‘It Felt like a War Zone’Ten Years On From Dale Farm
Ahead of the 10 year anniversary of its clearance next month, Katharine Quarmby recounts the last days of Dale Farm, the eviction of the largest Traveller site in Europe, and considers its lasting legacy
On Wednesday 19 October 2011, the clearance of Dale Farm finally began. Around 150 police officers, clad in full riot gear, arrived at 7.18 am and broke down a fence at the back of the site.
Police audio recorded:
“People moving forward now, lights flashing, cameras are going off at the location”
“Fifty-five persons on the inside, black fence, closing in on the officers, confirm if missiles still being thrown”
“Confirm if you have any hostility on white side?”
“Within the site, protestors are there, no hostility”
“Black side. Extremely large lumps of concrete being thrown now, powder being thrown, along with concrete”
“Move to right-hand side, please, quick as you can”
Constant and Co, bailiffs specialising in self-styled Traveller removal, followed on 20 minutes later.
Around 4 am that morning, the police had sent a text message to Candy Sheridan’s mobile, suggesting that she come to Dale Farm immediately.
Candy, at that time serving as vice-chair of the Gypsy Council, told me later: “I was packed up ready to go to Stow Horse Fair. Instead, I drove to Dale Farm, fair stock in the back, residents phoning me, saying the electricity had been cut-off. The police were ringing me, telling me to hurry.”
I drove up around the same time, receiving texts on the way from Travellers on the site. Some 80 families would lose their homes that day, including the McCarthys, the Sheridans, the Flynns and the O’Briens, many of whom I had first met five years earlier when I wrote about the site for The Economist.
Three helicopters hovered overhead and a plume of foul smelling smoke drifted upwards from a burning caravan. A couple of legal observers smuggled me in and I made my way towards the back of the site, to find Nora and Michelle Sheridan. They were standing among the ruins of the plots with other Travellers. Many looked dazed; others were weeping.
Nora held her boys back from the police line whilst she told me that she had seen someone being tasered. “He fizzed, I tell you,” with Michelle adding: “He was properly lifted off the ground.” Ever fair, Michelle told me that some of the protestors were throwing stones, but she added, “it was inhumane”. Tom, Michelle’s youngest, who was just 18 months old, was wailing. She and her husband, Pa Sheridan, passed him between them as he sought comfort.
I saw Candy nearby, trying to comfort crying residents and negotiate with the police to get an ambulance onto the site to evacuate two sick residents. She told me quickly, eyes scanning the unfolding scene, that the police had escorted her on through the cordon on the main access road, Oak Lane.
“It felt like a war zone on a film set… a police officer told me ‘I have orders to bring you onto the site ASAP’. I told him I wanted to walk on by myself,” she said. He refused and so Candy was escorted on. She told me this was not how she had imagined it would go, her last day of many years of struggle to save Dale Farm.
‘A Part of History in the Making’
The site was a far cry from the neat place I had first visited in 2006, when the legal threats to clear it had gathered pace.
Grattan Puxon, a long time campaigner for Traveller rights, had taken me there to meet Mary Ann McCarthy, the well-loved matriarch of the site, at her chalet in Camellia Drive. Statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus overlooked our conversation, nestled next to sparkling Crown Derby china. She gave us strong tea and then told us how she came to the West Midlands from the Republic of Ireland.
Mary Ann told me that she had moved to Dale Farm in 2004 as a widow, seeking support from her five daughters who had pulled on as well. Her grandchildren were going to school and teaching her how to read. After decades of travelling, she told me in her soft voice, this was “the chance of a lifetime”.
But Dale Farm was contested right from the start, with Basildon District Council pushing for its clearance, arguing that only a small part of the former scrapyard which had been settled – first by English Gypsies, then Irish Travellers – having been granted planning permission.
All legal challenges finally failed by August 2011 and Mary Ann, whose health was poor, went to another site in Hertfordshire. Her absence was felt. “When her chalet went, there was just this emptiness at the centre of what had been Dale Farm,” Candy told me.
Now Camellia Drive and all the other lovingly tended pitches were full of police and activists, with some of the latter locked on to various structures. Police intelligence had suggested that activists were considering violence, including petrol bombs and the use of gas for makeshift flame throwers. To counteract this, Silver Commander Superintendent Iain Logan authorised the use of tasers for a small entry team – the team that Nora and Michelle saw.
The entry team was met with rocks and Logan said that the level of violence encountered, in terms of hostility, was “the worst he had ever experienced”. One man who was fighting back with wood with a nail in it was tasered. But Logan largely avoided a confrontation between the bailiffs and the Travellers, which he counted as some sort of success. He told me later: “There are videos of bailiff-led evictions of Travellers that are awful, heartbreaking… the evictions were not dealt with subtly.”
Many Travellers retreated to their trailers as the clearance raged outside. “It was ironic seeing families watching a live feed of the footage,” the Guardian film-maker Johnny Howorth recalled later. “They just needed to step outside to see it. They seemed amazed that they were a part of history in the making.”
Some 80 families were losing their homes here, but it felt like agit prop theatre, unreal.
‘They had the Wrong People There’
Dale Farm was an iconic symbol of the fight that Britain’s nomadic communities must endure to find and keep a home. Yet, in some ways, it was different to most evictions – not least because of the involvement of activists who wanted to support the residents.
While the motives of almost all are not in doubt, the presence of campaigners increased the column inches of unwelcome and hostile press coverage. Police intelligence suggested violence was planned and, most seriously, their involvement split opinions from within the communities.
The English Gypsies, particularly those from the stronghold of north-east England, had made a crucial decision not to support the Irish Travellers. Billy Welch, the organiser of Appleby Horse Fair and a much respected Shera Rom – an elder in the community – was ambivalent. He watched as the activists had amassed there, was in close contact with Candy Sheridan during the entire campaign, and had been persuaded that things would not end well.
“There were other Gypsy men round me, asking me ‘should we give them some support, should we stand with them?’,” he recalled. “I said ‘no, I would do, but if you are watching the TV, there are no men there, just the women and kids. They [the men] should stand up for themselves, and then we would go and stand up for them’. They had the wrong people there, [the activists] didn’t do themselves any favours.”
Influential Gypsy families from East Anglia and the Midlands were also ready to pull on to Dale Farm and stand with the residents – but only if the activists went, they told Sheridan. She relayed this news to Grattan Puxon, but he wanted them all to stand together, Travelling peoples and activist allies.
It was an either/or situation for the English Gypsies. They didn’t come. Grattan had believed if he could attract a thousand activists Dale Farm could be saved. Candy believed that the only way was to negotiate and challenge legally. Logan, for his part, told me that, if there had been more activists, the clearance would have simply taken longer, that it was inevitable.
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‘It was a Kind of Victory’
At about 9 am, teams of riot police moved at a swift pace to assemble in front of the main gate. Two fire engines stood by. A plume of evil-smelling orange smoke curled upwards into the sky.
Ten minutes later, bailiffs wearing climbing gear started to go in at the front. Inside Dale Farm’s makeshift barricades, activists and some Travellers were shouting “fight, fight, fight” and then, from the gantry at the front, “Dale Farm will never be defeated!” On the police audio, there was chatter about the fear of greater violence. Resistance was largely useless, despite the personal courage of many activists, some of whom sustained injuries whilst being removed.
By 11 am, the iconic banner, reading “Save Dale Farm” was hauled down.
It was Nora Sheridan’s son Jimmy Tom’s eighth birthday that day. The family were escorted discreetly off site by a community officer with advocate Susan Craig Greene to buy cake and candles at the local Asda. She recalled later how Tom read The Gruffalo, a birthday gift, out loud. “For a few moments during the small celebration, with his immediate family and cousins in his trailer, we shut out what was going on outside. At one point, the generator died and… we read by the light of my phone screen.”
At about 5.30 pm the next day, the Dale Farm Travellers marched peacefully out of the site together, along with the remaining activists. Pearl McCarthy told journalists that they were leaving with their heads held high. Grattan Puxon said later: “I had thought we could hold on for a few more days, but Pearl’s decision was right. It allowed all the caravans to move out into Oak Lane. It was a kind of victory.”
Apart from two bins of rocks and stones, there were no weapons found on the site, despite police intelligence. No guns, no booby-trapped walls, no petrol bombs.
Many Travellers moved to the nearby legal site or onto the access road leading to the cleared site. Dale Farm was bunded – dug with deep trenches – so that it could not be re-occupied. Just one pitch was spared, owned by the Sheridan sisters, and access to it was legally protected due to their mother’s disability.
The initial site clearance alone had cost at least £4.8 million and would later amount to even more. But the price of the eviction to the Travellers was emotional, psychological and physical. Soon the area became polluted as the cesspits had not been emptied before the clearance and vast numbers of rats appeared. Roadside Travellers were living without utilities, depending on the kindness of legal residents for water and power. The council did not put in any sewerage facilities for the evicted residents.
‘We’re Still Here. Together’
I visited again in the cold of an early winter. Men were shaving themselves using van wing mirrors and I could hear toddlers playing inside trailers, safe from vermin but frustrated and constrained.
I sat with Nora Sheridan inside her chalet. She was in pain, after falling in a bund on the way to use the washing machine on her legal pitch on the cleared site. Like other parents, she had sent her children back to school. She said that many of the residents were now on anti-depressants. “It is a very bleak mid-winter,” she told me.
A year on, I went back again and reported on the awful situation unfolding. “The Dale Farm plot is now rat-infested and covered with human excrement, posing a further health hazard,” I wrote at the time. “Impetigo, chickenpox and diarrhoea have swept through the encampment, with children affected by vomiting bouts.”
Dale Farm wasn’t the only fight I covered and, in some ways, it was less toxic than that in Meriden, in the West Midlands. In 2010, a small number of Scotch Gypsy families decided to move onto a field in the village which Noah Burton – one of their number – owned but did not have planning permission to live on.
Burton, a highly skilled restorer of antique cars, found himself without a home after a marriage breakdown. It was a fateful decision to move there, he told me. “I never even realised how much hatred there is towards me.” It was a bitter conflict, with some villagers pitted against the families who had moved on. Some in the local action group were accused of surveilling the families and there were some disabilist and racist incidents, including one serious threat of violence.
Rubbish was dumped around the village and blamed on the Gypsy families. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made to the local council bears this out, with an officer writing: “Suspect it was a resident with the intent to either blame the Gypsies, hence the racist graffiti or to be used as a road block.”
Senga Townsley, who settled there, was a wheelchair user. She was singled out for abuse, and on one occasion called a “p***** cripple”. Living on the site gave her disability access and independence. But it would not last long. Three years on, the families were pushed off, although they had nowhere to go except roadside. Townsley told me that family members could not even keep their medication refrigerated.
So what do these two hard fought battles illuminate about the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller experience in the UK and how have things changed since those bitter days?
The glaring truth is that the communities remain the targets of prejudice from many members of the settled community; that homelessness and poor housing demonstrate systemic racism against the communities; that Travellers have high rates of suicide, self-harm and very poor health generally.
The Government is edging ever nearer to its goal in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill of criminalising trespass. This will make a bad situation for the many homeless community members even worse.
Much of my reporting since has focused on the bigotry and prejudice faced by the communities, which has led to systemic environmental marginalisation in terms of housing. I think back to what so many Traveller families told me at Meriden and Dale Farm: that they had nowhere to go, and how some journalists and others sneered at that. But it is true that so many in the community are forced to live in places where nobody else would have to, by sewage stations and busy motorways and roads.
At the same time, there is a resurgent creative life in poetry, the visual arts, drama and music – and a concerted push by engaged organisations, led by people from Roma, Gypsy and Traveller backgrounds themselves, against domestic violence and homophobia. More and more young people are going to university and speaking out and about their pride in their communities, as well as the challenges.
Ironically, the trespass legislation has in some ways galvanised community resistance, as well as encouraged people in the settled community to explore the heritage of the cultures and celebrate, rather than denigrate, them. As I found when I first visited Appleby and Stow Horse Fairs years back, these communities offer a glimpse into old England, where you can see skills such as riding bareback and horse trading, skinning rabbits, handing down songs and stories in the oral tradition, and cooking outdoors over campfires. This is a culture we share and which the communities have kept alive for all of us.
The activists who locked themselves onto structures and did their best to save Dale Farm showed one kind of resistance. But another sort is the dogged defiance within the communities to remain and to make a life, despite prejudice and stigma.
In December 2012 – a little over a year after the eviction – I drove back to the parish of Wickford, near Dale Farm, to join the Sheridan family as their children were confirmed and other children took their first communion. I had driven up so many times before, with a cold feeling in my stomach. But this was different – it was a celebration. Candy Sheridan was there, having come the night before to process driving licences and passports so that family members could get out and work.
I took photos for the families and as Nora stood there, arms around her boys, she said, quietly: “We’re still here. Together.” Afterwards, there were hugs and handshakes and then I stood next to Candy and we waved as the families drove off to the South Coast for a shindig. She said, quietly, as we watched them go, that they were determined to carry on, to enjoy that “glimmer, a moment of glory”. It shouldn’t be so hard though. That’s on us.
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