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The Trial of the George Fox Six

Linda Mary-Smalley describes how the treatment of six activists at Lancaster University – dubbed in the press as the George Fox 6 – became a land mark event in both the criminalisation of dissent and also the exposure of corporate ties with universities.


Matt Wilson – one of the George Fox 6 – describes the protest against multinational companies’ involvement in Lancaster University

The Trial of the George Fox Six

Posted by Linda-Mary Smalley

For many students their years at university are the most politically active of their lives and it could perhaps be assumed that universities might anticipate this; a culture of good-humoured acceptance and tolerance is often fostered in order to accommodate, if not encourage, this aspect of university life.

On September 10th 2004 Anthony Ayre, Rachel Jackson, Joanne Moodie, Keith Richardson, Rhiannon Westphal and Matthew Wilson entered Lecture Theatre One in the George Fox building of Lancaster University. They were there for less than three minutes but the implications of their actions were more far-reaching than anyone there that day could reasonably have predicted.

The response by both the University and the police was regarded by many as heavy-handed and inappropriate.  The subsequent criminal prosecution, in what had been regarded as a civil offence, attracted national as well as local press attention.

“We feel that this prosecution suggests a trend towards American style ‘free-speech zones’- a concept which we should strongly appeal is part of a trend of erosion of civil liberties that we have seen increasingly with this government,” Matthew Wilson, quoted in the Lancaster Guardian.

The presence on a university campus of companies such as BAE Systems, Du Pont, Unilever, Shell, Proctor and Gamble and the Carlyle Group will inevitably stimulate debate and protest. That the appearance of these companies was occasioned by a Corporate Venturing Conference perhaps made it surprising that only six protesters entered the hall with whistles and a banner. This is especially so given Lancaster University\’s reputation for radical politics in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Interrupting the keynote speech in the George Fox building

The presence of the GF6 in the hall was short-lived, if dramatic. They interrupted the keynote speech by Lord Sainsbury (then Science Minister) with whistles, the unfurling of their banner and a speech of their own. This was quieter than planned as their loud speaker didn’t work. Matthew Wilson, one of the Six, later recalled that there had been a relatively good-natured response from the conference; some laughter and a call to “sod off”. They were removed from the hall within three minutes by security and catering staff. The protest continued in the foyer and, after five minutes, they moved outside where they handed out leaflets.

We feel that this prosecution suggests a trend towards American style 'free-speech zones'- a concept which we should strongly appeal is part of a trend of erosion of civil liberties that we have seen increasingly with this government.” Matthew Wilson, quoted in the Lancaster Guardian.

That the event took place outside term time when there were few students on campus perhaps intensified the interaction between Matthew Wilson, a committed Animal Rights activist, and the police officer. Wilson recalled that the Officer described their discussion as “quite fraught” and described with wry amusement, in court, that his arguments had been described as “tedious”. This was a comment, he joked, that would follow him all his life.

The University response

Wilson had been assaulted, but was initially himself charged with Assault – a charge subsequently dropped and downgraded to Obstructing a Police Officer in the course of his duty. All six of the activists were charged with Aggravated Trespass. The response of the University was to claim that the protest had intimidated staff and representatives of the companies attending the conference. What is clear is that the University clearly objected to the presence of Wilson, who was not a student of Lancaster University, but attended St Martin’s college.

In his interview, Wilson talked about previous harassment by the police. He had been arrested ten times in the previous two years under Section 5 of the Public Order Act. Each time he had been released without charge. His identity as a committed activist was obviously well known.

The strong objection to the protest from the University was reflected by their willingness to prosecute the activists when the police contacted them with video footage of the protest, stating that the offence was Criminal rather than Civil. So six months after the event, in April 2005 they were sent a summons for Aggravated Trespass. This was the first high-profile incident of a university prosecuting its own students for activities undertaken on a campus. Little wonder the case made national news.

Jonanne Moodie, another of the Six, was quoted in the TES Higher on 2 September 2005, ‘“It is a complete overreaction,” she said, “We decided to hold a protest about the nature of the companies at the conference and raise our objections to the commercialisation of university research.”’

The response of the university was clear and unequivocal: “The university will not tolerate this kind of activity on campus and where evidence suggests that this has happened we will take action.”

The media and academic response, locally, nationally and internationally

The response in the media was wide ranging from the local press to George Monbiot writing in the Indymedia in September 2005. There was international support from academics including Chomsky.

Responses within the university varied: The student union was supportive, some students attended the court hearing and subsequent unsuccessful appeal, others wrote letters demanding the expulsion of the activists. Wilson recalls that many staff were supportive, some vocal in their opinions but others felt intimidated.

The Charge

The three and a half day trial in the magistrate’s court resulted in the charges against Matthew Wilson for Obstructing a police officer in the Course of his Duties being dropped and each of the six activists receiving a two year conditional discharge for Aggravated Trespass. They appealed but lost the hearing (which was moved from Lancaster Castle to Preston at the last minute). Court costs of £3600 were partially met through fund-raising events held at the Gregson Community centre, but Wilson recalls the hardship caused by having to pay some of the fine from his unemployment benefit. He is still a committed activist and it is fascinating to hear him reflect, in his interview, on how his activism has changed. He is sanguine about his role in what was a landmark prosecution against student activism.


Although I was living in the area at the time of the George Fox 6 trial, I had two young children and was only aware of the events because of coverage in the local press. I was surprised and impressed to see how the cause was taken up both nationally and internationally. It was fascinating to see the story unfold in the newspaper articles; now twitter and facebook would have been on fire with the campaign. We perhaps take modern social media for granted.

I enjoyed hearing the interview with Matthew Wilson. His dedication and commitment impressed me very much. He was a seasoned Animal rights campaigner long before the days of the George Fox 6 and had endured lengthy periods of harassment.

Now freer to devote time to my own activism, I have been interested to see the changes in the expectations expressed by students. I suspect they would be much less shocked by the university’s draconian response to the George Fox 6.