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Union Jill: the story behind a symbol of protest and alternative Britain

Owen Billcliffe 2023

‘We wanted something that reflected the alternative culture of Britain.’

This video tells the story of the creation of the Union Jill. First stitched together on the floor of activists Heather and Helen B’s houseshare floor, this handmade flag would come to symbolise climate action and activism in 1990s Britain. Initially flown during protests against the Twyford Down M3 motorway extension, it became a familiar sight at similar subsequent high profile road protests at Newbury Down and Claremont Road. 

As Helen B explains, the Union Jill, and the protests it symbolised, came from a want to preserve the country that was simultaneously being driven by a frustration at a ‘bleaker and bleaker’ Britain. ‘I’m from an immigrant family, but I still love this country. But it needs to be bright and it needs to be cheerful and it needs to be something we’ve made ourselves, even if it’s out of scraps sewn together’.

With archive footage of the protests at Newbury Bypass by Paul O’Connor and Claremont Road by Mayyasa Al-Malazi, as well as photos and press cuttings supplied by Heather, this video looks at the direct action that took place beneath the flag as Helen B, Heather and their fellow activists did all they could to try and prevent these road construction projects.

Activists Heather and Helen B, middle-aged White women, give an interview on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall. Their flag creation Union Jill and the London Eye can be seen behind them
Activists Heather and Helen B, Southbank Centre. Screengrab from Southbank Centre produced video

‘There is a terrific story of dissent in this country, and the stories are important because you learn from them, and you also take hope from them’.

Helen B, activist
Owen Billcliffe 2023
Planet Summer

See the Union Jill flying from the roof of our Royal Festival Hall until 3 September as part of Planet Summer, our series of talks, art and events responding to the climate emergency.