The problem of gaining and preserving freedom of access to crags and mountains is becoming acute in certain areas. Where access itself is unrestricted, mountaineers may still find their freedom threatened by increasing interference from sundry officials. In the United States, control over climbers’ movements is in some areas already a common occurrence. In this article an historic mountain incident is recalled, one whose lessons are no less valid today. Kinder Scout is the wild heart of the Derbyshire Peak District: it is the final Southerly clench of the backbone of England.
On every side of this area of ‘outstanding natural beauty’ industrial towns bristle. For the millions in the conurbations of Manchester, Sheffield and the West Riding, a short road or train journey brings these moorland fastnesses within reach. ‘The Manchester Rambler’ can be up and away before his Southern counterpart has reached the station. In 1932, although these moors lay on the doorsteps of many who considered them their birthright, they were owned by a handful of landlords, who had reserved these unrivaled acres for their own private enjoyment. A few score of very wealthy ‘sportsmen’ spent the autumn months slaughtering the grouse that flourish there. The local record for one day was 1,421 brace, shot by nine guns over the Broomhead Moors in August 1913. To make such carnage possible the people were excluded not only during the nesting and shooting seasons but throughout the whole year
In 1932, P. A. Barnes, author of Trespassers will be Prosecuted, a famous pamphlet campaigning for free access, wrote: "Throughout the moorland areas in and adjacent to the Peak District (about 215 square miles) there are only about twelve footpaths." Ramblers and climbers were affronted by "Keep Out" signs everywhere, and small private armies of gamekeepers patrolled their masters’ estates with forelock-touching earnestness.
There is a long tradition of moorland walking among Manchester and Sheffield workers. At this time, tens of thousands of young people would hike from tram termini each weekend, bound for the Peak. As the dole queues lengthened, more and more turned to rambling as one of the few sporting activities they could afford. In 1932, there were 66,000 unemployed in Sheffield. At a time when many were questioning the institutions and ideology of capitalism, the almost feudal restrictions on access to the moors were an intolerable outrage. Confrontations with gamekeepers became more frequent and more violent. Obviously working to instructions from the landlords, moorland patrols increased their vigilance, and the indignation of the ramblers escalated apace. As early as 1923 the Manchester Evening Chronicle had contained an amazing Wild West style "wanted" notice. It showed two photographs of walkers on Kinder Scout, and underneath it read: "Kinder Scout Trespassers, £5 reward will be paid for the name, address and occupation of any of the persons represented in the photos. Apply Cobbett, Wheeler 8 Cobbett, Solicitors, 49 Spring Gardens, Manchester”. Grandfather William Cobbett, the early nineteenth century radical, must have been squirming in his grave at the role his offspring were playing.
The "Access to Mountains Bill" was first brought before the House of Commons in 1888, but its main clause, stating that " . . . no owner or occupier of uncultivated mountains or moorland shall be entitled to exclude any person from walking or being on such land for the purpose of recreation or artistic study, or to molest him in so walking or being," caused apoplexy among the predominantly Tory members. Successive attempts were backed up outside Parliament by the Ramblers’ Federation and the Footpaths Preservation Society, whose campaigning went no further than polite petitioning and the holding of an annual rally at which ramblers were merely asked to support the actions of M.P.s and officials. By and large the predominantly middle-class leadership of these ‘responsible’ bodies looked with some alarm at the increasingly bitter clashes between keepers and working class ramblers.
In fact the idea of a ‘mass trespass’ seems to have first arisen at one of the camps organized by the British Workers’ Sports Federation, held at the village of Rowarth in 1931. This organization had been set up on the initiative and under the influence of the Young Communist League, the Communist Party Youth Movement, and it presented the question of access to the hills in open class terms. A ramble from the camp, led by Benny Rothman, thesecretary of the Lancashire Federation of the B.W.S.F (and now a Trade Union Convener in a Manchester Engineering Factory), who more than anyone can claim to have been the organizer of the mass trespass, was turned back by the keepers before the objective, Bleaklow Hill, had been reached. New plans were laid during the bitter and angry hike back.
Rothman visited the Manchester Evening News on April 18th, 1932 and gave an interview to a reporter (who was later used as a witness by the prosecution that had Rothman convicted for his part in the events), and next day the plans were headline news: "Mass Trespass over Kinder Scout", with suitably lurid references to "shock troops" and "assaults”. The Sheffield Ramblers’ Federation made its position quite clear: "We have nothing whatsoever to do with this demonstration of which we thoroughly disapprove. We do not consider these people to be bona fide ramblers." Those damn Reds even get under the heather.
Unemployed like at least half of those taking part, Rothman and a friend cycled to Hayfield early in the morning of Sunday April 24th, the day of the trespass, to reconnoitre the proposed route. Had he been able to afford the train fare he would have been stopped at the station by the police with an injunction restraining him from taking part in the meeting at Hayfield Recreation Ground with which the demonstration had been advertised to start. Rothman estimated that the sunken playing field was a natural trap, and that the one-third of the full Derbyshire Police Force present in the village intended the meeting to be the start and finish of the day's proceedings. Word was immediately passed to the assembling ramblers to set off at once along the footpath to William's Clough, and the high moors beyond. Police desperately ran along the column to try and head it off, but they were too late. Unused to such exercise, a contingent of perspiring bobbies fell in at the rear.
The delayed meeting was held in a disused quarry amphitheatre beside the path. Rothman scrambled on to a boulder and spoke to the crowd, now numbering about 600. He emphasized that they wanted an orderly and disciplined march. "Our grouse is against grouse", he said, "we are determined to trespass en masse everywhere where we canclaim with justice to have a right to go." The crowd of young people wheeled eastward out of William's Clough, striking up the hillside towards the forbidden crest of Kinder. Spontaneously this unorganised and picturesque demonstration adopted self-protective tactics to prevent any arrests by the following police. At each stile the entire march would halt and only proceed when the last straggler was safely through.
The keepers had anticipated this route and were waiting on the crest. What followed has passed into legend. A dozen or so keepers and specially enrolled villagers raised their cudgels. From the press reports one could be forgiven for assuming they were describing ‘going over the top’ in a First World War battle. The most ‘accurate’ of them was the Sheffield Independent: "Over the rough moorland men struggled and rolled down the steep slopes. Every minute it appeared that somebody would hurtle to the bottom." in fact a few brief scuffles were all that were needed to brush the keepers aside. One of them, Edward Beever, was injured, the occasion for later charges of grievous bodily harm.
The ramblers had reached the summit plateau, sacred ground from which they had hitherto been officially excluded. A contingent from Sheffield who had 'trespassed’ from Edale joined them for a victory meeting. They brought news that the roads to the east were lined with police, and it was decided to return by the same route. As they marched back the hills echoed to shouts of ”Down with the landlords and ruling class". At Hayfield a line of police awaited them. Five ramblers were arrested and variously charged with unlawful assembly and committing a breach of the peace. ‘Trespass’ was not amongst the charges. The law had long since been repealed l The day's events were headline news, as were the trials of those arrested. Rothman conducted his own defence on what amounted to the political platform of the British Workers’ Sports Federation, but politics were brought into the case by the prosecution too.
Much was made of a copy of the Communist Review found on one of the defendants, and the sinister discovery of a pamphlet by a "Mr. Lenin" was emphasized. "ls that the Russian gentleman ?” asked the learned judge. Five of those on trial were members of the Young Communist League, and according to the Progressive Rambler, a magazine of the time, the jury consisted of "two Brigadier Generals, three Colonels, two Majors, three Captains, two Aldermen - and eleven of these were country gentlemen" Sentences ranged from two tosix months, with one dismissal.
Mr. Stephen Morton, secretary of the Sheffield Ramblers’ Federation, was quoted as saying: "For many years we have been endeavouring to obtain access to mountains and moorlands by legitimate means. This move, on the part of the Lancashire people, would throw the whole thing back at least twenty years.” The opposite was the case. The mass trespass gained the cause of free access to mountains more sympathetic publicity in one day than the Ramblers’ Federation had won for it in the previous thirty years.
Demonstrations of solidarity with those jailed, and the organization of other trespasses, such as the ‘Abbey Brook’ march in September of the same year, carried forward the tempo of the movement. Many more battles were necessary before the Access to Mountains Bill was finally put on the Statute Book by Atlee’s Labour Government, but it was "The Battle for Kinder Scout" that lifted the movement from the level of private members’ lobbying to that of mass politics. Its memory still echoes whenever the right to ramble or climb is threatened.
Original Photo: Ken Wilson
First Published in Mountain February 1974