It was the day that many had feared but few had truly imagined: heavily armed Spanish police dragging voters from the ballot box, batons and rubber bullets flying, and elderly women with gushing head wounds.

Police helicopters hovered over polling stations across Catalonia as riot officers charged at unarmed voters to crush an independence referendum that Madrid branded a coup. Videos emerged of police raining blows on those who refused to abandon the poll. At the Ramon Llull school, police fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd: one person was taken for surgery after being shot in the eye.

The Catalan Government says that overall yesterday, 844 civilians and 12 police were injured.

"This is shameful, this is a dictatorship," cried Gina Carreras, a 53-year-old outside the Colegio Infant Jesus in Barcelona's Gracia neighbourhood, where police had tried to force their way through the school's iron gates to push back voters. They retreated, but an elderly lady was left with blood pouring down her face. Voters refused to abandon the centre, their determination hardened by the violence. "We will stay here until we can vote," Mercedes Carral, a 59-year-old lawyer, said.

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The Spanish Government was "incapable of talking, incapable of accepting that others want something different," she said. "It is indefensible".

Applause rippled through the crowd as the vote reopened.

One witness said the Spanish Government's persistent opposition to a vote had only served to feed the independence movement. "This is a very bourgeois neighbourhood," he said. "People were not into independence at all here six or seven years ago. But it has completely changed, and this is what happens when you get repression from Madrid."

To many in Catalonia, the sight of Spanish police charging at voters and seizing ballot boxes touches sensitive historical wounds. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Catalan's identity and language were heavily repressed and its institutions dissolved. Some in the independence movement argue that some of the ideologies of the dictatorship still linger in the Spanish establishment.

Some Catalans who object to the unilateral nature of the poll stayed away. Violence also threatened to spread between supporters and opponents of independence within Catalonia, with a fight breaking out in Barcelona's Plaza Catalunya and a supporter in Cornella attacked by men bearing Spanish flags.

- Telegraph Group Ltd, AP