Sarah Hipperson was a founder member of Catholic Peace Action and a Greenham Common women peace activist at Yellow Gate for 17 years
Sarah Hipperson died at the age 91 on 15 August 2018, an important date in the Catholic calendar which association would have given Sarah great joy. She is most importantly remembered as arguably one of the most committed Greenham women peace activists who from 1983 to 2000 lived at Greenham Common Yellow Gate and watched its transformation from an RAF military base to an American nuclear cruise missile base to an open common for the public including a memorial peace garden. She was born in 1927 in Glasgow and her early life was disrupted by the separation of her parents when she and all her siblings were sent into care under the supervision of the Sisters of Charity in Glasgow. She recalls her time under the Catholic nuns’ supervision with affection and her First Communion day with special joy. There is no doubt that from an early time her faith was a most important force in her life and which gave her a sense of identity and value as an individual which was to be an important part of her self confidence in all the struggles that were to follow.
Her formal education was limited and when she applied to join the nursing school in Eastern District Hospital Duke Street Glasgow the matron initially refused her entry on the grounds that she had not completed the necessary educational requirements. Not to be put off by such obstructions from authority even at that early age she argued her case with the matron saying that she should be given a chance and was finally accepted. She repaid the matron’s trust by winning the anatomy and physiology prize in her first year. She went on to qualify as a nurse midwife and to work in some of the poorest parts of Glasgow after further training as a district nurse. She had a great respect for how her very materially deprived patients coped with the harsh conditions of life in Glasgow during this time but her desire to travel and to see more of the world led her to apply to become a nurse in the army. She was however refused entry to the army when she failed the medical having what was to prove to be an insignificant heart murmur. One can only wonder how her life might have evolved if she had been then accepted into the army.
Her continual desire to travel led her to emigrate to Canada where she married and had five children. She returned to UK to London in 1969 where to all appearances she had a materially secure middle-class life and was even appointed a magistrate. Her experience on the magistrates’ bench proved to be a strain as her discordant voice in support for the often poor and inadequately represented defendants made her unpopular among her fellow justices of the peace. After a few years she finally resigned from the bench sensing that her presence was giving the legal process a legitimacy she could not support.
In the 80s as a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes Wanstead she became active in the Justice and Peace group and motivated by the Dr. Helen Caldecott film, Critical Mass, on the dangers of nuclear war she organised invitations to the local churches to a viewing of the film hoping to start discussions. She noted that in fact the usual response was horror and awareness followed by social paralysis. In 1982 she noticed an invitation by Dan Martin who was then the Justice and Peace worker for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Southwark to meet in the forecourt of Westminster Cathedral to discern a Catholic response to nuclear war preparations. This was to form the beginning of Catholic Peace Action and her first introduction to non-violent civil disobedience. At that time the Catholic Church’s teaching on nuclear deterrence was at the least ambiguous. The then Pope John Paul II’s address to the General Assembly of the United Nations in June 1982 gave a moral acceptance to nuclear deterrence as a step towards nuclear disarmament. To many in the Church this was taken as an endorsement of the policy or as was often termed loosely the “doctrine” of nuclear deterrence. Others in the Church saw this doctrine as a kind of heresy and there was no indication of nuclear disarmament. This was a time when the cold war was at its height. Mrs. Thatcher’s government then dominated the political scene, Mr. Heseltine the secretary of State for Defence was telling Parliament that protesters ran the risk of being shot and to be a peace activist often meant regular visits to court and sometimes jail for non-violent protests that were interpreted by the authorities as illegal. Greenham Common was designated to be the place where 96 nuclear cruise missiles, each with a capacity of 15 times that of the bomb at Hiroshima, would be stationed to counter the Soviet SS20 threat in the East. There was a general sense of uncertainty, the cold war political rhetoric was fierce and the introduction of these intermediate-range nuclear weapons made nuclear war more likely. The debate and division within the Catholic Church at this time was heated but respectful. Senior well known Catholic lay people in the Church and senior religious leaders took opposing views in public and while some developed a theology of nuclear deterrence others not only voiced and debated opposite views but advocated and took part in non-violent civil disobedience at military bases and at the Ministry of Defence London. To sustain people through the legal process and often jail time affinity groups which could be described as base Christian communities were set up among which Catholic Peace Action (CPA) was one in London and which Sarah became a founder member. Her first act of civil disobedience was carried out with this group and she described it as crossing an invisible line which marked out her commitment to no longer being a bystander.
In 1983 she moved to live at Greenham Common though continuing her discerning and support for Catholic Peace Action and their support for her. She attended their monthly meeting which focused on non-violent protests at the Ministry of Defence which often led to court cases and prison sentences.
The Imperial War Museum has recorded (oral history) an extensive oral history of Sarah’s story where she describes the harsh conditions of living in the mud of Greenham Common, the brutality of the bailiffs and police, her over 20 imprisonments, her numerous court appearances, her fasting which on one occasion lasted 31 days in Holloway Prison when she lost over 2 stone in weight. She records the moving experience of attending Mass on Sundays in Holloway Prison with the marginalised women whose faith was an inspiration.
She describes the grassroots non-violent spirituality of women and her confidence in the ultimate removal of the cruise missiles. She relates that the women at Greenham were neither saints nor sinners but were described by opponents as “bloody women” and she was proud of that description and that they were rooted in non-violence whatever faith tradition or none they claimed. She never hid her own Christian faith at Greenham and the unifying spirituality among them was the women’s non-violence and their anti-nuclear position and willingness to participate in protests that put them at risk of arrest.
Often social activist like Sarah never see the results of their struggle and it may be another generation that reaps the benefit but in the case of the Greenham Common women history gives them a visible definite legacy. In 1987 the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by Mr.Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev and soon after the cruise missiles were removed as were the SS20s from the East. The Ash Wednesday annual Pax Christi demonstration at the Ministry of Defence against nuclear weapons is a legacy that Sarah was happy to see in her lifetime and the Catholic Church is now no longer ambiguous about any “theology” of nuclear deterrence. The very possession of nuclear weapons is condemned with clarity at the highest level. Sarah was very aware that her prayer for a nuclear free world remained unanswered in her time, we still have much to do but considering one “bloody woman’s” contribution to the cause of non-violent peace building she will be to all who knew her an inspiration and a challenge.
The Glasgow nuns who were so instrumental in Sarah’s Catholic formation have a lot to answer for. May Sarah rest in the peace of Christ which in her life, at a great personal cost, she struggled to embody.
“Greenham: Non-violent Women-v-Crown Prerogative”
Sarah Hipperson’s oral history at the Imperial War Museum
Breaking the Bylaws
From the Greenham Newsletter, 1991. Text by Dido.
After the Cruise missiles had all been removed, there followed a long struggle between the Ministry of Defence, who wanted to retain the base, and the people of Newbury who were demanding the return of their common land.
The House of Lords returned their rights to the common land to the people of Newbury and in 1997 Newbury was able to buy back its common land from the Ministry of Defence for £7million. Two years later cattle were back grazing and the rights of the commoners were re-established. A memorial has been designed in memory of the Greenham Common peace women.
The 87-year-old, who was one of the last women to leave the camp, said: “It is 14 years since the memorial peace garden was opened to mark the commitment and determination of women in their efforts to make this world a more peaceful place.
“The garden was maintained by the peace women through a commemorative fund appeal. But the time has come to ask the owner of the site Greenham Common Trust to take over the management of the site which they have kindly agreed to.
“It is a fitting end to the protest. At the end of the day you have to put your differences aside and give things back to the community. Long after we are gone people will be saying: ‘What happened here?'”
The site represents the four elements of earth, fire, water and air and is planted with British species.
It includes a flame sculpture, which symbolizes the campfire, and a stone and steel spiral sculpture, engraved with the words “You can’t kill the Spirit”.
A tree was planted to mark the official handover.
Greenham Common Trust chief executive Chris Boulton said: “The Peace Garden marks an important part of the history of Greenham Common. The trust would like to thank Sarah and the other peace women for the upkeep of the garden and for asking us to manage it in the future.”
On July 12th  Georgina and Jean won the Bye-laws Case in the House of Lords. The Greenham bylaws were declared illegal. Trespassing is no longer a criminal offence and women aren’t arrested anymore for going in.