70th Anniversary of the Mass Trespass onto Kinder Scout

office at tlio.demon.co.uk office at tlio.demon.co.uk
Mon Apr 22 18:18:59 BST 2002

Below is an article about Benny Rothman and his instigation of the Mass Trespass onto Kinder Scout (which will be commemorated this coming Saturday), which appeared in the Independent magazine last Saturday.

Trespassers will be celebrated

The Independent

By David Conn

If you go for a walk up Kinder Scout, the highest hill in the Peak District which makes it hardly towering but none the less grand, and brooding - chances are you'll reach the start by driving half a mile out of the pretty village of Hayfield, past the Sportsman pub and then, as Kinder Road narrows, pulling left into a car park. Lacing your boots, checking you packed your lunch, wandering over to pay and display, it is easy enough to miss the plaque set into the rockface above. And even if you see it, the significance of its simple statement is not necessarily clear: "The Mass Trespass onto Kinder Scout started from here, 24th April 1932."

Yet what happened 70 years ago in this quiet corner of Derbyshire was a turning-point in British social history - an event whose consequences are still being felt, and whose leader, Benny Rothman, though hardly a household name, is revered by well-informed walkers as a genuine folk hero.

The essential story is simply told. The trespass was a piece of direct action by a group of young, politicised walkers from Manchester and Sheffield. Led by Rothman, a 5ft 2in Jewish communist mechanic from Manchester, around 400 people, sick of being turned off privately-owned land, gathered at the car park, which was then a quarry. From there they walked to Kinder Scout, defying a crowd of gamekeepers and dozens of police who had been drafted in from all over Derbyshire.

As they began to climb, most evaded the gamekeepers peacefully. But there was one scuffle in the gorge known as William Clough in which a gamekeeper was injured. When the trespassers came triumphantly down from the top several hours later, six of them were arrested and charged with criminal offences. Later that year, five, including Rothman, were convicted and sent to prison for between two and six months. The effect was the opposite to the one intended. Rather than deterring people from venturing on to the land, the sentences swung sympathy behind the trespassers who had hitherto been regarded sniffily by middle-class rambling groups and the modest idea  that British people might be entitled to access to more than a few boggy footpaths of their country's great outdoors started to take root.

It began to bear fruit shortly after the Second World War, when Clement Attlee's Labour Government, as part of its commitment to fashioning a more
just society, introduced legislation on access to the countryside and, in 1951, created the first national parks, in the Peak and Lake Districts. The battle for a true "right to roam" across all uncultivated land continued for another half-century, until the current Labour Government was finally shoved into passing the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which came into force last December. This belated triumph lends a special poignancy to the 70th anniversary of the Mass Trespass, which will be celebrated at the car park next Saturday.

One person who will not be there is Benny Rothman himself. He died in January, aged 90. But the story of his life, lovingly archived by historians of working class liberation, remains an inspiration for all who believe in equality and the rights of ordinary people.

He was born in 1911, in the "semi-slum" of Hightown, an area of Manchester behind Strangeways prison now mostly pulled down. His mother's family were
orthodox Jews his parents had fled anti-semitism in Romania and the Rothmans read a Yiddish newspaper. Benny knew little, as a child, of anything beyond the Jewish community's huddled confines.

When he was 12 his father, a market trader, died, and his mother and sisters took over the stalls in Glossop and Shaw, near Oldham. The work barely provided sustenance, and at 14, Benny who had won a scholarship to Manchester Central High School ? was taken out of school before his matriculation exams so that he could go out to work. His neighbours (who were not Jewish) helped him find a job at Tom Garner's Motor Company in Manchester, where he worked for eight years.

Always "a man of mad passions" according to his son, Harry, Benny nagged his family tirelessly for a bicycle, "and eventually his grandmother bought him one."  Rothman began to cycle huge distances, eventually going as far as Snowdon, on top of which he discovered, at 16, his lifelong love of the freedom and beauty of the countryside.

Around the same time, he discovered left wing politics. He was studying at night school to become a car salesman; and, alongside a course in "advertising and salesmanship", he also studied "economic geography". Here he encountered plain truths of global inequality that chimed powerfully, life-changingly, with his own experiences. He was also influenced by a colleague at work, a Scottish communist called Bill Allan, and in 1929 he joined the Young Communist League.

His two passions began to coalesce. He met his wife, Lily, at a peace camp. (She wasn't Jewish, and their marriage, which lasted for 60 years, caused a
20-year rift in his family.) And he became Lancashire secretary of the British Workers Sports Federation a communist group which organised outdoor camps and activities for young people.

Inevitably, his convictions began to get him into trouble. In 1930 he was fined for chalking slogans on the pavement, and in 1932 he was "turfed out" of his job partly, he believed, because he had been selling the socialist Daily Worker newspaper. Later, he would be caught up in various skirmishes with Oswald Mosley's blackshirts. But it was what he did on Saturday 24th April 1932 that made his name immortal.

A few weeks earlier, he had been walking with some members of the British Workers Sports Federation on Bleaklow, another hill near Kinder, only to be turned back by a group of abusive gamekeepers. Enraged, Rothman began to
organise a counter-attack. "We decided," he would later recall, "that if,
instead of six or seven, there had been 40 or 50 of us, they wouldn't have
been able to do it." And so his plan was hatched for a mass, deliberate trespass on to Kinder Scout.

The audacity of this plan was immense. This was the 1930s, the Depression. More than three million people were registered unemployed, the northern cities were warehouses of extreme poverty and despair; fascism was fermenting across Europe. Yet in Britain vast areas were reserved exclusively for hunting, fishing and shooting by a few aristocratic families and their friends.

Middle-class campaigners, in ramblers' groups and other countryside organisations, had been lobbying since 1889 in support of an Access to Mountains Bill. But the Bill never made it through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, peopled by the landowners themselves, would have chased it away if it ever had. Meanwhile, the idea that ordinary working people could assert their rights through direct confrontation was to most people scarcely thinkable.

But confrontation was something that Rothman never shied away from. In the words of Ruth Frow of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford (where a wealth of material relating to Rothman is archived), he was "your typical small man in the middle of every fight". He was also a man of unwavering ideological conviction, and his propaganda for the trespass made it quite clear where his political sympathies lay. "Is it a crime," went one of his slogans, "for workers to put their feet where Lord Big Bug and Lady Flea do their annual shooting?" But the weight of the law and the establishment was against him.

The day came, and young walkers answered his call by the hundred. (Estimates vary, but 400 is the lowest figure given.) They gathered in Hayfield to find themselves watched by scores of police. They then walked towards Kinder Scout, and assembled in the Bowden Bridge quarry. The man who had been scheduled to address them, intimidated by the police, thought better of it; so Rothman small and muscular, with an open, eager face spoke to the crowd instead, standing on the rocks above them. He talked about the social injustice of British landownership; about the Enclosures, particularly, which led to the land being "stolen from the people".

"I gave them an outline of the history of the Enclosures, the injustice of it all," he recalled in a 1978 interview. "The common people were turfed off the land. This sacred 'private property' is stolen property, stolen from the common people. I told the meeting that we could only get access to mountains by mass action, and the mass trespass was our first blow."

The trespassers then walked alongside Kinder Reservoir, with police struggling to keep up, then into William Clough gorge, where they fanned out to avoid the gamekeepers. Most slipped through easily, but there was one brief scuffle in which a gamekeeper, Edward Beever, sprained his ankle and suffered abdominal injuries for which he was treated in Stockport infirmary.

The walkers made it up to Ashop Head, from where they walked, elated, along Kinder's formidable, eerie plateau, looking for miles across open country below. Another group, from Sheffield, had set off from the other side, up the steep Jacob's Ladder ascent from Edale (now the starting point of the Pennine Way). The two groups met, red-faced and victorious, on the windswept top; and there, looking far out across the peaks, Rothman made another rousing speech about the justice of their cause, a fight only for access to this land and space.

They came down, as Rothman put it, "singing, full of beans, celebrating the victory", keeping together to prevent stragglers from being picked off by police or gamekeepers. When they arrived back in Hayfield, they were met by a police cordon, and five people, including Rothman, were picked out and arrested. Four were Jewish, and Rothman was always convinced they were picked out for their appearance, rather than for any evidence they had been ringleaders.

The five men along with another, John Anderson, who had been arrested earlier, after the scuffle with the gamekeepers ? were locked up overnight, then charged with offences including riotous assembly, incitement, and, in Anderson's case, grievous bodily harm for the alleged attack on Beever.

Their trial was held in July 1932 in Derby ? which, as Rothman pointed out, was 60 miles from home. Nobody could afford to travel from Manchester to speak in their defence.

After two days, the judge ruled that there was no evidence against one of the defendants, Harry Mendel, who was discharged. The other five were all convicted of riotous assembly at, the prosecution argued, the meetings in Hayfield and in the quarry (which all the defendants insisted had been peaceful). Tony Gillett, an 18-year-old student, was imprisoned for two months, as was Jud Clyne, 23, a machinist. David Nussbaum, 19, a labourer, was given an extra month because he had also been selling copies of The Daily Worker. Rothman, who set out the political case for the Trespass in his defence, was convicted of incitement to riotous assembly, but not of incitement to violence, which would have carried a sentence of years. He was sent to Leicester prison for four months.

John Anderson protested his innocence. Indeed, he said he was actually opposed to the Trespass and had gone there to see if it could be stopped. He told Rothman the same years later. Nevertheless, he was identified as Beever's assailant by four different policemen and was given six months for actual bodily harm.

Overall, it seemed a bitter defeat; yet it turned into a landmark victory. The heavy policing and severe sentences rallied public opinion behind the walkers and their cause in a way that the Trespass itself could never have done. That year's annual ramblers' demonstration brought a crowd of 10,000 to Winnats Pass, in the Peak District. And more mass trespasses and demonstrations were held: in Derbyshire, at Leith Hill in Surrey, in Scotland and Wales.

The attitude of the established ramblers' associations to this new militancy was mixed. The Sheffield ramblers, who were mostly working class, supported it; the Manchester group, who were middle class, wrote to the local newspapers stating their opposition. One leading campaigner, Tom Stephenson, who became the secretary of the unified Ramblers Association(founded in 1935), later wrote that it had set back the cause of access for years.

Few believe that now, though. The Trespass inspired public opinion and was instrumental in securing a glimmer of democracy in the countryside. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 became an important plank in the post-war Labour Government's fundamental reform of a class-divided nation, alongside the welfare state and National Health Service. Speaking in the debate which introduced the Act, Barbara Castle, then a Labour MP and a friend of Rothmans, said that the reforms marked "the end of the disinheritance of the people of this country from enjoyment of the countryside, the great masses of the people in our towns, who are longing to go out into the sun and air and live more fully than they have ever done in the past."

Today, the old differences between the various campaigning groups have been long settled. Rothman himself who went on to become a distinguished trades unionist, and a veteran of many other struggles including the campaign to save Twyford Down from road development said later that it had been a mistake for the trespassers not to work more closely with other, more established campaigners. And next weekend's anniversary celebration, which will feature songs by Mike Harding at the car park and a walk up Kinder Scout with Harry Rothman (Benny's son), is sponsored by several official groups, including the Peak District National Park Authority and the Ramblers' Association.

The RA's chief executive, Nick Barrett, is happy to pay homage to the trespass, but he is also at pains to argue that the campaign to widen access still has far to travel. "Now that we have the right to roam which has to be watched in practice to ensure it lives up to the legislation we need to move on. The barriers are moving, from the physical to subtle psychological ones." His 132,000 members have an average age of 57, and are, he confesses, mostly white, middle-class enthusiasts. "We need to widen access much further, to the young, disadvantaged, become more socially inclusive and really promote the health and spiritual benefits of getting out into the countryside."

Rothman, who risked his liberty for the most basis right of access, would have shared that view. His crusade was based on the view that two centuries of Enclosure Acts had thrown the poor off land that they had formerly owned communally, and with up to 89.9 per cent of non-public land in England still owned by 0.125 per cent of the population he remained outraged for the rest of his life. "He was an unreconstructed communist," says Harry Rothman, "and he certainly believed aristocratic land-ownership was an injustice and land should be redistributed."

But the trespassers who climbed Kinder Scout 70 years ago were not seeking the overthrow the capitalist order.  They were simply seeking the right to walk across England's green heartlands in an orderly, respectful way. For many, simply getting to the open spaces required considerable determination and stamina, and, as Rothman once observed: "When you'd had a ramble on those days, you knew you'd had a ramble."  But they did it to escape the harsh, squalid lives that were then the lot of the working classes, on to moors and mountains where they could briefly be transported into a different world.

That it has taken so long even for that humble desire to be fulfilled is a mark of a country still deeply conservative. That it was fulfilled at all is a tribute to the courage of Benny Rothman and his fellow trespassers. Rothman's remarkable life and work will be celebrated at Kinder Scout next weekend. But it is worth remembering that he died believing that his struggle was far from over. "Freedom," he told an interviewer a few years before his death, "isn't a battle you fight once, and win. It goes on forever."

The anniversary celebration of the Mass Trespass will be held at the Bowden Bridge quarry, Hayfield, on Saturday 27 April at 12 noon (tel: 01629 812034 for details). The Working Class Movement Library in Salford, where much archive material relating to the trespass is held, can be contacted on 0161 736 3601; or see www.wcml.org.uk

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