Throwback: Chelmsford Activism in the 80s from Maureen

November 27, 2019

It can be easy to think that the problems we face in the climate crisis are new, or that XR is unlike any other movement. Or even that nothing much would happen in a sleepy city like Chelmsford! But there is a great deal we can learn from those who have been campaigning well before Greta was born. 

Maureen Perrett puts us straight by sharing her early activist experiences:

Around 1981, I woke up having had the most horrendous nightmare I’d ever known.  I kept hearing the words ‘four minute warning’, and feeling utter panic.  I was 31, and had two young sons; one had just started Infant School, and the other had started Juniors.  The panic which engulfed me was, which one would I get to first?  How would I choose?  How could I get them both from different buildings, in JUST FOUR MINUTES?  The nightmare kept reoccurring.  I brushed it away but it kept returning. With more urgency.  I was a wreck, and knew I had to do something.  But what? 

On one side there was a growing Peace Movement (CND) telling me that nuclear weapons were a serious danger to the world and that Britain should give ours up, and get rid of American weapons on their bases in our country, and on the other side politicians were telling me that it would be dangerous to give up our weapons unilaterally, that we’d be in even more danger if we gave them up.  I knew this was too serious an issue to just act on a whim so I took myself off to the many debates on the issue that were being held, before I decided I trusted the CND argument more than I did the view of most of the politicians and the military industrial complex.

I plucked up the courage, along with my sister, Sue, to attend my first CND meeting in the Royal Steamer pub, where they held weekly meetings.  The room was full and it was lively.  We met others who were terrified for the future of the planet, and at the same time were excited, hopeful, that together we could make a difference.  It was the start of an incredible, powerful, scary few years for myself and for so many others.  Friendships grew that relied on real trust, as we took ourselves out of our comfort zones on so many occasions. 

Chelmsford is not known for its radicalism generally.  The last time we had anything other than a Tory MP was in the 1940s when we had a Commonwealth MP for a short while.  Yet as CND grew, we, along with the rest of Essex, became one of the most active CND groups in the country.  It really was quite phenomenal.

At that first Royal Steamer (Townfield Street) meeting I first came across Jimmy Johns, from Writtle.  Jimmy was co-ordinating the Chelmsford group, and was a creative, brave soul, who worked tirelessly to build a movement in the town such as had never been seen.  I can only speak for myself, but I learnt such a lot about campaigning from him.  Sadly, he is no longer with us, but I will always value the way he encouraged members to find their strengths and to trust in their ability to put forward ideas and act on them.  A ‘leader’ who mentored others to find their own creative ways of working and organising.

A few weeks later I attended my first major demo in London, where 250,000 people attended, all wanting to put an end to nuclear weapons.  It was joyous to be with so many like-minded people, like a carnival, which surprised me as the world was in such serious danger.  There was street theatre, singing, samba bands, and amazing speeches by Bruce Kent, Tony Benn and many others.  I no longer felt alone, and strangely, the nightmares eased. 

The weekly Royal Steamer meetings continued (in later years we met at the Cricketers in Moulsham Street), and Chelmsford CND grew.  We didn’t have mobile phones or the internet, but we did have Gestetner duplicating machines in our garages, and Jimmy would write monthly Essex CND newsletters, so members would know what was being planned, along with general information around the nuclear threat.  I later co-ordinated Essex Christian CND and also sent out monthly newsletters.  We’d all take a share in delivering them, and we were constantly covered in ink as Gestetners were more than a little messy!

I can’t begin to remember the order of what came next, of what actions we all took part in.  There were so many and it was nearly forty years ago now, but there were many brave souls in the group, and soon non-violent direct actions were a regular occurrence.  Members of Chelmsford/Essex CND, Essex Christian CND, and Chelmsford Women’s Peace Group, would all take part.

There was NVDA training, affinity groups, just like now with XR, and those that were able to take the risk of arrest would do so, whilst others, just as important, would support, either by looking after each others’ children, waiting at police stations, giving lifts, or whatever.  Everyone played their part.

Wethersfield was our closest air base and for a while we had a peace camp on the verge on the main road by the base.  It consisted of a couple of old touring caravans that we had between us and a few tents.  We also held large demonstrations there, blocking the base with family tea parties, holding mock courts, embracing the base with woollen spider webs when the Greenham Women called for a Day of Action, and invading the base by a mass walk on.  Another time we held a large service outside the gates and Canon Paul Oestreicher, who was both a Church of England Canon and a Quaker, came and officiated.  All of these actions received television coverage. 

We also demonstrated against nuclear Power at Bradwell Power Station, and gave public talks around the ecological damage it causes, using Dr Helen Caldicott’s film ‘Critical Mass’.

At Molesworth Airbase, in the freezing snow, we camped the night and in the morning we climbed the fences, threw rugs over them, then got into the base.  At other times local members would go and surprise the MOD in the middle of the night by walking miles, then breaking into the base. 

At Greenham, Chelmsford women were involved in the Embrace the Base demonstration.  Again, it was snow, and we were sleeping in big, open tents before the demo started the next day.  I had become separated from my local women friends and was placed amongst a few women who were asked to go from gate to gate when any trouble started, or if it looked like the police were opening up gates where no women were present and letting the workforce in that way.  We would be sent to sit in front of them and stop them, and it got very frightening. I felt alone, I missed my friends, and I was scared.  We’d keep being carried away, then we’d run in front of the buses and sit down again and again.  The police became really rough.  I remember a woman journalist from the Times being in tears, having just watched a woman in her seventies being handled far too roughly, and she said she knew that the paper wouldn’t print it.  It’s even worse now, and the truth rarely gets printed.  As the action ended I was left cold, scared, wiped out, and alone.  I had no idea where my friends were, where the bus to Chelmsford was leaving from, and I felt really vulnerable.  I wasn’t naturally the bravest of people, and here I was, miles from home, in the snow, with no way of getting home to my kids.  I walked and walked, not knowing where I was going, and then I happened upon a woman and broke down.  Turns out she was from Braintree of all places, and she offered me a lift home on their bus, and I felt truly looked after.  See?  Miracles do happen 😊

Throughout the first half of the eighties there were many arrests amongst Chelmsford people.  I myself had four.  We all have tales to tell.  Sometimes we would go to court and the Judge would fine us but, if it was under fifty pounds, we would have the option of spending the night inside the cells in Chelmsford Police Station instead.  I remember one night asking them if I could come in late as I had to take a group of unemployed workers on an outing in London to see Children In Need.  The officer was lovely, and said of course I could do that, and to get a meal as well before coming in.  So it was like having my own hotel room, bless them.

Relationships with the local police force were interesting.  We made it a policy to always tell them exactly what we would be doing on our direct actions and demonstrations.  Obviously they would try and convince us not to do anything illegal, but I think there was some mutual respect in that we weren’t deceiving them, that we would carry out the actions as we’d planned.  No games, no surprises.  We knew we risked arrest, and we respected that the police had to do their job and weren’t the enemy.

The local community in Chelmsford was mixed in reaction to us.  Several local churches were supportive, and the Quakers were wonderful.  The local Labour Movement and the Trades Council were actively supporting us. The local press was sometimes receptive, and it was easier then to get articles written and published, and the local TV stations would usually send reporters and cameras.  All of which is far less easy now, sadly.  We’d hold peace vigils and marches in the town and generally we were ‘tolerated’, although it wasn’t uncommon to get calls of ‘go and demonstrate in Russia’, or ‘go and get a job’.  We held two massive Peace Fairs in Bell Mead, both of which were really well attended by local folk.  The Die-Ins outside County Hall were not tolerated quite so well, as people were trying to get into work, but again they received television coverage.

There are so many more stories of courage, creativity, friendship and determination that could be told, and so many more actions that were held, and maybe others will add their memories.  These are just some of mine.

I am thrilled to see Chelmsford XR bringing back peaceful resistance to the city.  I am heartened to hear of the democratic ways of working that are being used, and that it’s taking seriously the importance of NVDA training, affinity groups, and support.  I know I felt safer in what I did knowing there was a clear idea of how to deal with being arrested, and the importance of non-violence, which all led to our groups being able to trust and support each other when times were tough and scary.  And for balance, it wasn’t all heavy.  We shared a common desire for a safer, better world, and that wasn’t all doom and gloom.  Self-care, as we now know it (but it wasn’t a term in the eighties), involved having fun times together too, and some of those friendships forged then lasted a lifetime.

Did we stop Cruise Missiles?  No, we didn’t.  What we did stop was the secrecy surrounding them and other nuclear weapons and installations.  And XR is doing a wonderful job in stopping the secrecy around climate change and its catastrophic dangers if nothing is done to stop it. 

Keep on keeping on with courage and determination.  Future generations need you!

Thank you Maureen for sharing your very personal story. For those of us new to activism, what can we learn from Maureen’s story?

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