Judith Pembleton, Queensland Regional Meeting

Frances Long

As we approach 2020, it is difficult to recall the widespread fear of a nuclear attack or accidents at nuclear power stations in the 1970s and 1980s.

The fear was based on real threats. In 1979, the accident at Three Mile Island had created nuclear panic; the threat that the Soviet and United States governments could start a nuclear war was ever-present. Then, in 1986, there was an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history, releasing about four hundred times more radioactivity than from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For Queensland Friend Frances Long looking back to that time is to revisit long-forgotten memories and she is unsure of the accuracy of all the details – however, her experiences took her to the forefront of some fascinating events.

In 1980, Frances lived in the United Kingdom when it was announced that the RAF base built on Greenham Common was to become the first site for cruise missiles in the UK. The UK’s share of cruise missiles was 160 missiles, 96 based at Greenham Common with four spares, and 64 at RAF Molesworth.

By the time of these Cruise missiles protests, Frances Long was a seasoned environmental and peace campaigner in the UK who was active with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Through her activism, Frances came into contact with Quakers when peace groups in Plymouth, which included members of CND, met In the Quaker Meeting House. There she met Friends who were active in those protests.

Frances says: “At that stage, I was still going to the Methodist Church that I grew up in and I was still working out my belief system. I was familiar with that church, part of the community and in the choir. I thought Quakers were a bit ‘out there’. But Quakers kept popping up.”

Frances was already experienced at responding to environmental and peace threats when the Cruise missile threat came along.

Her activism began when she was a junior school student inspired by a teacher’s story about the work of Oxfam. Though many children may have admired Oxfam’s great work and thought no more about it, for Frances it was a call to action – and she organised a fundraising event in her parents’ back garden, searching out games for people to play and things to sell. Frances joined the Wildlife Youth Service, which was part of the World Wildlife Fund.

In Stoke-On-Trent, Frances was also part of an Amnesty International campaign to free a Russian political activist who was a prisoner in Russia. They managed to bring the prisoner and two members of his family to Britain, but unfortunately the political prisoner was so damaged by what he experienced he had to enter further psychiatric care.

In 1980, Frances went to a Cruise missile base near Molesworth, Cambridgeshire, where Christians joined those from other faiths and none in witnessing for peace. There they built the Eirene Chapel, named after the Greek word for ‘peace’, which hosted daily vigils and acts of worship. Frances was again conscious of the Quakers who were present.

The Ministry of Defence quickly cordoned the chapel off and eventually it was demolished. Frances recalls: “People at the base put up barbed wire so no one could go to the peace chapel, so we were stuck standing outside the barbed wire gazing across to the Peace Chapel which was now on the missile base.”

The cross from the Eirene Chapel, built during the protests, remains at the site and the Peace Garden has been restored through a donation from Christian CND and thanks to the work of Molesworth Peace Garden Group, local volunteers who were involved with actions at Molesworth in the 1980s.

Frances first attended Meeting for Worship in Waterford in Ireland when a friend wanted to go to a Meeting and wanted someone to go with her. Frances had moved to Ireland at a time when she felt out of step with her work colleagues.

“It was the time of the miners’ strikes and the area where we worked was very much involved. At that time, the husbands of two of the women I worked with were police officers, so I felt very much out of place as the only one who supported the miners’ strike.”

As well, Frances was feeling “more and more disillusioned and seeing people in the peace movement and the environmental movement getting burnt out”. This concern will be familiar for those who take long-term action for peace and environmental causes – the challenge is to maintain the fire in the belly without becoming burnt out.

“I arrived at the hospital in Waterford in 1986 on St Patrick’s Day and it rained, as it always seemed to in Waterford on St Patrick’s Day.” Once in Ireland, Frances said: “I realised I was among friends, people who felt strongly about nuclear issues and longed for peace.

“I joined an anti-blood sports group, the Irish Council against Blood Sports, and there was a very good feminist group in the city that I joined. With a friend I started “WANG” Waterford Anti Nuclear Group, mainly to bring attention to the Chernobyl incident and to put pressure on the English government from an Irish perspective.”

Frances said: “The Irish were so distressed with the English because of the nuclear waste going into the Irish Sea”. [The Irish Times reports that the British government will admit today that radioactive waste was secretly disposed of down a 300 meters deep munitions dump close to busy shipping lanes in the Irish Sea, but denied it for years.]

In Waterford, Frances’ group wanted to find a place to hold a commemoration event about the Chernobyl accident. They had heard about a Baha’i group of anti-nuclear and peace campaigners that they wished to include in the event, but the priest at the local Catholic church would not let them hold this meeting in his chapel, so the group turned to the Quaker Meeting House because the Quakers were fine with the Baha’i’s coming. Once more, Frances’s activism brought her in contact with Friends. Quakers were well known in Waterford as there was a Friends’ School there.

“I also hadn’t really explored fully the troubles in Northern Ireland and I became more aware of the Irish point of view,” Frances said. “Overall, I found the Irish more forgiving and not as angry as I had expected.”

Frances, a protestant, and a Catholic friend travelled by train from Dublin to Belfast and then around Northern Ireland by bus. In Belfast, they attended a Quaker Meeting in the middle of a housing estate in a working class area.

“We got there early and walked around the streets and this armoured personnel carrier was going very slowly and they came alongside us. The door opened slowly and this soldier peered out and said in a fine Northern Irish accent: “Are you lost girls?” They explained they were waiting for the Quaker meeting House to open and the armoured vehicle moved on, but it was an awakening to the danger that Northern Irish experienced each day.

“We saw the walls and the barbed wire and realised that my friend was a Catholic and I was Protestant and suddenly it mattered, and also that she was from the Irish Republic.”

In 1989, Frances came to Melbourne to work and thought maybe this was the time that she would start looking at Quakers. Within the first few months she had started attending the Meeting in Toorak.

“I didn’t know if I was staying in Australia. I was working in a very busy hospital and I didn’t seek out anything more than attending Meeting for Worship. I started reading Bishop Spong and I became aware that you didn’t have to believe without questioning – and that in Quakers it was safe to say the things I had doubts about.

“I moved to Perth in 1991. I moved to Derby, and there were no Quakers up there, so I joined the local church. Friends who were in contact with remote Friends did contact me by mail and I received articles.”

Frances believes she was led to go to the Kimberley and found that “such a rich and privileged experience to learn more about Indigenous people.” She found it “humbling and distressing” that the Indigenous people lived in such awful conditions and yet it was accepted as normal. “I could not believe that in a country like Australia this was acceptable. It opened my eyes.”

Moving around, Frances sometimes attended the Uniting Church, but the preaching against gays and homosexuals, in a particular country town church, at that time shocked her. She came across a book by an American gay Christian and remembers, “I was relieved to know it wasn’t against God’s law. That pushed me even more so that when I came to Brisbane, I decided I would definitely seek out Quakers.”

Frances is just finishing a second term as Regional Meeting Clerk of Queensland Regional Meeting.

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