Greenham Common; a significant protest seldom acknowledged

By Lydia Edwards

Greenham Common could have been an insignificant point in Berkshire if it were not for the Greenham Common Women’s peace camp that was established in 1981 to protest against nuclear weapons being sited at the RAF base.

Source: Welling, C. (2016). Towing friends Greenham Common. [online] Carywelling.co.uk. Available at: http://www.carywelling.co.uk/towingfriendsgre.html [Accessed 21 Jul. 2016].

Source: Welling, C. (2016). Towing friends Greenham Common. [online] Carywelling.co.uk. Available at: http://www.carywelling.co.uk/towingfriendsgre.html [Accessed 21 Jul. 2016].

In 1979, NATO decided the airbase located on the common was to be used as the site for the deployment of American cruise missiles, the missiles would arrive at Greenham in 1983. However even before the arrival of the nuclear weapons a remarkable protest had gathered with the notorious women’s peace camp at its center.

The camps origins began in a march organized from Cardiff to Greenham Common under the banner of “Women for Life on Earth”[1]. The march left Cardiff on the 27th of August 1981 and arrived at Greenham on the 5th of September. The original 36 women, 4 men and 3 children were there to protest on the arrival of American cruise missiles[2]. Upon arrival, the protesters decided that four women should chain themselves to the fence of Greenham and subsequently the press would be notified. Later on, the women wrote a letter to the base commander. The commander replied to this by stating “As far as I’m concerned, you can stay here for as long as you like”. This statement is one he would regret[3].

By the end of the week the women took part in chaining action on a rota basis, more and more women became a part of the movement and a peace camp came into fruition – by November it was firmly established and by March 1982, it became a women’s only peace protest.

The support for Greenham women became widespread. Many women across Britain became members of Greenham support groups. The camp also attracted women from other countries and inspired the development of further women’s peace camps “at least thirty on three continents by 1983”[4]. The slogan “Greenham Women Everywhere” formed a wider web of protest across Britain and beyond.

It accumulated further support throughout 1982 when Newbury Council were determined to evict the women from the common along with a series of activities by Greenham Women which ultimately led to arrests, court cases and prison sentences for some[5]. These activities included the first blockade of the base by 250 women in March, a symbolic die-in at the London stock exchange in June. A die-in is a type of protest whereby participants pretend to be dead. Furthermore there was an occupation inside the base in August as well as an encirclement of the base. This was known to many as “embrace the base”[6].

Many of the characteristic features of the campaign were taking shape during 1982. Women were learning techniques of passive resistance and how to plan and execute large actions within the principles of non-hierarchical organisation. They were challenging the legal framework and court procedures in ways reminiscent of the Suffragettes. It is argued that up to 50,000 women engaged with the camp by December 1983[7].

One of the women that engaged in the protests over the years was called Helen Thomas, who came from Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire. A woman who was inspired by the women of Greenham Common paid the ultimate price for peace. According to the sources, Helen went to the peace camp at the beginning of 1989 when the camp had a decline in media interest and they were short of women who wanted to be involved. Her mother once wrote to her asking her to come home, get a decent job and be involved at Greenham part-time. However, Helen was determined and argued that “peace and justice was not a part-time job”[8].

This decision was to be a significant and ill-fated. Helen was hit by a police car on August 5th, 1989 which proved to be fatal. Helen was 22 when she passed away, she was only at the camp for two months prior to the accident. Her death was ruled to be an accident although it is still contested by Helens family and friends who argue the verdict is questionable as standard procedures were not followed[9].

Source: Dicken, Paul. "Wales, Greenham Common And Occupy | Hiraeth". Hiraeth.wales. N.p., 2011. Web. 19 July 2016.

Source: Dicken, Paul. “Wales, Greenham Common And Occupy | Hiraeth”. Hiraeth.wales. N.p., 2011. Web. 19 July 2016.

Wales for Peace have a commemorative plaque for Helen, located within the garden of peace behind the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff and is available for the public to visit.

Although Greenham Common has been disbanded, and it seems we live in a society that seems to have more violence as time passes, the fight for peace continues. Helen Thomas along with the other women of Greenham played an active role in moving the struggle onward.

[1] Liddington, J. (1989) The Long Road to Greenham: Feminism and anti-militarism in Britain since 1820. United Kingdom: Trafalgar Square.

[2] Shaw, M (1993) “Women in Protest and Beyond: Greenham Common and Mining Support Groups.” PhD Thesis. Durham University. Print.

[3] Harford, B and Hopkins (1984) S. Greenham Common. London: Women’s Press. Print.

[4] We Are Ordinary Women (1985) Seattle: Seal Press. Print.

[5] Liddington, J. (1989) The Long Road to Greenham: Feminism and anti-militarism in Britain since 1820. United Kingdom: Trafalgar Square.

[6] Roseneil, Sasha. Common Women, Uncommon Practices. London: Cassell, 2000. Print.

[7] Harford, Barbara and Sarah Hopkins. Greenham Common. London: Women’s Press, 1984. Print.

[8] “The Woman Who Paid The Ultimate Price For Peace”. walesonline. N.p., 2011. Web. 13 July 2016.

[9] “Greenham Common Campaigner Helen Thomas Honoured | Women’s Views On News”. Womensviewsonnews.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 19 July 2016.

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