Monday, 21 September 2015

Protesting against CBW: At Porton Down, 1965

In the official history of the Biological side of the British government’s CBW Research Establishment at Porton Down there are several references to demonstrations being held there  by activists opposed to weapons of mass destruction (a phrase which was in use at least since the early 1950s, the time of the Korean war.) One of these took place just 50 years ago, in September 1965.  
An affable West Country policeman was impressed to hear that some people had hitch-hiked hundreds of miles: 
“I’m sure it’d have taken me many moons,” he commented.
Hammond PM, Carter G, From Biological Warfare to Healthcare: Porton Down, 1940-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).
Chapter 6 on 'The New Establishment 1948-51' gives an account, of the setting up and construction of the Microbiological Research Department* (to focus on germs rather than gas) as part of the set-up at Porton. [How it appeared to a young female civil servant seconded as one of the first clerical workers there may be seen in fascinating subjective detail in an online publication.]  MRD Experimental Plant No.1 was handed over by the Ministry of Works on 14-10-48, with some work still outstanding, finally handed over to MRD 29-3-49.
Ch.15, 'Public Perceptions' mentions demonstrations, as follows (accuracy of details not guaranteed, obviously):
  • In Spring 1953 pacifists of the Non-Violent Resistance Group held a demonstration described as being against the secrecy of the place.
  • The 1960s brought a rise in protest following the government’s decision that the extension of BW research was to continue; CND and especially the direct-action Committee of 100 were active in this regard.
  • pp.224-5 In an attempted break-in (1963 – reference is made to Spies for Peace and RSGs) two men drove 2 miles within the Porton campus without being challenged, sparking a Special Branch raid on the (alleged) London HQ of the Committee of 100:
  • Special Branch Raids    On Monday, June 24th, at 8p.m., officers of the Special Branch raided the offices of the Committee of 100 and the homes of a number of Committee members… The Official Secrets Act was used to obtain the search warrants and in addition to the material dealing with a forthcoming demonstration at Porton “Germ Warfare” Centre, papers and documents referring to the state visit [by Greek royals, a focus of C100 attention in 1963] were also taken. – “Open Letter to an Old Bailey Court”, pamphlet produced by the Committee of 100, Nov. 1963.

  • A well-planned demonstration (large given the location) in June 1963, attended by about 300 people, led to many arrests, and 3 protestors being jailed. (National Archives file refers: TS 50/142 Threatened demonstration by Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at Porton Down Experimental Establishment, 29 June 1963.) Preparation had included a leaflet, “Operation Porton – Against germ Warfare” and the authorities had been concerned about what might happen.  Press coverage included the Daily Telegraph, Express, and Mail on 27-6-63, and the Guardian on 28-6-63. 
    Close-up from document below

  • Interest in Porton on the part of the peace movement continued, with a 1964 article or supplement in Peace News on ‘Silent Death’. In May ’65 C100 ‘gave notice of intention’ re. further protest. The date of the 1965 demo, ’called by the Committee of 100, following a more spectacular action in 1963’ was set for 11th September, and a leaflet produced calling people to attend ‘Open Day at Porton’. Troops were again to be available to guard the site, but on this occasion, according to the book, the protest was low-key, with no arrests, and only local reporting [see below, however].
  • Subsequent years (summary)
    • Feb. ’67 Action by Porton Action Group: CND, C100 (p.201, 211 with note on the existence of an active Salisbury branch, which gained ‘considerable support on some occasions’), and War Resisters International.
    • May 1968 vigil  (and 1969). Porton hit the headlines that month, thanks to Essex University students: The events of May, 1968 at the University of Essex started with a protest against the recruitment of students to work at the chemical and biological research station at Porton Down. The University's response to this protest led to massive general meetings, which voted to replace the existing university with a "Free University of Essex". [...] On Tuesday, 7th May, Dr. Inch, a scientist from Porton Down arrived to give a talk on toxic chemicals. [...] 
    • p.232 Dark Harvest Commandos 1980. Dumped ‘contaminated Gruinard soil’ near MoD land.
Comparatively ‘low-key’ or not, the 1965 demo was one in which the authorities took plenty of interest.
Scientists (?) observe Demonstrators

Police at the gate

Scientists (?) observe Demonstrators; police at the gate
Demonstrators expected to be letting themselves in for being caught on camera, but probably few if any realised they would actually be filmed
16mm  Catalogue number DED 256  Production date 1965; Porton Down (Production company)
Film shot on behalf of the Chemical Defence Establishment [sic] shows members of CND [sic] gathering for a demonstration outside one of the traffic gates into the complex; some of the protesters are filmed trespassing on Ministry of Defence Land. The camera is, for the most part, situated within the perimeter of the Porton Down Establishment. Content description:
Placard on the bridge over the railway at Porton on behalf of a hunger striker reads: "I am fasting to express my contempt for the inhuman work carried out at Porton". A crowd of CND supporters gather at the modest access gate ("Haven Gate"), watched over by older members of the Ministry of Defence Police. The atmosphere is calm. Most of the demonstrators appear to be in their twenties, although there are some older people. Many carry placards: "Porton for the People!", "Reverence for Life - Schweitzer" etc. Camera focuses on their faces; some of the protesters jeer, many give a two-fingered "salute", others try to hide their identities. Many take photographs of the MOD camera itself. Viewpoint moves to Porton Pheasant Road, where demonstrators are filmed climbing gates and fences and trespassing on the broad Porton ranges. Long shots of clusters of people; many are carrying banners - "Porton for Peace" etc. One demonstrator has a large Soviet flag. Soldiers, MOD Police and members of the local constabulary gather up the clusters of protestors and escort them off the land. A small group of protesters climb a meteorological tower on Black Barn Road. Individual protesters are arrested by soldiers and put in the back of an MOD Land Rover; outside, the police take their details (many of the arrestees are sitting or lying on the ground). A group of protesters from the Dundee branch of the anti-war group the Committee of 100 are challenged by police. Some demonstrators sit in road, impeding passing vehicles. Back at Haven Gate, speakers address the crowd. An army lorry tries to leave the complex; it is blocked by the demonstrators who attempt to remove the canvas cover at the rear of the lorry. [Copied from the above link, with a few typos corrected].
No doubt due to this film, there are more pictures from September 1965 at Porton online, available e.g. by searching Images for porton down protest
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*A note on 'Nomenclature' and control (up to 2002 when the Hammond/Carter book was published, so there have been further significant changes):-
What was the BW section at Porton called?
1940-46 Biology Dept. Porton/ Biological Research Dept., BRD; 1946-57 Microbiological Res Dept, MRD; 1957-79 Microbiology Res Establishment, MRE; 1979-2002- Centre for Applied Microbiol Res, CAMR.
Who was responsible?
It was ‘owned’ by govt. depts. as follows: 1940-59 Ministry of Supply; 1959 briefly Min of Aviation when Min of Supply scrapped; 1959-64 War Dept; 1964-79 MoD [Defence]; 1979-94 Public Health Lab Service under DHSS [Health & Social Services] ;1979-88, DHSS 1988-94, DoH 1988; 1994-2002- Microbiol Res Authority under DoH..
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1 comment:

  1. A letter in the London Review of Books dated 7-2-2019 describes some of what Porton does and includes a telling remark about its past: - scroll down to the last letter, 'Poison and the Bomb', by Denis Crankshaw -
    "Many years ago I was interviewed for a research student position at Porton Down, then known as the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment. The director at that time, R.W. Brimblecombe, assured me of the importance of the concept of defence in the organisation’s mandate and activities. Youthful scepticism, perhaps even cynicism, caused me to reject that account: I was more persuaded by other evidence suggesting that Porton Down’s true preoccupation was with offensive projects. I turned down the job."