After a tense wait, the pressure cooker finally exploded with over 1,000 police drawn from five constabularies charging into the field wielding truncheons.
In an effort to escape, the convoy drove from the grass field into the adjacent Beanfield looking for a way out. The huge numbers of by now hysterical policemen charged in behind them to commit their now infamous carnage.
Public knowledge of the events of that day are still limited by the fact that only a small number of journalists were present in the Beanfield at the time. Most, including the BBC television crew, had obeyed the police directive to stay behind police lines at the bottom of the hill "for their own safety".
One of the few journalists to ignore police advice and attend the scene was Nick Davies, Home Affairs correspondent for The Observer. He wrote: "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... Over the years I had seen all kinds of horrible and frightening things and always managed to grin and write it. But as I left the Beanfield, for the first time, I felt sick enough to cry."
The only national television camera crew in the Beanfield was from ITN. Reporter Kim Sabido spoke to camera: "What we—the ITN camera crew and myself as a reporter—have seen in the last 30 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 enquiry."
However, when the item was nationally broadcast on ITN news later that day, Sabido's voice-over had been removed and replaced with a dispassionate narrator. The worst film footage was also edited out. When approached for the footage not shown on the news, ITN claimed it was missing. "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," recalls Sabido. "From what I've seen of what ITN has provided since, it just disappeared, particularly some of the nastier shots."
Some but not all of the missing footage has since surfaced on bootleg tapes and was incorporated into the Operation Solstice documentary shown on Channel Four in 1991.
Photographic evidence is also scant. Ben Gibson, a freelance photographer working for The Observer that day, was arrested in the Beanfield after photographing riot police smashing their way into a Traveller's coach. He was later acquitted of charges of obstruction although the intention behind his arrest had been served by removing him from the scene. Most of the negatives from the film he managed to shoot disappeared from The Observer's archives during an office move.
Fellow photographer Tim Malyon narrowly avoided the same fate: "Whilst attempting to take pictures of one group of officers beating people with their truncheons, a policeman shouted out to 'get him' and I was chased. I ran and was not arrested." Tim Malyon's negatives have also been lost with only a few prints surviving.
One unusual eye-witness to the Beanfield nightmare was the Earl of Cardigan, secretary of the Marlborough Conservative Association and manager of Savernake Forest (on behalf of his father the Marquis of Ailesbury). He had travelled along with the convoy on his motorbike accompanied by fellow Conservative Association member John Moore. As the Travellers had left from land managed by Cardigan, the pair thought "it would be interesting to follow the events personally". Wearing crash helmets to disguise their identity, they witnessed what Cardigan described to Squall as "unspeakable" police violence.
Cardigan subsequently provided eye-witness testimonies of police behaviour during prosecutions brought against Wiltshire Police.
These included descriptions of a heavily pregnant woman with "a silhouette like a zeppelin" being "clubbed with a truncheon" and riot police showering a woman and child with glass. "I had just recently had a baby daughter myself so when I saw babies showered with glass by riot police smashing windows, I thought of my own baby lying in her cradle 25 miles away in Marlborough," recalls Cardigan.
After the Beanfield, Wiltshire Police approached Lord Cardigan to gain his consent for an immediate eviction of the Travellers remaining on his Savernake Forest site.
"They said they wanted to go into the campsite 'suitably equipped' and 'finish unfinished business'. Make of that phrase what you will," says Cardigan. "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."
Instead, the site was evicted using court possession proceedings, allowing the Travellers a few days recuperative grace.
As a prominent local aristocrat and Tory, Cardigan's testimony held unusual sway, presenting unforeseen difficulties for those seeking to cover up and re-interpret the events at the Beanfield.
In an effort to counter the impact of his testimony, several national newspapers began painting him as a 'loony lord', questioning his suitability as an eye-witness and drawing farcical conclusions from the fact that his great-great grandfather had led the charge of the light brigade. The Times editorial on June 3rd claimed that being "barking mad was probably hereditary".
As a consequence, Lord Cardigan successfully sued The Times, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror for claiming that his allegations against the police were false and for suggesting that he was making a home for hippies. He received what he describes as "a pleasing cheque and a written apology" from all of them. His treatment by the press was ample indication of the united front held between the prevailing political intention and media backup, with Lord Cardigan's eye-witness account as a serious spanner in the plotted works: "On the face of it they had the ultimate establishment creature—land-owning, peer of the realm, card-carrying member of the Conservative Party—slagging off police and therefore by implication befriending those who they call the powers of darkness," says Cardigan. "I hadn't realised that anybody that appeared to be supporting elements that stood against the establishment would be savaged by establishment newspapers. Now one thinks about it, nothing could be more natural. I hadn't realised that I would be considered a class traitor; if I see a policeman truncheoning a woman I feel I'm entitled to say that it is not a good thing you should be doing. I went along, saw an episode in British history and reported what I saw."
Largely as a result of his testimony, police charges against members of the convoy were dismissed in the local magistrates' courts. However, there was no public inquiry. Of the 440 Travellers taken into custody that day, 24 went through the gruelling five year process of taking Wiltshire Police to court for wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage. They finally won a four month court case at Winchester Crown Court in 1991, but their compensation was entirely swallowed by the legal costs incurred in the process. As Lord Gifford QC, the Travellers' legal representative, put it: "It left a very sour taste in the mouth". To some of those at the brunt end of the truncheon charge it left a devastating legacy.
Alan Lodge, a veteran of many free festivals was one of the 24 Travellers who 'successfully' took Wiltshire Police to court following the Beanfield incident: "There was one guy who I trusted my children with in the early '80s—he was a potter. After the Beanfield I wouldn't let him anywhere near them. I saw him, a man of substance, at the end of all that nonsense wobbled to the point of illness and evil. It turned all of us and I'm sure that applies to the whole travelling community. There were plenty of people who had got something very positive together who came out of the Beanfield with a world view of 'fuck everyone'."
The berserk nature of the police violence drew obvious comparisons with the coercive police tactics employed on the miners' strike the year before. Many observers claimed the two events provided strong evidence that government directives were para-militarising police responses to crowd control. Indeed, the confidential Wiltshire Police Operation Solstice Report released to plaintiffs during the resulting Crown Court case, states: "'Counsel's opinion regarding the police tactics used in the miners' strike to prevent a breach of the peace was considered relevant."
The news section of Police Review, published seven days after the Beanfield, stated: "The Police operation had been planned for several months and lessons in rapid deployment learned from the miners' strike were implemented."
The manufactured reasoning behind such heavy-handed tactics was best summed up in a laughable passage from the confidential police report on the Beanfield: "There is known to be a hierarchy within the convoy; a small nucleus of leaders making the final decisions on all matters of importance relating to the convoy's activities. A second group who are known as the 'lieutenants' or 'warriors' carry out the wishes of the convoy leader, intimidating other groups on site." If the coercive policing used during the miners strike was a violent introduction to Thatcher's mal-intention towards union activity, the Battle of the Beanfield was a similarly severe introduction to a new era of intolerance of Travellers.