Pendle Witches Against the Bomb

Protest & Survive: Agit prop guerrilla theatre on the streets of East Lancs. 1981/2
Building a kitchen table fallout shelter..
Me & Jackie Holden + a couple of Burnley CND members

“Roll up! Roll up! See a demonstration of the official government regulation way to survive a nuclear attack. Upon hearing the 3 minute warning siren. You should get your family underneath the kitchen table and surround yourself with whatever you have to hand to create a barrier against the blast……..”

In May 1980,the Government published a booklet entitled Protect and Survive with detailed instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. In a rather scarily Keep Calm and Carry On tone, that felt like a hangover from Home Front advice from the last war, the booklet made suggestions on what to do in the event of World War Three breaking out. The suggestions on what you might do ranged from hiding under the stairs, putting furniture in front of your windows and building a shelter under your kitchen table.

If Britain is attacked by nuclear bombs or by missiles, we do not know what targets will be chosen or how severe the assault will be. If nuclear weapons are used on a large scale, those of us living in the country areas might be exposed to as great a risk as those in the towns. The radioactive dust, falling where the wind blows it, will bring the most widespread dangers of all. No part of the United Kingdom can be considered safe from both the direct effects of the weapons and the resultant fall-out. The dangers which you and your family will face in this situation can be reduced if you do as this booklet describes.

Protect and survive
Illustration from Protect and Survive booklet.

If the government thought that this would reassure the public that we would be safe in the event of nuclear war they were very much mistaken. There was a huge surge in membership of peace groups across the country and an increase in peaceful protest and direct action. CND produced it’s own counter booklet Protest and Survive written by historian E P Thompson which urged people to reach out across borders and create a nuclear free zone across Europe. This was all taking place against a backdrop of heightened international tension with the deployment of American nuclear armed Cruise missiles at Greenham Common in Berkshire .A womens peace camp was set up at the gates of the American base at Greenham and while this became a national focus of protest, demonstrations and actions took place up and down the UK.

On Nov 5th 1980 Manchester City Council declared itself to be a ‘Nuclear Free Zone’ and sometime in 1981 Burnley Borough Council followed suit. (Though at least one councillor thought they were voting to support Manchester being one not for Burnley to become one!) A Peace Committee was set up consisting of local councillors and representatives of the local CND group. Me and Barbara serving as CND’s reps and the towns Labour MP Peter Pike being the president.

Card produced by Kate sold in aid of,
and sent to Greenham Peace Camp

Barbara and, Kate went down to Greenham and took part in the Embrace the Base demonstration in December 1982 and we were involved in a number of protest actions locally. I can’t quite remember the sequence of the local demos and actions we took part in during the early 80’s. There were regular Saturday morning sessions in the market square collecting money and signatures to support the peace camp. Kate designed and printed a xmas card as a fund raiser. Burnley CND staged a mass zebra crossing occupation in the centre of Town on one of the occasions that the Cruise Missiles were being deployed outside the base at Greenham.We kept a constant flow of people holding placards crossing back and forth to bring traffic to a standstill. Hoping that this wasn’t breaking any traffic laws.

The photo below is of us doing a flash mob protest against a ceremonial march through Burnley by the Queen’s Lancashire regiment who had just been granted the freedom of the town by the council. What had sparked our protest was the rather blatant hypocrisy of the council who had refused a month or so earlier to give a civic welcome to a Peace March that was walking through the town. After all we had just declared ourselves a Nuclear Free Zone and set up a Peace Committee! The troops had just returned from a tour of duty in Northern Ireland and were slightly disturbed at being jeered at on the streets of their ‘own country’. As part of the protest I stood in the middle of the road as the parade passed and smashed a small pile of toy guns donated by PIC kids – not sure how willingly they were ‘donated’.

Protest at Queen’s Lancashire Regiment being granted freedom of the town.
LtoR: Kath Rowley, Tess McMahon, Jackie Holden, Me, John Bradbrook, Barbara Sanders & Catriona Stamp.

At the time fairly regular civil defence exercises were carried out. These involved the military, local council emergency planning teams and volunteers from the Royal Observer Corp acting out a simulation of a nuclear attack as some sort of war game. At the time of one of these exercises Burnley Town Hall was clad in scaffolding and we decided that we were construction workers and were very happy to clamber up and down scaffolding. So early on the morning of the exercise me, Jackie, Barbara (and a trainee vicar whose name escapes me now) climbed the front of the town hall and unfurled a banner that read WAR IS NO GAME and waited for town hall staff to arrive. Down on the ground other PIC members provided support and back up. Contacting the press and telling town hall staff why we were protesting.

Eventually, after much toing & froing down below of council staff in and out of the town hall asking us what ‘our demands were’ and trying to work out what to do about us. A number of very cautious police officers appeared on the scaffolding from a small door in the side of the clock tower and tried to persuade us to come down. After a short standoff, while they found their scaffold legs, they moved to manhandle us off the scaffolding back through the door in the tower. While the rest of us were passively resisting as best as we could at the top of three storeys of scaffolding Barbara climbed the ladder on the clock tower to the very highest bit of the scaffolding and was the last to be led out and dumped on the pavement outside. We were given a strict warning that if any of us attempted to climb back up we would be arrested – we had actually all assumed that we would be arrested. But as it turned out no charges were made against any of us.

Adding to the whole macabre farcical nature of what was going on at the time was the afternoon that the three minute warning sirens went off in Burnley. I was at home looking after kids and the distinctive sound echoed around the terraced streets outside. After a couple of minutes people came out of their houses to see what was going on, the very last thing we should have done had the warning been for real. Eventually after about ten minutes it stopped – it had been accidentally triggered by a BT engineer at the main exchange in Blackburn. And irony of ironies, the Burnley Council Chief Exec, who would have taken charge of the town in the event of a nuclear attack, didn’t hear the warning because he had recently had his office double glazed. So he sat through the whole incident in blissful ignorance. Which maybe had it been for real would have been for the best.

Finding fairly legitimate local targets for protesting against nuclear war wasn’t particularly easy. At one point we handed a letter of protest to the manager at the local ATS Tyre depot complaining about their Newbury branch fixing the tyres of personnel on the base at Greenham Common – but that felt pretty tangential. More immediate was the discovery of a ‘secret nuclear bunker’ on the edge of Padiham.

Royal Observer Corps Nuclear Bunker on the edge of Padiham

The small underground concrete bunker was part of an extensive national network of Royal Observer Corps Monitoring Posts constructed from 1957 onwards from where in the event of a nuclear attack volunteers would report back from on local blast damage and fallout conditions to some central government organisation that it was imagined would have somehow survived. This seemed too good an oppourtunity not to somehow let local people know that in their midst were people secretly making preparations to survive a nuclear war while expecting us in the event to shelter under our kitchen tables.

Having done a reccy of the location which was in a field on the north east edge of the village. What was decided to do was that on the day of the next civil defence exercise, when the bunker would be manned, we would expose it. By putting up a series of sign posts from the centre of Padiham directing people to the bunker. In the way that you see signs showing you how to get to new housing developments. The plan was to go out early in the morning put the signs up. Then hand out leaflets with maps and descriptions of the bunker outside the shops in the middle of Padiham encouraging people to go and see what was going on and ask the ROC volunteers what they thought they were doing?

I think the protest was more successful than we had hoped. We heard later that there had been a steady flow of locals, plus a number of local CND members, following our signs and interrupting the ROC volunteers. We also discovered later that unbeknown to us others had taken direct action against the exercise. Someone had superglued the padlocks to the bunker access hatch the night before and two women peace activists dressed as witches had gone down the ladder into the bunker in the middle of the afternoon and confronted the men in there. Quite whether they radioed through a report to their HQ about being “under friendly fire from a pair of local witches just a stones throw from Pendle Hill” – we shall never know.

A couple of weeks after the bunker action I was accosted in Burnley market square by one of the ROC volunteers who had been in the bunker that day. As well as telling me about the witches and how disruptive our action had been. He said the reason he had volunteered was because he was a Quaker and was concerned about the increasing danger of nuclear war and wanted to be able to do something to help in the event of an attack.

In July 1982 the national ‘Hard Rock’ civil defence exercise was cancelled because by then n large number of local authorities across the country had declared themselves to be nuclear-free zones and were refusing to take part in what they thought were increasingly futile exercises.

The early 1980’s saw a peak of protest against the deployment of nuclear weapons in the UK. This were somewhat overtaken locally by support for the 1984 Miners strike (See What Did We Do in the Strike?.) The Cold War thawed slowly in the later years of the 80’s with the signing in 1987 of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the USA & USSR which agreed to remove cruise missiles from the UK. And the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Cruise missiles were removed from Greenham Common in 1991 and the base returned to the RAF and the base was closed by the MOD in 1993. The peace camps remained at the site until September 2000 to ensure the base was closed and the land returned to the public. The Common has been returned to public ownership and along with Crookham Common forms the largest continuous tract of open heath in Berkshire.

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