The story of one Corby's woman's life-long campaign against nuclear weapons, forty years on from Greenham Common

'I had a bit of brass neck and a few languages so the group sent me off the Warsaw to try and sort out the visas'

Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 7:42 am
Corby CND took part in a walk to RAF Molesworth to protest against nuclear weapons

In a town bearing the motto 'Deeds not Words', a maxim shared with the suffragette movement, it was perhaps written in the stars that a girl who marched into the ET office aged 14 to launch her first campaign would dedicate her life to speaking up for the causes she believes in.

Forty years after female protestors set up camp at Greenham Common, Paula Boulton talks to the Northants Telegraph about her activism, and how Corby played its part in the fight against nuclear weapons.

Paula's grandmother was one of the first female Labour councillors, her father Stan was the founder of the town's Trades & Labour Club in Stuart Road and went on to become the chair of Corby CND.

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Paula and a banner designed by Corby women to take to the Greenham Common peace camp

Stan had come to Corby from the north west of England in 1955 to set up the town's first ever chemist in Rutherglen Road, and he brought his campaigning spirit with him.

Paula went on her first anti-nuclear weapon Aldermaston March when she was still tiny, and appeared in the ET aged 14 after being encouraged to speak up by her father when she was not allowed to wear trousers in school.

"He said, if you feel that strongly you go and tell the paper. And it's been that way ever since," said Paula.

"There were never really any limits set for me. I simply didn't realise that girls from Corby didn't usually go and become ballerinas and baroque violinists."

Singing in the Houses of Parliament lobby with her anti-nuclear campaign friends. Paula is in the rainbow jumper.

Since then, she's campaigned on anti-nuclear platforms, as well as women's rights and lesbian and gay rights, for young people and for workers' rights.

It was during the final years of studying baroque violin at Rotterdam Conservatoire that Paula's path as an anti-nuclear protestor was set.

"I'd been away from Corby for seven years and the campaigning hadn't really been my focus," said Paula.

"I was living in a commune in Holland at the time, and was hearing about mutually assured destruction (MAD). It came as a complete shock to me."

The women's peace camp at Greenham Common. Image: Getty

MAD is a military theory whereby it is assumed that if each superpower had enough nuclear weaponry to completely destroy the other side, neither would use their weapons.

"It was 1980 and I decided to go to the demo in Bonn, West Germany. I remember climbing up a metal barrier and hearing everyone singing 'We Shall Overcome'

"And that was it really. I was in it."

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the homegrown anti-nuclear movement was growing apace. And it was led by women.

Paula in the back of the group's van on their walk to Moscow.

In September 1981 a group of women had marched from Cardiff to Greenham Common in protest at the Government's decision to store guided nuclear missiles there. They decided to stay, and set up a small peace camp on site, the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp.

Although Parliament attempted to play down the protests at Greenham, they continued to grow.

In December 1982, 30,000 women joined arms around the perimeter fence for the Embrace the Base event. Paula decided she had to get involved.

"I hitched to Greenham," said Paula. "I didn't have anywhere to stay, I just thought that was what I had to do.

"When I arrived there was a woman there and I asked her what to do to help them Embrace the Base and she just said 'There's the base, get on with it.' That's Greenham. You just got on with it.

"It was the most incredible event. When I came back, my dad said 'they've got you, haven't they?'

Women on the Embrace the Base campaign in 1982 (Image: PA)

"And they had. Suddenly the world made sense. There's nothing more urgent than preserving the world. And 40 years later we've got people saying the same thing, except this time it's climate change."

Paula, who lives on Corby's Kingswood estate, returned to the Greenham camp many times over its 19 years, finding friends and allies among the women from across the world who stayed there.

"It was stressful being right up against the existential threat, thinking we've got enough firepower in there to destroy everything several times over," said Paula.

"It was a wonderful atmosphere. There was so much singing and all these women of different ages and races coming together with a common cause.

"The theory behind non-violent direct action means you build up a high level of trust with the people you are with very quickly.

"The police there were not very nice."

Back in Europe in 1983, Paula met a group who had walked coast-to-coast across the USA, through the UK and Europe and were about to set out to Moscow in an international demonstration for peace.

"The Rotterdam Conservatoire was about to launch me as their newest international protégé but I decided there wasn't really much point in being a baroque violinist if there wasn't a world to live in. It was clear that this needed to be done. The threat was visceral, so I joined the walk to Moscow.

"I thought I'd just spend the summer with them and see a bit of the world behind the iron curtain.

"I had a bit of brass neck and a few languages so the group sent me off the Warsaw to try and sort out the visas," said Paula.

Paula did eventually make it to Moscow, but in October 1983, she was called back to Corby because her mother was at the end of her life.

"I stepped back into this world where nobody knew what was going on," she said.

"My mum lived for another 12 weeks and from living in peace camps and going behind the iron curtain, I was suddenly getting the X4 to Wellingborough every day to see her in hospital."

With RAF Molesworth just 17 miles away from Corby, Paula became involved in the local anti-nuclear movement and was joined by other Corby women who shared her concerns. Molesworth had been designated as one of two British bases for the US Air Force's Ground Launched Cruise Missiles and, like Greenham, had become a focus for protest.

"I became fully involved really from then on," she said.

"There were some women who wanted to go to Greenham from Corby but couldn't afford a minibus. I was teaching as part of the Northamptonshire County Council Adult Education Service at the time so I booked a minibus and we went to 'study local issues in Newbury'. It was certainly an education!

"Lots of Corby women got involved. The peace camp grew and grew and then when the missiles started to arrive in 1983 we set up a phone tree and Corby women were a big part of that.

"All the councils had said that they weren't allowing the missiles to come through their areas and so the convoys had to find different ways around. We knew that they were going to come down the A43, past where the Holiday Inn is now. The phone tree meant we could follow their progress as they moved around the country.

"The Americans had a shoot to kill policy if they thought there was a threat to the missiles on the route. It was American policy on British soil.

In 1984 tensions grew at Greenham.

"Margaret Thatcher had realised people were listening to the women at Greenham and she had ordered a media blackout," said Paula.

"The bailiffs there got really violent. There were all sorts of people at the camp by then and it was mainly sustained by people doing shifts. There were lots of Corby women involved. My sister was down there and Sami Scott, with her sister Trish and her mum.

"When you got there you just realised the horror of being able to see the silos. And at New Year when women were dancing on the silos, there was this realisation that all that was between terrorists and this nuclear arsenal was a metal fence.

"To get to the other camps we used to walk across the site. There was a public footpath. If we could walk across it then anyone could. The threat seemed very real. We got flip flops and dipped them in yellow paint and walked them all along the path and over the silos just to demonstrate the risk. We were always pushing the boundaries and causing mayhem.

"In the mid-80s Corby CND did a walk from here to Molesworth. We also had some Molesworth protestors stop here and one of them was arrested. I was dressed all in red with my purple Dr Marten's and I went up to the police station and told them I'd deal with it.

"The police used to go to the dole office to find people and arrest them. We set up the Corby Police Watch Committee to make sure we kept an eye on what was going on."

Paula was also a trainer in non-violent direct action and held training sessions in Corby. Women from the Nevada test site were persuaded to come over to Corby Women's Centre, which had been set up in 1986 by Paula and her sister, to come to the town to talk to local women about their own protests.

"And in the end, we won," said Paula. "We got rid of the missiles. Greenham women are everywhere. You can't kill their spirit."

In recent years, Paula's fight against nuclear weapons has continued.

After the missiles were removed from Greenham she became involved in No Nukes Northants.

Activist Angie Zelter then came to Corby to speak about her Faslane 365 campaign.

With Britain's entire nuclear arsenal now being stored at Faslane naval base, 30 miles outside Glasgow, Angie came up with a plan to blockade Faslane every day for a year. A group from No Nukes Northants took part in the blockade for four days in April 2007.

Paula was also part of a group that travelled to parliament to speak to MPs about the dangers of Trident. Their plan was to walk into the building and, at 10am, start singing. Only one of the women's MPs came down to the lobby to speak to them - Corby MP Andy Sawford.

"Andy had been at Molesworth and had been an anti-nuclear campaigner so he knew about our aims," said Paula.

"He came down bang on 10am and as he's trying to talk to me we just started singing in the lobby.

"Nobody really knew what to do about us. Andy asked me how much longer we'd be and told them to let us stay because we were expressing our views to our MPs. There's nothing to say those views can't be expressed through song.

"The fight has never stopped.

"We've had so much fun over the years and I've met some wonderful women, including so many here in Corby.

"It's reassuring to know that Corby women won't wheesht."

One of the banners taken to Greenham Common by Corby women
Paula (left) and members of No Nukes Northants at the Faslane 365 protest
Paula was one of 30,000 women who joined Embrace the Base