Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of animal rights activist Jill Phipps who died on a demonstration at Coventry Airport. She was crushed beneath the wheels of a lorry taking calves into the airport to be flown to Holland for veal crates. The tragic and untimely death of a young woman was a media sensation and a further escalation of the already unfolding campaign against live exports.
By November 1994, due to protests and public outcry all the major passenger ferry companies had pulled out of this grisly trade, forcing animal exporters to rely on private shipping companies. Since live exports were temporarily banned from Dover’s docks, the carriers had to use smaller ports such as Brightlingsea in Essex and Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex, or fly animals out of Coventry airport.
Suddenly live exports became a visible issue for many more people and a new movement was born comprising a mixture of seasoned activists and people who were new to campaigning, many of whom were older and middle class, not your usual type of protester.
In Brightlingsea, it was estimated that nearly half of the town’s population of 8,000 came out to demonstrate and at the peak of activity 300 police officers were brought in, resulting in hundreds of arrests. More than 170 convoys of animals went through the town at a cost of £2.25 million in extra policing.
One of the defining images of the campaign occurred at Shoreham when a lorry was surrounded by an angry crowd and a masked activist on the roof smashed the windscreen. This was shown on national television news in early January 1995. As a result of this upsurge, London and Surrey police forces were used in a huge operation, lining the harbour with a mile and a half of riot vans and buses containing 1,500 police. The nightly presence, which outnumbered protesters six to one at times, shocked and angered locals.
Many who were involved in the anti-live export campaign found themselves on the wrong side of the law for the first time in their lives and experienced what it felt like to be viewed as a threat to society. One participant at Shoreham, described it as follows:
“Stony faced officers with camera trained on the crowd. Tears flow from men, women and youngsters alike, tears of grief, rage and frustration…This is Britain in 1995. I wonder what happened to all my cherished beliefs and youthful ideals. Is this really a glimpse of the future?”
Many experienced campaigners joined the campaign as well and Jill was one of those. In November 1994 Christopher Barret-Joley’s Phoenix Aviation started running up to 5 flights of calves per day from Coventry Airport. The council tried to stop this due to the growing protests but Jolley, greedy and eager to exploit a loophole in the market, threatened to sue them for £8.5 million, which was the amount he claimed he would lose.
On 21 December an aeroplane returning from Amsterdam after delivering 190 calves crashed on landing, killing five people on board and narrowly missing nearby houses. Although flights were suspended for over a month, they resumed on 26th January and were met by protests from Coventry Animal Alliance, including Jill and her mother Nancy.
Jill died on 1 February 1995. She was one of a small number of people who broke through a police line to stop a lorry from delivering calves. The Jill Phipps website quotes one of the protesters who was there:
“Jill died after police waved on the lorry carrying the calves despite the fact that protesters were still occupying the road the lorry was to go down. Despite their public claims to the contrary, Warwickshire police were so keen to protect the business of this filthy firm that they had made little effort to ensure the way was clear. Assuming the road to be clear after the police had signalled him to move on, the truck driver moved off at speed, knocking Jill down and crushing her under his wheels.”
Jill’s death sent shock waves throughout the country and the animal rights movement. People flocked to Coventry Airport to demonstrate. Although there were no flights the following day, such was the anger that a large group of activists trashed Barret-Joley’s house. Protesters also set up camp outside the airport so there would be a permanent presence there for months to come.
Live exports resumed just two days after Jill died. Over 200 protesters descended on the airport when they learnt veal trucks had arrived. Jill’s father Bob and sister Lesley joined over 40 others running onto the airfield to try to stop the plane taking off. Later on, Jill’s partner Justin Timson chained himself to the wheels of another aircraft. Justin, Bob and Lesley were amongst 40 arrested that day and the first of over 300 during the campaign.
On Saturday 11 February there was a national march in Coventry which drew 1000 people from all over the UK and three days later Jill’s funeral at Coventry Cathedral was attended by 1000 mourners.
Over the next three months protesters fought a war of attrition with police, whose resolve and finances were gradually worn down. Because of this they began limiting the number of flights and Barret-Joley suspended operations in May 1995 as they had become uneconomic. In July Phoenix Aviation went into liquidation. Jill’s website describes this victory as follows:
“In effect the protesters had destroyed Phoenix Aviation by pressurising the police to such an extent that they could no longer afford to support it … we beat the police, the government (who could have stopped the exports at any time), the courts who tried to intimidate us and Barret-Joley, the evil scum-bag who should never have been allowed to start the flights in the first place.”
On 22 August 95, after a five day hearing, an inquest jury returned a verdict of accidental death. It was suggested that she had wanted to die but those who knew her well vehemently denied that. A fellow campaigner and close friend said: “No way, that’s complete rubbish, Jill had everything to live for. She had just got a new house, she had her 10 year old son Luke – everything. There was no way either of us would have endangered our lives. I honestly think that the police lost control of the situation.”
Jill’s memory lived on and she became an inspirational figure. Demonstrations and events were held every year to mark her death and on the 10th anniversary in 2005 hundreds marched through Coventry to remember her. But perhaps the biggest tribute to her was that at the Coventry Airport camp a young woman named Heather Nicholson met activist Greg Avery. The following year they started the campaign against Consort laboratory beagle breeder. The next phase of the animal liberation struggle had begun.
In 2002 Barret-Joley was convicted of smuggling 600lb of cocaine worth £22 million into Britain and sentenced to 22 years in prison. As a result of BSE animal exports fell dramatically but the number has increased again recently. There are regular protests but these are far smaller than in the nineties. Vegan campaigning has really taken off in the last 10 years and many people see this as the best way of ultimately ending live exports.
See also this post on Nancy, Jill’s mum, who died last year: https://network23.org/redblackgreen/2014/06/06/rip-nancy-phipps-mother-grandmother-and-activist/