Kinder Scout 75 years after
The young man, just turned twenty-one and up on charges of riotous assembly, assault and incitement at Derby Assizes, had prepared notes of what he was going to say to the jury. He wanted to make a case, he said, for the right to go walking in the countryside.
“We ramblers after a hard week’s work, and life in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling on weekends for relaxation, for a breath of fresh air, and for a little sunshine. And we find when we go out that the finest rambling country is closed to us,” he said. “Because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days per annum, we are forced to walk on muddy crowded paths, and denied the pleasure of enjoying to the utmost the countryside.
“Our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable,” he went on.
The speaker was Benny Rothman and the trial, held in the summer of 1932, was the aftermath of what has now become an iconic event in the story of the British outdoor movement. The ‘mass trespass’ of Kinder Scout, held on Sunday April 24th that year, saw some hundreds of walkers – perhaps three hundred, perhaps four hundred – stage what amounted to a political demonstration on the flank of Kinder Scout, in the Derbyshire Peak District. They’d been summonsed by hastily duplicated flyers distributed around the Manchester area. “If you’ve not been rambling before, start now, you don’t know what you’ve missed. Come with us for the best day out that you have ever had,” said one, given out in Eccles.
In the short-term, the trespass seemed to succeed only in attracting the wrath of the British state. Benny Rothman’s uncompromising speech from the dock in Derby failed to convince the jury, who – it turned out later – comprised almost a complete cross-section of the Derbyshire county establishment. He was jailed for four months. Four other young people in the dock with him were also imprisoned, on terms from two to six months.
But the story of the Kinder trespass refused to disappear from sight. There were rallies on Kinder Scout to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary in 1982, the sixtieth in 1992 and the seventieth in 2002, and it was the memory of the trespass which helped to inspire a new generation of walkers to campaign successfully for the legislation which, finally in 2000, achieved Benny Rothman’s “not unreasonable” demand for open access to the hills and moors. And though the right to roam is now won, there will be a rally in April this year as well, to make the 75th birthday celebration of the trespass.
The problem with an event which has been retold many times and has entered legend is that it’s difficult sometimes to get a real sense of what actually happened then. It’s worth remembering that the trespassers were, like Benny himself, overwhelmingly young, and that (we know from later accounts) they were determined that they were going to have a good time. The atmosphere, like so often on demonstrations, was good-humoured, and there was plenty of singing as the walkers headed off from the village of Hayfield towards Kinder Scout. What did they sing? They probably sang the Red Flag (this is what one unsympathetic press report claimed, anyway) but they gave Tipperary several renditions too, according to Benny Rothman. And there was another song produced for the occasion, a parody of Harry Lauder’s famous The Road to the Isles:
For by Kinder, and by Bleaklow, and all through the Goyt we’ll go
We’ll ramble over mountain, moor and fen
And we’ll fight against the trespass laws for every rambler’s rights
And trespass over Kinder Scout again…
Benny Rothman was the main organiser. He’d grown up in the north Manchester inner-city area of Cheetham, like many in this part of the city the child of Jewish immigrants. It was a difficult time to be young and working class: the country was going through the great depression and unemployment was high. Walter Greenwood’s novel Love on the Dole, published in 1933, offers a lightly fictionalised account of Salford and Manchester at the time, describing among other things the major unemployed demonstration held in 1931 which had ended with police violence against the marchers.
Benny Rothman was fortunate in that he had work, his first job being an errand boy in the motor trade. In his spare time, he was discovering the countryside, like many others joining the Clarion Cycling Club. “I was a seasoned camper and cyclist at the ripe old age of 16, or so I thought when I paid my first visit to the Lake District . I was a townie on a heavy ‘sit up and beg’ bike, home made tent and Woolworths map,” he later recalled. He was also becoming politically active and when he was about sixteen began to be drawn in to the activities of the Young Communist League. Politics and outdoor interests naturally came together. In his late teens, he helped establish a Lancashire branch of the British Workers Sports Federation, a communist-inspired organisation which had already led one successful campaign, for sports facilities in working-class Tottenham.
It was what happened at the Federation’s 1932 Easter camp which provided the spark for the Kinder event a few weeks later. The camp was being held a few miles west of Kinder Scout, and the programme included an organised ramble on to Bleaklow. Or at least that was the plan. Benny later recounted what happened: “The small band was stopped at Yellow Slacks by a group of gamekeepers. They were abused, threatened and turned back. To add to the humiliation of the Manchester ramblers, a number of those present were from the London BWSF on a visit to the Peak District, and they were astounded by the incident. There were not enough ramblers to force their way through, so, crestfallen, they had to return to camp.”
Back at camp, retaliation was planned. What was needed, the young people decided, was a body of ramblers so numerous that the keepers would have to give way. Someone came up with a name: the mass trespass.
Benny Rothman later wrote his own account of the Kinder trespass, published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary in 1982. The original plan, to begin with a rally in Hayfield, was altered at the last minute to outwit the police, and instead everyone gathered in an old quarry a short distance away in the direction of the open moors. Benny Rothman clambered up to address the crowd: “There were hundreds of young men and women, lads and girls, in their picturesque rambling gear: shorts of every length and colour, flannels and breeches, even overalls, vivid colours and drab khaki (khaki shorts and shirts were fashionable at the time), multi-coloured sweaters and pullovers, army packs and rucksacks of every size and shape,” he recalled.
The idea hatched by Benny Rothman and one of his friends was to head northwards close to Kinder reservoir, taking the established right of way up William Clough (then it was generally known as Williams Clough), before breaking off to scramble up the steep hillside towards the Kinder plateau. Another of the trespassers later described what happened: “When we reached William Clough a whistle sounded and we all stopped, then turned right facing up Kinder, as a second whistle sounded. It was then that I saw against the skyline a line of keepers, some of them wielding sticks. A third blast of the whistle and we started scrambling up the steep incline. The keepers offered little or no resistance and we just walked past them…. Having got past the keepers we lined up and marched about 400 yards on to the moors where we met a group of ramblers from Sheffield.”
The plateau of Kinder had been reached, albeit some distance north-west of Kinder Downfall. It was good enough. As Benny Rothman put it, “We were on the holy of holies, the forbidden territory of Kinder.”
Later it transpired that one of the keepers had been slightly injured, and when the ramblers returned to Hayfield the police were ready to pounce. But ironically the prosecutions and prison sentences, widely regarded at the time as vindictive, helped publicise the event and the cause of countryside access. For the establishment, it was something of an own goal.
It’s necessary to add that the Kinder trespass was by no means the only attempt to put access on the political agenda. Year after year, from the mid-1920s to the outbreak of war, the ramblers’ federations held sizeable rallies in Winnats Pass near Castleton. Attempts to shepherd an Access to Mountains bill through Westminster had been regularly made since 1884, and equally regularly had failed. The more respectable ramblers’ bodies were, in fact, deeply angry that Rothman and his comrades had barged into the argument and, as they saw it, compromised their lobbying work. For his part, Rothman retaliated in kind, criticising at the time their tactics as futile (later he accepted that he had been unwise to antagonise potential allies).
Access to Kinder Scout was finally achieved through voluntary agreements in 1952 and in 1958 (though other parts of the Peak District remained forbidden land until 2004). The peat groughs at the back of the Kinder Downfall where once there were only gamekeepers are there to be walked and enjoyed by all. Benny Rothman, who died in 2002, must be there in spirit.