles, wielding wooden batons they started systematically smashing windows and dragging occupants out for arrest. Those further back in line started moving their vehicles off the roadway and congregated in a nearby bean field. Things quickly degraded into a chaotic scene of unchecked violence.
Some of the travellers began hurling stones at the officers, which provoked them into losing their temper and handing down beatings to anyone who was within striking distance. Reports of people being dragged out of cars and pummeled were numerous but when two officers chased down a very pregnant woman before clubbing her in the head from behind, it went from enforcement of the law to personal. Children were showered in broken glass and families subjected to a level of violence usually reserved for armed combat. Police officers in riot gear swarmed the convoy, destroying everything they could while terrifying the defenseless travellers.
The chaos resulted in many people attempting to flee the scene by whatever means were available. Yet this action was quickly rendered useless when a police helicopter flew in with the local police chief riding shotgun. Donald Smith, the Wiltshire Chief Constable gave orders from above announcing that everyone was under arrest. Officers quickly changed tactics and begun systematically arresting everyone; many were bloodied and shell shocked from the heavy-handed tactics employed.
In total, eight police officers and 16 travelers were hospitalized after the ordeal, and many more were treated for superficial injuries on the plain. More than 500 travellers were detained by law enforcement. Yet, despite the massive police effort, very few of those arrested were prosecuted. Local authorities found themselves short of space in the police stations and many of the travellers were taken to other districts; families were separated and some pets euthanized. Later many of the detained sued for wrongful arrest, assault, and damage to property, and there were a few minor repatriations.
To this day, the Battle of the Beanfield is looked upon by many as a turning point in how law enforcement interacts with the community. The barbaric tactics utilized against unarmed citizens were demonized in the media and the public was spared none of the gory details in the press. Many believe that the police reacted correctly, since they were following the High Court ruling, and the travellers were afforded the opportunity to simply turn around and go on their way. Once the first move was made, it appeared to many on the outside that the police were simply waiting for an opportunity to destroy opposition to the status quo at the time. Oddly enough, both sides claimed victory in the conflict. Even though the Peace Convoy was trashed, the event led to cultural changes in how police officers responded in the future, being somewhat more dignified and exercising more self-control.