I have recently completed a placement with Imperial War Museums, working on the project Connecting, Sharing, Learning: sustaining relationships between collections and older communities during the COVID-19 pandemic (kindly supported by The Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, delivered by the Museums Association). IWM has worked with more than 20 members of the War and Conflict Subject Specialist Network to share highlights from museum collections with people aged 70 and over – both those living at home and those in residential care. Our focus for January – June 2021 is Women, War and Peace, and we have produced activity packs and organised Zoom talks and quizzes, to stimulate discussion and reminiscence.

As part of this project, I carried out collections-based and historical research to develop a timeline of women’s experiences of war and peace, from the First World War to the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp. I also created a presentation about the music, song, and artwork from the women at Greenham where I combined my research and my passion for music.

(© IWM EPH 3264) Greenham Common badge, made to raise money for the camp. (© IWM EPH 3264)

Through my research of the Imperial War Museum’s collections and oral history archive it became clear that music and song was a central part of life at the camp. Music and song played a vital role in maintaining morale and comradery and facilitated the camp’s stability for the nineteen years it was active.

History of Greenham Common Peace Camp

In 1980 it was announced that 160 American Cruise Missiles would be based at Greenham Common, an air base in Berkshire. Thousands of women marched from Cardiff, Wales to Greenham Common in September 1981, to show their opposition to the military plans.

When the women arrived at the base, they set up camp and quickly became a women-only movement. Over the nineteen years it was established the camp saw women from all walks of life, with a range of political agendas and varying experiences unite to fight for the same cause. This is noted by Lynette Edwell, an activist at the camp, 'It cut across class and age, and a lot of other barriers, and you saw women at their best' (© IWM 12747).

During their time at the camp the women organised various demonstrations to disrupt the military base. The actions the women took included, blockading the gates, physically embracing or encircling the base, cutting down parts of the fence and even breaking into the base and singing and dancing on the silos where the missiles were housed. 

In 1991, ten years after the camp was established, the last missiles left the base, though the camp remained in place until the year 2000.

Song and music from the collections

As with many social and political movements that came before them, the women’s actions and protests at the camp were punctuated by music and song. Imperial War Museum’s online catalogue holds a treasure trove of objects relating to the peace camp as well as a vast oral history collection of personal accounts from the women who lived and protested there. During their time at the camp the women used music, song and arts activism to disrupt military protocol and to spread their message. Their voices were loud and can still be heard today via Imperial War Museums archive.

(© IWM EPH 10267) Hohner Arietta IM accordion with case played by Debbie Handy at demonstrations at Greenham Common air base between 1982 and 1984. (© IWM EPH 10267)

Pictured above is an accordion which belonged to pacifist and campaigner Debbie Handy. Handy came from a family of pacifist activists and travelled to various demonstrations with her accordion to promote solidarity through music and song. Between 1982 and 1984 Handy played her accordion at Greenham Common Peace Camp, which would have accompanied many of the protest songs written by the women at the camp. The accordion was easy and accessible to use on marches and helped to diffuse aggravation and promote a sense of comradery at protests. The accordion’s case is covered with stickers representing various political and social campaigns, from feminist and anarchist groups, to a ‘Don’t Buy: The Sun, The News of The World, The Times, The Sunday Times’ and ‘Vote Jim Knight’ Labour Party stickers.

Illustration from Widening the Web newsletter, Greenham 84.9. (Working Class Movement Library)

In this project, we have also incorporated archival items from our partners. The drawing above from The Working Class Movement Library shows the practical use for music and song at the camp. The song on this poster begins...

One woman went to Greenham,
went to visit Greenham,
One woman and her Co-op bag,
went to Greenham Common

The subsequent verses repeat the tune and add other useful resources women could bring with them to the camp, such as, wellies, fresh socks, sleeping bags and chocolate. Songs like this highlight the practicality of the camp as well as the comradery. By proliferating education through posters and song the women empowered each other to be purposeful and respectful in their actions. This is also noted by Kim Besly, who was based at Greenham...

Everybody spoke for herself she took responsibility for what she did, there were no leaders and so they could never pin anybody down, or if they did take anybody away and drag them off to prison there were four or five others that popped up in their place.
- © IWM 12685

The dissemination of knowledge and egalitarian leadership style underpinned the longevity of the camp. As Besly highlights, the police and military could not break the camp up or target a leader and this was largely because of the democratic proliferation of materials and information.

Song and music also reinforced the sense of comradery and morale at the camp. In various actions and protests the women would often emphasize their solidarity by singing songs and physically holding hands or making a chain. On New Year’s Day in 1983 the women broke into the RAF base and danced and sang on top of the silos where the missiles were housed. In an interview with Imperial War Museum Jane Dennett, an activist at the camp, recalls this experience, 'There was about sixty of us, got over the fence, got to the silos, got through the razor wire, and up on top of the silos before anybody noticed us' (© IWM 21017). In other movements such as Embrace the Base and Chain of Peace the women held hands around the base and stood in direct opposition to the military force behind the fence. Through their use of song and physical protest the women emphasised their solidarity and positioned themselves as a united and impenetrable force. Songs such as We Are Women echo this message:

We are women, we are women,
We are strong, we are strong,
We say no, we say no,
To the bomb, to the bomb

Sung to the tune of Frère Jacques one can imagine how repetitious nature of the song would resonate and ring out against the harshness of the military base. The women’s voices like a choir, preaching peace in the face of nuclear weapons remains a powerful and radical image today.

(Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums - 2000.4416) Photograph of a group of women sitting outside the gates to Greenham Common, holding candles and singing. Above is a fragment from a protest song. (Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums - 2000.4416)

Legacies and impact

The legacy of the camp and the women who protested there remains to be a symbol of resistance and resilience. Although the camp was not unique in its use of music and song to highlight their political and social agenda, they were unique in their longevity and use of song to decentralise power and create a non-hierarchical movement.