With the amount of slack, blinkered and plainly ignorant journalism currently claiming to ‘report’ on the anti-hunting movement we are compelled to set the records straight. As with other information on this site, it is told from personal experience by people who were and in some cases still are at the sharp edge of the fight to stop bloodsports.
In this first piece, Steve Poole (a former HOWL editor) delves into the archives to investigate the formation of the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) in the winter of 1963. The early HSA, he claims, was a child of its time; and however unlikely it may sound thirty six years on, that was time when even the League Against Cruel Sports was endorsing direct action. To set the scene, he looks first at changing League policy in the late 1950s.
In August 1958, the Devon and Somerset Staghounds became the butt of a high-profile attempt by the League to lay false scents with a ‘secret chemical’. The Daily Telegraph reported incredulously that “opponents of staghunting who have so far failed to stop the sport, are resorting to “sabotage”.
Tactically naive it may have been; but it brought LACS some very welcome publicity, and the campaign was kept going intermittently for at least the next two seasons. This pioneering approach was carried forward by the League’s new chairman, Raymond Rowley, in the early 60s. As the focus of League actions shifted to the South-east and midlands, membership increased dramatically and Rowley’s dream of a ‘revitalised’ LACS began to look possible. In the midlands for instance, LACS gained 400 new members during November 1962 after false trails were laid against the North Warwickshire FH and the Albrighton Woodland. “Anything the League does will have a sting to it”, Rowley told the press, announcing that he was about to launch ‘new’ harassing tactics.
League militants like Gwen Barter had been grabbing headlines during 1962 with actions of their own. In March, Gwen brought the Norwich Staghounds to a halt by climbing onto the front of the deer-cart; and in February she prevented the East Kent FH from digging out when she sat in a foxhole. “There was nothing we could do”, confessed the huntsman, “we just stopped digging out the fox and went away”.
Since its foundation in 1927, the League had arguably been anything but dynamic. It had achieved no legislative success in over 30 years, and had only recently hit upon the idea of creating sanctuaries in the South West. The membership was largely inactive and elderly and media attention was want before Rowley took over. As a pressure group, LACS was a dismal reflection of the public activism of CND offshoots like the Committee of 100. Not only did the Committee win massive publicity for CND, but it appealed strongly to a more youthful audience. Former Tory MP, Howard Johnson, voiced the hopes of many when he told the League’s 1963 AGM: “I have a vision in the coming stag and foxhunting season of whole numbers of you sitting in the roadway at meets of the hunt doing exactly what the anti nuclear demonstrators do”. That month, Spies For Peace broke with the Committee of 100, published the influential ‘Beyond Counting Arses’ and launched a more militant campaign of anti-war plan sabotage.
It has been suggested that HSA was the inevitable result of the League’s progress along these lines being held back by its more traditionalist members. It is tempting to suppose that Rowley hoped to appease both camps by assisting in the setting up of a direct action unit to run separately but in tandem with LACS. He now denies this. He certainly did not attempt to withdraw League support for sabotage until well after the HSA had decided upon an independent existence. He engaged a solicitor and helped actively with HSA’s first major court case following the Culmstock incident in 1964, and as late as 1966 he was expressing his ‘regret’ at the HSA’s ‘independent’ development from the League.
Following the peace movement’s example, he took 100 activists on a ‘dawn attack’ with ‘secret chemicals’ against the Old Berkeley’s Boxing Day meet at Amersham in 1963.
The first chairman of HSA, and its founder, was John Prestige, a 21 year old freelance journalist from Brixham in Devon. According to The Guardian, he “picked the first of his supporters” on December 15th, 1963. “He is the founder of the Hunt Saboteurs Association”, declared the paper, “which has the support of the LACS, whose chairman, Raymond Rowley, says the League is willing to make available all the latest know-how on how to sabotage a hunt”. 8 Prestige, it was announced, was to travel to London “for instructions… that trained action groups could be set up all over the country”. According to both Rowley and Prestige however, no formal meeting between the League and the HSA ever took place. Prestige adheres to the traditional view that HSA came about because “the League didn’t seem to be doing anything”.
He told the Daily Herald of his intentions: “We aim to make it impossible for people to hunt by confusing the hounds. The movement is being financed by a small legacy of mine and the 2/6d membership fee”. 9 There were also two early donations of £500 each. One hundred members were enrolled in the first week and Prestige received 1000 letters in the first ten days he remembers. An office was set up at Fore St, Brixham and staffed by the HSA’s first secretary, an ex-Palladium dancer called Joyce Greenaway.
Prestige led his small group into action for the first time on Boxing Day, 1963, as the South Devon FH met at Torquay. “We did so well that day that they cancelled the hunt”, Prestige told me. “The local butcher gave us 50 pounds of meat and we fed it to the hounds. We used hunting horns. Nothing like that had ever really happened before and it caused absolute chaos! We did a lot of research on horn-blowing and did the job very, very well. The police were completely bemused”. During the following weeks, considerable effort was put, into developing new chemical formulas for confusing hounds. “The main trouble”, commented one early member, “is finding something effective against them, but at the same time harmless”. It was not until April 1964 that ‘Chemical X’, the HSA’s first scent-dulling compound, was used (against the Culmstock).
On January 10th 1964, the second HSA strike was carried out against the South Devon FH. Tactics at this time were described by a reporter after a strike against the Dart Vale and Holden Harriers: horns were blown, roads blockaded, aniseed sprayed and ‘highly flavoured meat’ was tipped in front of the hounds from the back of a landrover. The hunt killed twice. Within a month, the movement suffered a set back when Norman Redman, leader of the Littlehampton group, became the HSA’s first casualty to arbitrary policing. Arrested for feeding the Chiddingfold’s hounds on February 15th, Redman was fined £15 for ‘insulting behaviour’ and bound over for two years. Although saboteurs now regard such treatment as an occupational hazard, the fledgling movement took the judgement very seriously and Prestige was moved to write to Redman in May, forbidding him to break the terms of his sentence. “We CANNOT allow you to take any active part in sabotage”, he stressed, a letter which caused Redman some annoyance and contributed to his later alienation from the movement.
Within the first four months, HSA groups had sprung up at Portsmouth, Street (Somerset), Weybridge, and Littlehampton. The Street group, run by Joyce Cebo, boasted forty members by December 1964 and was harassing the Mendip Farmers and the Sparkford Vale on a regular basis. A group at Bournemouth was being formed, another in London, and Derek Lawrence was trying to turn Midlands LACS over to the HSA. fan Pedler joined the moribund Bristol branch of LACS, revitalised it and then set up an HSA group from its ashes. Prestige felt able to claim, perhaps fancifully, that Boxing Day ’64 would see 700 saboteurs in action from Sussex to Nottinghamshire. There were certainly large joint strikes on the Whaddon Chase and the Surrey Union where smoke bombs and rookies were added to the usual armoury for dramatic affect. A capable self-publicist with good media contacts, Prestige began spreading rumours around Fleet Street that HSA would raid an unspecified fox farm early in 1965 and that a helicopter would shortly be brought into action against various foxhunts. Twelve months after founding HSA, he estimated there had been 120 strikes altogether, mostly in the West Country.
The first serious instances of anti-saboteur violence occurred during 1965. In February, three members of the Bournemouth group were attacked with an axe and a starting handle by thugs from the Sparkford Vale. Although a hunt supporter was fined £15 for breaking a saboteur’s guitar with the axe (!); eight sabs were fined £10 each for ‘threatening behaviour’ (throwing flour bombs). Worse was to come.
On May 2nd, the Street and Brixham groups (nine sabs) visited the Culmstock Otterhunt at Colyford. Their vehicles were surrounded, windows smashed and the occupants assaulted with otter poles and whips. Leo Lewis, the driver, was pulled from his car and beaten by four men who broke his jaw. Although seventy saboteurs turned out against the same hunt a week later and sent them home in disarray, the damage inflicted by the subsequent court hearing was far reaching. Leo’s attackers were successfully convicted but seven saboteurs were bound over for a year after giving evidence. It was not the last time the courts would use this tactic and it took the aggrieved seven (who included Lewis and Prestige) so much by surprise that none of them took any further part in hunt sabotage. Prestige had in any case become disillusioned by the politicisation of HSA as a result of ‘left wingers’ joining the movement.
The legal offensive against the Brixham group threw the national organisation into a state of chaos. Communication between groups in an age where telephones and cars were not necessarily available, had never been that easy, but now complaints that HQ were not replying to letters became common. Pedler, Cebo and Dave Wetton wrote regularly to one another – Have we got any money?. .. Is Prestige still chairman?…. If not, who is?.. and so on. Eventually the job went to Pedler. Then in April 1965 came the Norman Redman fiasco. Redman was irritated by the HSA’s insistence that he should take no part in any sabotage until the terms of his binding over were met. Feeling ‘disowned’ by the movement, and in Jean Pyke’s view, “keen to get back at his old friends”, Redman suddenly accepted an invitation to ride with the Crawley and Horsham FH. The national press, for whom the HSA was still good copy, rushed to the meet with pens and cameras poised to hear Redman hold forth about “infantile” hunt saboteurs. The London and Littlehampton groups quickly organised a strike against the hunt and had the satisfaction of seeing Redman fall headlong from his horse into a thorn bush. It was an episode the HSA could well have done without. Eager to capitalise on this rare example of beneficial publicity, the British Field Sports Society (BFSS) tried for a short while to use Redman as pro-hunting speaker in debates but he soon lost interest and quietly faded from the picture.
End of The Honeymoon
By the end of 1965, the HSA’s honeymoon period was definitely over. Some groups were buckling under the continuous assaults of courts and heavies. “I seem to have done nothing recently but get kicked and knocked about”, considered Joyce Cebo feelingly, “I think it is best to do things undercover now ‘. The Street group switched to sabotage by stealth before the meet rather than confrontation with smoke bombs during it. But the group did not survive beyond the summer of 1966.
The burden of organisation began to fall more and more upon Wetton’s London group. They were certainly the most active by 1967 although fresh groups with new energy were developing steadily. New centres in Warwickshire and Hampshire were set up in 1965, and in the following year, Cambridge, Northampton, Brighton, Hertfordshire, Yeovil, and Essex University all went active. October 1966 saw the first strike notched up in the North when David Hansen and Stuart Sutcliffe took a group from Keighley out against the Airedale Beagles at Silsden. A publicity conscious pop singer called Lady Lee announced she was forming an ‘army’ of saboteurs (including Billy Fury, Wayne Fontana and Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits!) but, perhaps fortunately, the venture came to nothing.
In the 1964/5 season, Wetton’s group dealt with 20 Foxhunts, 4 cubhunts, 2 hare hunts and 7 otterhunts during the summer of 1964. This total, impressive for a time when transport was even more of a problem for groups than it is now, involved the London sabs with 17 different packs across the south eastern region. In January 1966. this group became the first to experiment with high frequency sound as a sabotage method.
The HSA had come a long way since 1963 when Ian Pedler drafted an HSA ‘Manifesto’ in 1965, he made a prediction that has still to be fulfilled: “There have been many incidents” it runs, “Too many to name here. But some day, when we have won, someone will write a book telling of all that has happened”.
I’d like to thank everyone who has helped me with material for this article, especially Gwen Barter, Joyce Cebo, Ian Pedler, John Prestige, and Dave & Cee Wetton.
- Gwen Barter obstructing Norwich Staghounds’ deer-cart. March 1962
- John Prestige (right) with Leo Lewis after being bound over. September 1964
- Class of ’64: Street HSA pose for the press during the Culmstock court case.
- Bristol Group with Ian Pedler (left. January 1966
- Dave Wetton (right) blows hounds out of a covert. April 1965
- London Group & smoke bomb interrupts the Cowdray’s Iping meet. December 1965
- Dave Wetton looking singularly unimpressed during the anti-Redman demo. April 1965
- Daily Telegraph 4/8/1958
- Sunday Mercury 25/11/1962
- Solihull News 1/12/1962
- Herald Journal 19/2/1962; East Anglian Daily Times 16/3/1962
- Daily Telegraph 15/5/1963
- See for example, R.Thomas ‘The Politics of Hunting’
- Interview with Joyce Cebo 18/12/1988; Rowley – Pedler 6/2/1966
- The Guardian 16/12/1963
- Daily Herald 16/12/1963
- Hilton – Pedler 18/1/1964
- Western Morning News 2/3/1964; The People 16/2/1964; Prestige – Redman 18/5/1964
- Sunday Citizen 13/12/1964
- The Guardian 30/12/1964
- Western Daily Press 6/2/1965
- Pike – Pedler 14/5/1965: Daily Mail 14/4/1965; Redman – Pedler (various dates 1964-66)
- Cebo – Pedler 21/10/1965
- Titbits 11/12/1965
- Wetton – Pedler 12/5/1965; 13/1/1966