IN 1982 Peggy Seeger wrote a song called Carry Greenham Home in tribute to the Greenham Common women who for 19 years camped around the nine-mile perimeter of the RAF base where the US stored cruise missiles.
Seeger wrote the song sitting in a caravan installed outside the base. The caravan was the protest headquarters of peace campaigner Helen John — the first full-time peace camper at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire.
Helen, who died on Sunday aged 80, was one of the four women who first chained themselves to the fences surrounding the base, inspiring a mass protest involving thousands of women, which was to last 19 years.
At times 30,000 women encircled the base.
The protest was more than just a presence around the base. Many of the women organised non-violent direct action, tearing down the perimeter fence and invading the base, entering offices, removing documents, until they were removed themselves by police and security guards.
Whatever the action, Helen was always in the thick of it and, more often than not, organising it.
Her campaigning for peace and against militarism began when she was in her 40s.
Born in Romford in September 1937, she trained as a midwife, married and had five children.
She knew of the effects of the nazi blitz of London herself. Her grandmother’s house was destroyed by a German V1 missile.
The V1 crashed down when it intentionally ran out of fuel — London was a huge target and the missiles fell down randomly.
When US cruise missiles were developed, Helen saw them as the offspring of the doodlebugs. She was probably right, as after WWII the US recruited the German scientists who had developed them.
One of Helen’s closest comrades and collaborators in organising and taking direct action was Anne Lee, a teacher in Yorkshire.
She has many memories of their joint activities, which led to their arrest on numerous occasions and they were well-acquainted with the insides of police cells.
Lee, who is an active member of Bradford Morning Star Readers and Supporters’ Group, recalled: “At Greenham the right-wing media were accusing Greenham women of receiving money from communist Czechoslovakia. Helen went to the police station and reported theft, because the women hadn’t received the money.”
Another target was the US spy base on the moors outside Harrogate in North Yorkshire, where military, economic and political intelligence is gathered from satellites circling the Earth.
Lee remembers: “In April 1993 Helen and I gained access into the top-secret US HQ at Menwith Hill through the cypher-locked doors.
“We simply held them open for the staff coming out. ‘Have a nice day!’ called out Helen. As we slipped in through the open doors, they realised that we were unauthorised intruders, because we weren’t wearing ID badges — and anyway we were dragging a section of their security fence. They screamed.
“And what does the mighty United States National Security Agency do in such an emergency? They send for the police!
“What we hadn’t realised was that we were on CCTV. Next day ‘Beware of Intruders’ notices carrying our mugshots went up in the base.
“In 2002 Helen was on trial for cutting the fence at Menwith Hill. She used a ‘lawful excuse’ defence, arguing that if people knew what was going on in the base, they’d support her action. The judge responded that the Ministry of Defence police who’d arrested her wouldn’t. Helen replied: ‘They’d do anything for money.’
“When we were caught red-handed inside Menwith Hill with our arms full of secret documents, Helen told the police that we needed some paper to light our peace camp fire. The police snatched the papers off us and threw them in a skip, then escorted us off the station. We nipped back in through the hole we’d cut in the fence and fished them out of the skip.
“On trial at York Crown Court on September 4 1997, charged with trespassing inside Menwith Hill, Judge Crabtree commented: ‘These women are making monkeys of the government — and they’re expecting me to deal with it.’
“In the 2001 general election Helen stood as a candidate against Tony Blair. She and I conducted her campaign from prison.
“Helen told me she became anti-war when she observed military manoeuvres and realised how much was spent on killing, while short-funding for those in the NHS saving lives.
“There were protests in 2005 in response to the introduction of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which made trespass into US bases a terrorist offence carrying a possible 51-week sentence.
“One April Fool’s Day Helen and Sylvia Boyes strolled into Menwith Hill through a gap next to the main gate wide enough to admit thin women. I drove them up there. As only the attorney general could authorise the bringing of charges under this Act, the palaver that followed over the succeeding year or so meant that they were on TV news nine times.
“Helen’s defence (I cobbled it together) was that section 28 of the Act had been made in bad faith — it was actually the state’s aim to curtail peace protests under the guise of countering terrorism.
“In April 2006 the Independent had a front-page splash about Helen and other campaigners, headlined ‘The Non-violent Terrorist Grannies.’”
The activities of Helen and her comrades led to the production of a short series of films on YouTube entitled “Disarming Grandmothers.”
Photos and other material on their activities are kept in the Feminist Archive North in the Brotherton Library at Leeds University.
Their activities have also been archived by the Danish Peace Academy.
Lee went on: “Helen is the only person I know who has dared to graffiti the Houses of Parliament — opposing depleted uranium weapons; the Scottish Parliament — opposing Trident; the Bank of England — opposing collusion with Menwith Hill; GCHQ Bude — opposing collaboration with the NSA; and the US embassy — opposing the use of plutonium on the Cassini space craft.
“Her most recent activism was the attempt to get others to join her at a peace camp she set up at RAF Waddington opposing bombing using drones.
“Being involved in [direct action] with Helen could be enormous fun.”
In her final years Helen suffered from dementia, and was cared for at Spring Mount care home in Bradford, with freedom to roam the grounds and friendly staff to keep her safe.
Another of her friends, Carol Turner, said: “The gardens were bounded by a high wall to prevent residents straying onto the busy main road.
“Needless to say, the sight was more than Helen could resist. Whenever I visited there were always tales of the occasions when she’d climbed it, sometimes with success. Her Greenham spirit lived on till the end.”