How the banners of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp fought horror with beauty
To celebrate the 40th anniversary since the beginning of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, Four Corners releases an in-depth look into the power of protest voices in women’s banners.
The county of Berkshire in the southeast of England is a close-knit collection of small villages and towns. Besides the M4 that runs through it, these areas are connected by your typical winding English country roads. In the populated areas, houses are often close together in a mix of Cotswold stone architecture and quaint cottages with thatched roofs. In the early 1980s however, residents of one of its towns, Newbury, were startled at the sight of cruise missiles – usually around 20 feet long – meandering their way past their windows. Its local airforce base, Greenham Common, had been chosen as their new home in line with NATO’s response to Soviet SS20 missiles, potentially signifying not only an advancing of the cold war but future nuclear conflict.
Also startled at the announcement were a group of women in Wales. In the years leading to the announcement of Greenham Common housing missiles, they had already been voicing similar concerns as part of Nuclear Free Wales, a group that protested the dumping of nuclear waste from 1977 to 1979. In turn, they formed a protest group of solidarity with their English neighbours, showcasing their concern with a march between the two locations as the Women for Life on Earth. Predominantly women-led, and later women-only, the protestors were anti-violent mothers and grandmothers along with their children. Yet in the eyes of Thatcher’s government, the press and US military commanders, their valid concern for the future was insignificant, and even viewed as a greater present threat. “It’s amazing how the establishment don’t like women getting up and doing things, isn’t it?” laughs Thalia Campbell, the movement’s primary protest banner-maker, over the phone to It’s Nice That 40 years later. “It’s quite dangerous, being an uppity woman.”
“Then came the idea to start making banners. I thought we’d kill them with beauty.”Thalia Campbell
Thalia, along with the Women for Life on Earth march’s organisers – Ann Pettitt, Karmen Cutler, Liney Seward and Lynne Whittemore (and close to 40 other women) – began their protest in Cardiff, Wales, on 27 August 1981. On foot, they headed first to Newport, then to Bristol and across to Hampshire and Berkshire. In their bags were sandwiches for sustenance and an address book of church halls that offered floors to sleep on along the way. The walk from Cardiff to Greenham is no short leg, after all, spanning 110 miles over the border from Wales to England, taking the group ten days in total. Not to mention, the summer of 81 was a scorcher – a factor that sticks clear in Thalia’s mind for the blisters she had on her feet, and the catcalls from cars and lorries hooting at the women marching in shorts and T-shirts.
Even in this early stage, the Greenham protestors’ gender became the key storyline in how the group’s objectives were reported and later vilified. After “haranguing them for any kind of coverage initially,” the press caught up with the group as they reached Bristol’s Severn Bridge. Journalists cornered protestors to ask challenging questions of the women while instructing their photographers to lie on the ground “to take photographs of four teenage girls’ legs and knickers,” recalls Thalia. “At that moment I thought, how am I going to fight the press? How can I beat this absolute horror? Then came the idea to start making banners. I thought we’d kill them with beauty.”
Protest banners soon became a medium for the Greenham women to powerfully translate their thoughts into an immediate message. In a way, these banners would do the talking, while the group vowed to only speak to press with specific points of view “so they had no wishy-washy stuff,” explains Thalia. “Everything we said mattered so they couldn’t pick something sweet and nice to put out, which was a hard lesson to learn.”
The Women for Life on Earth had already created a few banners before this realisation from Thalia, although they lacked the impact the artist felt was necessary. The very first was made in organiser Lynne Whittemore’s garden with just an old sheet. At its centre sat an appliquéd world bordered by an upside-down CND logo with a tree sprouting out. Across its centre, it read: “Women For Life on Earth” but also, “Women’s Action for Disarmament”, to avoid any confusion with an anti-abortion, pro-life message. The second, made in a church hall in Newport, saw Thalia step into a directional capacity in banner design, working with a group of teenage girls, again using a donated sheet with some added bamboo sticks offered by a local gardener. Holding tight to its frame while marching “I kept thinking, we’ve got to make something better than this,” she reflects today.
As the group reached Greenham, a decision was made to take up residence, fuelled by the feeling that their efforts had not spurred enough public debate. Growing then into the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, the initial 36 women who left Cardiff in 1981 expanded into a permanent peace camp for the following 19 years. Their efforts were collective, but in this expansion grew splinter groups and each camp took on its own identity symbolised with a colour from the rainbow. The main gate became the yellow gate, for instance, a green gate allowed women only at all times (as men were allowed to visit during the day), a violet gate took a religious focus and a red gate signified an artist presence, allowing each woman “to go with their kindred spirits,” describes Thalia.
“We were speaking to women in their own language you know? It’s sewing, isn’t it.”Thalia Campbell
Soon after the camp was formed Thalia headed home, however, dividing her time between the camp and “stitching these banners that had been going all around my head on the march,” she tells It’s Nice That. Her first design took an elevated approach initially in her choice of materials, pinching her son’s bedspread for its base – “he was really pissed off, he loved his satin bedspread.” Not only gaining recognition for her use of fabric, Thalia also caught attention by referencing the past. “I decided that to get a message across, it had be beautiful,” she outlines, “it had to be well made, and it had to lock into history.”
To start, she looked to the suffragettes. Atop her son’s bedspread, Thalia spelt out “Women’s Struggle Won The Vote Use it For Disarmament” to the left of a symbolic apron featuring significant dates. “I thought that was really important as we found out the suffragettes were vilified with exactly the same words that we were being vilified with at Greenham,” the artist explains. “They, like us, were ‘bad mothers’ and ‘irresponsible’ – although we had a few additional words!” Thalia took the same approach with further banner designs such as Remembrance is Not Enough, which purposefully utilises the poppy symbol from the first world war amongst a bouquet of white, green and purple poppies, referencing peace flowers and the suffrage colours of the Women’s Social Political Union.
Travelling back to Greenham with the banners in tow, each new design would first be tied to the fence surrounding the military base. Creating this backdrop of historical context and visual power, Thalia’s banners took on a dual quality depending on which cause you were in support of. As intended, these banners were first a sign of defiance against cruise missiles and nuclear war, providing a constant reminder to those driving in and out of the base. For context, at this time even children had been instructed not to have eye contact with women living at the camp – “we’d obviously put the fear of God into somebody!” But for the women who had travelled across the UK, and the globe, to join the peace camp, Thalia’s banners were an extraordinary welcome sign. “We were speaking to women in their own language you know? It’s sewing, isn’t it? You’ve got art, politics and sewing all wrapped up in one beautiful parcel.”
“It was striking that such potent and, in many instances, beautiful banners were a central means of communication in the campaign.”Charlotte Dew
For Charlotte Dew, the author of Four Corners’ recent release Women for Peace: Banners From Greenham Common, it was the “vivacity of their banners tied to the airbase fence” that initially drew her to Greenham. A “curator, writer, and researcher, with a fascination for craft,” Charlotte’s work is centred on an interest “in how things are made and why, and what they tell us about the people who created and used them.”
Introduced to Greenham while an assistant curator at The Women’s Library in London, it was the scenes Thalia describes that leaned Charlotte’s research into Greenham banners’ social history. “Commonly the banners were a backdrop to their camps, make-shift kitchens, and campfires,” Charlotte tells It’s Nice That. “I became captivated by the tenacity of the Greenham women, whose commitment to the cause and belief in the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons saw them live in primitive conditions, suffer all weathers and continuous evictions,” she explains. “It was striking that such potent and, in many instances, beautiful banners were a central means of communication in the campaign, and I wanted to find out more about the women who made and used them.”
Central to this “means of communication” as Charlotte describes was of course Thalia’s creative spirit, yet the artist remains insistent it was a collective effort across the camp. “I get a bit cross – well, maybe not cross – but when people say they’re ‘my’ banners – they were really the work of a lot of people,” she reflects 40 years on. “All I really did was stand by and make sure there were no mistakes.”
A makeshift factory of banner-making first took force at Thalia’s family home. Without her own sewing machine “I used to farm them out to neighbours,” she says, “dragging in all those nearby and my family.” Her collective instructions were first to sew everything incredibly strongly. These banners had to be as strong as the messages they perpetrated and resourced in a multitude of instances. For example, on the first night at Greenham, the banner Thalia made with those four teenagers was used as a makeshift blanket for her daughter to sleep under, a baby changing area in the morning, and a picnic table come afternoon. Tape, therefore, was added into the seams for an extra bond of strength and each banner was also double sewed in case one thread snapped – a tip sourced from Thalia’s ex-navy husband, Ian, gathered from his experience in making sails.
As sewing took place in the homes nearby, Ian and Thalia created editions of cardboard alphabets to be used as templates for slogans. The local car garage in the village then donated old posters, leading to further cardboard patterns to be created for drafts. This allowed for trial and error at every stage as, “when you make a banner you don’t want it to be too heavy, but you want the base of the banner to be strong – it mustn’t be too flimsy so it will fold in on itself,” explains the artist. “Then, the things you place on top should be lighter and only one side – if you put things on both sides the banner tends to get heavier and heavier. The idea was to have it light, but strong.”
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Women for Peace: Banners from Greenham Common (Copyright © Four Corners Books, 2021)
With a system in place Thalia and later Ian – who joined the artist to create their own banner-making services for trade unions, trade councils and labour parties – began to experiment with their creative direction. Prior to focusing on the fight against nuclear weapons both were artists, and Thalia’s understanding of design is a crucial reason for the Greenham banners’ visual success. As demand grew the pair would drive up to Manchester to pick up the end of rolls of fabric, “rather glorious,” describes Thalia, “as we had the bits where they would add fabric into the dye to create a beautiful gradient and graduated colours are perfect for banners.”
Directing others to create their own signs, Thalia relays her main rules centred around colour theory like, “don’t put blue letters on a purple background,” for example, “as if you walk away you won’t be able to read the message.” Capital letters were also predominantly used across the Campbells’ designs, but those with a keen eye could spot further nuanced symbolism in the script Thalia would stitch in, referencing key names or nods to anti-American government policy. “It really was a banner making madhouse of fabric,” she laughs. “In the summer we would work from first light until dark.”
In the years of Greenham Peace Camp’s residence from 1981 to 2000, recognition for Thalia’s banners of visual hope grew the world over. Discussing their popularity today, she has endless stories of embroidery students choosing the peace camp for their development rather than the traditional cathedrals, through to sending her to New Zealand, North America, China and much of Europe; “they sort of became a magic carpet,” she says.
“The slogans and motifs are often sophisticated, multi-layered, and build into the history of women’s and peace campaigning.”Charlotte Dew
As a result, much of her work is dotted across the globe – Thalia and her son are currently forming a catalogue of her work, already at 250 banners “and we haven’t found them all!” – but in England, they can be found at The Peace Museum in Bradford.
Home to 9,000 artefacts exploring “the history and often untold stories of peace, peacemakers, social reform and peace movements,” curator Charlotte Hall offered consultation on the banners included within Women For Peace, using her knowledge of the museum’s permanent display. “Thalia’s work is really special,” Charlotte tells It’s Nice That of the museum’s collection. “We get a lot of visitors who really connect as they remember being there, or were children whose mothers took to the camp for the day. People get emotional over the display as it brings back so many memories and it signifies one of the greatest peace movements in history as so many women united for the cause.”
Working with the Peace Museum and Four Corners in Women For Peace’s creation, author Charlotte Dew relays having three key aims for the title’s narrative. Utilising Greenham Common’s banners’ visual impact as a vehicle to pose wider questions, Charlotte first asks the reader to “consider the range of arguments that the Greenham women were putting forward through their banners,” she explains. “The slogans and motifs are often sophisticated, multi-layered, and build into the history of women’s and peace campaigning. They can be playful too. I wanted to consider what they were saying and why.”
Secondly, Women for Peace dives deep into the individuals, such as Thalia, who actually made these banners, “from artist banner makers to those with great enthusiasm but no creative background,” she points out. As a result the imagery across the title, in typical extensive fashion from publisher Four Corners, digs deep into the archives, not only highlighting the impact of specific banners but their context as a backdrop to the conflict across the 1980s through to 2000. “And lastly, I wanted to consider the range of different ways and places with which the banners were used,” Charlotte concludes, “from the fence at Greenham, to meetings, demonstrations, international delegations, and court appearances” – creating a book that circulates the perimeter of the military base and beyond.
Despite being an event that first began almost 40 years ago to the day, there are of course parallels between the concerns of Greenham women and sociopolitical, and crucially environmental, issues that we face today. It is a frightening time to consider our future but Women for Peace should spur the ambition to stand up before it is too late, with Charlotte’s hope being to prove to readers: “That campaigning can give rise to the most extraordinary creativity.”
Women for Peace: Banners from Greenham Common: Banners by Thalia and Ian Campbell for the CND organised March to Molesworth, 1985 (Copyright © Four Corners Books, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.