‘Freedom is not a battle you fight for only once and win. It goes on forever......forever!’ Benny Rothman, Leader of the 1932 Kinder Trespass.
Without access, climbing and hill walking cannot take place, and the access we do enjoy today was hard fought for in a campaign that lasted over a hundred and fifty years. Much has been written and discussed about the 1932 Kinder Scout Trespass, and one of my valued possessions, presented to myself by him, is a copy of its leaders view of the event published in an expanded A4 paper back format in 1982. I became friends with its author in the 1980’s who became energised in that decade, to campaign for continued access to Water Authority land at the privatisation of those bodies.
Benny was by that date a genial and persuasive character, barely 5ft tall, a pocket Hercules, but one can imagine that in 1932 he was a firebrand, and an investigation into the social conditions then pertaining among the working class would make any one understand why. There was mass unemployment, and such as there was often smacked of exploitation and degradation and the living conditions were mostly set within poor housing and poverty.
So much of the British story is one of immigration, and Benny Rothman’s was a part of that, for his parents were from Romania. Hundreds of Jews left that country around the turn of the 19th century, and Manchester is where his father Isaac fetched up, to become a market trader running hardware stalls at Glossop and Shaw markets, but residing in the then predominately Jewish district of Cheetham Hill. A high grade student Benny won a scholarship to Manchester Central High School, but tragedy struck when his father died suddenly forcing him to leave at 14 years old to earn a living to help support his bereaved family.
He found work as an apprentice in the motor trade at a garage in Deansgate and one of his older workmates, a Scot Bill Donne invited him to attend the Sunday economic debates in the Clarion cafe in Market Street. The Clarion movement originated in Manchester in 1891, fired up by a radical newspaper, leading on to the forming of cycling clubs, rambling groups, choirs, handicrafts etc. And it had more to do with the Trespass movement to win access to ‘mountain, moor, heath, down and common land’ than has so far been recorded, for a trespass in 1927 which was held in Derbyshire’s Winnats Pass was organised by the Sheffield branch of the Clarion Ramblers. Benny whilst an apprentice studied evening classes at the Manchester YMCA; but by 1927 he had joined the young Communist League, and a part of their activities were camping and rambling. Then 16 years old, he built his own bike from spares, and cycled to North Wales and climbed Snowdon, and from then on he was a keen outdoorsman, eventually to become a leader/organiser for the TBWSF.
The British Worker’s Sports Federation (TBWSF) was set up by the National Clarion cycling club in 1923, and originally it was closely aligned with Labour, but over the next years it became disenchanted with the slow progress in an improvement to access, and so by 1932 it had become a wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Parliamentary ‘Access to Mountains Bills’ had perennially failed, in 1884, in 1908 and in 1926, defeated by the landowning lobby, so one can understand the frustration this must have engendered amongst the Rambling/Climbing fraternity.
Labour then set up a competing organisation, for many in the access movement retained their links with that party, and the Manchester Ramblers Federation, made up of over a hundred affiliates refused to support a Kinder Trespass, for it was to be held under the auspices of the TBWSF, made up of a much younger membership, and less experienced in dealing with the authorities. To be fair to those that opposed this (Ramblers and Climbers) in 1929 Ramsay MacDonald had set up a National Parks enquiry, and the resultant Addison report in 1931 had recommended setting up a National Parks Authority to select the most appropriate areas to be so designated; however the Northern Moors were to be strictly preserved for grouse shooting! The worry of the older established outdoor organisations about a Kinder Trespass was that it would set public opinion against open access to the Countryside and the formation of National Parks. But the depression and a change of government meant in any case such initiatives were put on hold.
So how did the idea of a Kinder Trespass germinate? At Easter 1932 the TBWSF organised a camp at Rowarth, and from there a party set out to tramp over Bleaklow, to be met near Yellowslacks by a party of aggressive gamekeepers who turned the group around and back down from whence they had started their climb. This rankled, and the participants in the Bleaklow event, realised if there had been many more in their party they could by sheer weight of numbers overcome the keeper’s demands.
Kinder Scout was selected by the members of the TBWSF for a trespass because of its history and standing, it was the most forbidden of the Peak District mountains, a part of the ‘Enclosures’ acts from the 16th and 19th century, which had parcelled out public lands to private landowners, and it had become one of the most exclusive landscapes in Britain, preserved mainly for grouse shooting. The would be trespassers then began to publicise their event particularly in the Manchester newspapers, in the Daily Worker and the cafes and pubs around Hayfield; mostly the work of Benny and a 17 year old named Jimmie Miller from Salford, who later morphed into the legendary song writer Ewan MacColl.
Sunday 24th April 1932 dawned clear and bright and by mid-day Hayfield was abuzz with Ramblers, hundreds of whom had turned up to take part in this act of defiance, The Kinder Trespass. As they were being cosseted by a heavy Police presence and to get things moving, post a quick meeting of the TBWSF personnel present, word went around, to start moving. Out from Hayfield first onto the narrow Kinder Road, leading via White Brow and Nab Brow passing by the Kinder reservoir into William Clough and eventually onto the plateau: but on the Kinder Road was a convenient abandoned Quarry and the march was halted there, and though originally it had been planned for someone else from the TBWSF to address the crowd of trespassers that had swelled to more than 400 participants, the person to do this had put in a no show, and so Benny, a 20 year old was called upon to speak to this audience. Standing on a natural rock platform set out from the Quarry sidings, he began his address with a plea for a peaceful demonstration, and then went on to outline the history of the access movement as he then understood it. Finally a system of whistled signals was agreed, and Benny’s close friend, Woolfie Winnick led the marchers off again.
One report said that there were about 400 Trespassers, but that was the number scrambling up William Clough, once on the plateau they met up with other groups, mainly from Sheffield who had ascended from Edale. Before this happened as the mass of Ramblers turned right, in William Clough spreading out widely before gaining the Kinder Plateau they met up with a line of about 30 keepers armed with sticks. And though the majority of ascending bodies moved on and gained their objective, a small group did have a physical confrontation with some of the keepers. One who lashed out with his stick, picked the wrong guy who was a well known amateur boxer who gave him a thump on the chin to make him think again, and a temporary keeper, Edward Beever who had been threatening was pushed over and sprained an ankle. He was not badly injured and actually walked back down unaided to Hayfield, but much was made of this in the subsequent trial. In passing it is surprising who actually took part in the 1932 Kinder Trespass, the subsequently to be famous historian A J P Taylor was there as was the composer Michael Tippett, and I have already noted the participation of Ewan MacColl. Who penned the outstanding ‘The Manchester Rambler’ song to put recall of the Trespass forever into the back story of the fight for, The Right to Roam!
Returning the way they had ascended Benny and his group found the Police waiting in numbers across the Kinder Road, and five of them were arrested. A sixth John Anderson aged 21 had already been taken into custody and he faced the most serious charge, one of grievous bodily harm for allegedly attacking the injured keeper, this was eventually changed to assault, whilst Jud Clyne 23, Harry Mendel 23, David Nussbaum 19, Tony Gillett 19, and Benny were charged with riotous assembly.
Their subsequent trial in July 1932 before a Grand Jury at the Derby Assizes is I believe the reason why this is such a historic event, for besides it resulting in major media coverage of the case, it highlighted an ongoing movement demanding public access to the Countryside. Everything was legally unbalanced about the trial, which deserves the appellation of being truly a Kangaroo court. Apart, from a sprained ankle no harm was done, but with the biased membership of the jury consisting of two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors, three captains and two aldermen even those in the outdoor world who had opposed the Trespass became critical. And they were to be even more so when the sentences were handed down, of six months for John Anderson, four months for Benny, two months each for Tony Gillett and Jud Clyne, three months for David Nussbaum-one month of which was extra for selling the Daily Worker! Fortunately Harry Mendel was discharged due to a lack of sufficient evidence to justify a conviction. The Manchester Ramblers Federation approached the Home Secretary, requesting clemency, but became rebuffed by him and in any case by that date the prisoners were well into their months of incarceration in Leicester jail.
Whilst this was happening, on the 26th June 1932 there was a massive turn out of approximately 10,000 people at a Winnats Pass demonstration demanding ‘Free Access to Mountains’, which was addressed by Dr C E M Joad one of the best known broadcasters and commentators of the period, and in August a protest rally was held at Jacob’s Ladder on Kinder Scout at which recently released, Jud Clyne and other trespass supporters spoke out demanding ‘The Right to Roam’. In September a trespass North West of Sheffield at Abbey Brook was of a different scale, however in October 16th an attempted one at Stanage Edge of Ramblers and Climbers was stopped incredibly in its tracks by mounted police and foot patrols with Alsatian dogs. But a flame had been lit, and there was once again a large turnout in 1933 at a Winnats Pass gathering, addressed by several leading politicians including Arthur Henderson, and in the south of England, a thousand strong demonstration demanding access was held at Leith Hill in Surrey, and later similar rallies took place in Wales and Scotland.
In 1931 The National Council of Ramblers had been formed, and the 1932 trespass seemed to concentrate their minds. Tom Stephenson a major figure in that body, who originally was not a supporter of the Kinder Trespass, admitted that ‘it had been the cockpit of the battle for The Right to Roam’. Praise indeed, for the journalist Tom Criddle Stephenson (1893-1987) held a unique position as a leading champion of walkers’ rights in the Countryside, and like Benny he was from a working class background, a true non-conformist, a pacifist who had been imprisoned in the First-World War as a conscientious objector.
He was however a man of vision who would subsequently inspire the creation of the Pennine Way, and supported the setting up of The Ramblers’ Association on the 1st January 1935. A body which now has over 100,000 members throughout the UK and is today simply called The Ramblers, whose credo is that rambling in the Countryside is a right, and that it benefits the whole of British society. When I was at the BMC we often found The Ramblers were ahead of the game when it came to access and conservation legalities, and they have always campaigned for full rights of responsible access to all of this countries open spaces. Stephenson was a tireless worker for these policies, a lead supporter of the need for National Parks in order to conserve the most significant environmental areas of our Country, and as a means to improve and guarantee access. He became the Secretary of The Ramblers’ in 1948.
The demand for the setting up of National Parks was gathering pace throughout the late 1930’s. In 1936 the first meeting of a body set up to investigate further the needs for such, ‘The Standing Committee on National Parks’ held an inaugural gathering, and in 1938 this resulted in a widely circulated and promoted paper by its secretary John Dower ‘The case for National Parks’ which tipped the balance in favour of such, and in 1939 an ‘Access to Mountains’ bill was finally passed by parliament, but then the war intervened.
In 1945 the newly elected Labour government, under Prime Minister Clement Atlee set up a new committee, ‘A National Parks review’ chaired by a big hitter, Sir Arthur Hobhouse; it reported in 1947 and recommended that 12 National Parks be set up as soon as legally and financially possible. I had by then started to climb and I can remember how in such rambling and outdoor groups that one might meet at Ilkley, there was huge excitement about these proposals. But Yorkshire being Yorkshire a mass demonstration was organised at the Cow and Calf demanding that the Yorkshire Dales be one of the first such Parks to be set up, it was to be 1954 before this happened.
In 1949 post long and difficult negotiations in Parliament, the ‘National Parks and access to the Countryside Act’ was finally passed into law. Guided there by Lewis Silkin, the Minister for ‘Town and Country Planning’, he declared that ‘it was the people’s charter for the open air’. In 1951 the first National Park was set up in the Peak District. I think this was no accident for invoking Tom Stephenson’s views of the Kinder Mass Trespass, but expanding these to cover the whole of the Peak, it had been the cockpit of the battle for a right of access. There are now 15 National Parks throughout the UK; The Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor were also set up in 1951, inviting one to wonder if we will ever experience again another such reforming government as Atlee’s?
I believe the 1949 Access bill was the most important in my lifetime, it did not magically open up all the prime climbing and walking sites, but it set in motion the belief that access was a right, generally supported by government on behalf of the whole population.
Slowly the barriers came down, and concentrating on the Peak, in 1955 the first access agreement for Kinder Scout was signed, and in 1962 also a Stanage Edge agreement. The Friends of the Peak District through a major fund raising effort purchased the Longshaw Estate and handed it over to the National Trust, and in 1980 the Peak Park purchased the Roaches estate etc. Maybe I have concentrated this access history too much on the bodies I know of and have worked with in the past, but many other individuals and organisations put their shoulders to the wheel to achieve the position we enjoy today, including the Open Spaces Society and groups such as SCAM, the Sheffield campaign for access to moorland, and the Woodcraft folk who were involved in supporting the Winnats Pass demonstrations. The Council for the Preservation of Rural England contributed to a voluntary warden system whenever it was felt needed to buttress access and many other persons were also involved.
Young Benny Rothman
In 1982 the National Trust acquired Kinder Scout, and Benny Rothman was recruited as a voluntary advisor on recreational activities, and in 1990 The Rights of Way Act was established by a private members bill. In 2000 the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (Crow) and in 2003 the Scottish Land Reform Act, were both intended to improve access for the general public. Under the Crow act all rights of way, footpaths and open access in England and Wales must be recorded by 1st January 2026, and the rights confirmed in the Scottish Act are even greater than Crow due in part to the work of the late Alan Blackshaw. The final piece in this complicated process is a Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, concerned with access to such as coastal paths, beaches and sea cliffs.
That is the story so far, on paper a successful outcome, but noting Benny Rothman’s advice about how difficult it is to preserve such freedoms, it is germane to advise those now charged with preserving/improving such to be ever vigilant on the climbing/rambling fraternity’s behalf. But what happened to Benny post the Kinder Trespass? His was a life written large in radical action, battling against the British Union of Fascists in the 1930’s, a Trade Unionist, a shop steward for the Amalgamated Engineers Union working on aircraft production during the war, which was to override his wish to join up into the services, and later to advise and participate in many local and national organisations serving the wider community. In 1991 he presented a programme for Channel 4 about the history of the power held in the British Landscape, who owned what and who had access to it, a subject still of great interest as I write, for in recent news is a finding that despite the attempts (failed?) to create a more equal society, more than 50% of the land in this country is held by just 1% of the population. Owning large tracts of land often leads on to great wealth, and many of the access agreements we enjoy today have come about by either considerable payments to landowners for agreeing to these, or by generous tax benefits.
Mass Trespass: The Story of the rise of the Access Movement from WellRed Films
In 1996 Benny was made a Hon Life Member of The Ramblers, and when he died in 2002 a blue plaque commemorating his life was placed at his former home in Timperley. In April 2007 The Ramblers celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Kinder Trespass and the imprisonment of five of those who participated; literally many hundreds attended this gathering, which was televised. Previously on the 50th Anniversary in April 1982 a commemorative plaque was placed in the Quarry on the Kinder Road, which has now become a place of pilgrimage to those who realise the real meaning of the Trespass, which was a truly significant event in the movement demanding public access to the Countryside.
Dennis Gray: 2019