"They were acting in a similar spirit to Extinction Rebellion, Occupy, anti-fracking activists and trade union militants of our own time. They had the same spirit of resistance," said Greenpeace activist Martin Porter. He was explaining what he thinks motivated the young and left-wing working class activists, mostly from Manchester and some from Sheffield, who joined in and kicked off what has been called ‘the most successful direct action in British history’, the 1932 mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire.
"They believed the existing rambling groups in the local area were not acting fast enough, that they were too connected to the establishment," Porter, who lives in nearby Glossop, told Green World last week. He added proudly that his own grandfather was one of the more than 400 peaceful trespassers onto an area that today is part of the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire.
However, back on Sunday 24 April 1932 when Benny Rothman and the others set off up and across the rugged moorland, most of it was owned and controlled by descendants of feudal landed gentry and reserved primarily for grouse hunting. National parks simply did not exist.
The efforts of Rothman, then aged only 20, the five other young men who were also arrested – four of them went to prison with Rothman as a result – and the other 400 young trespassers, mostly socialists and communists, who had travelled out from nearby cities on that spring day, sparked the start of a campaign to open Britain’s countryside to the public. Within weeks, their numbers had surged to more than 12,000 protestors in response to the outrage and national publicity resulting from these shameful arrests.
When in 2000 the UK Government passed the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000, which granted public right of way across the UK’s countryside, historians concluded that much of the credit must go to Rothman and the young trespassers of Kinder Scout for their actions on 24 April 1932.
The memory of Kinder Scout endures, and this Saturday morning (27 April), Manchester Greenpeace will be celebrating the 87th anniversary of the 1932 Kinder Scout mass trespass with a relatively short hike that will begin at the same location. (See the end of this article for details.)
‘The finest rambling country is closed to us’
What, in the heart of the 1930s’ Depression, brought forth the mass trespassers? At his trial later in 1932, Rothman was clear about the stakes for working people: “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. 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.”
But it was unreasonable to the local gentry, their gamekeepers, and very well-off landowners such as the grandfather of the current Duke of Devonshire, who employed the keepers and who suggested that the mass trespass was “shaming” for his family. Stick-wielding wardens and more than 100 police officers set upon the marchers after they began hiking off. Brief scuffles broke out. ‘A drunken gamekeeper suffered a broken ankle in the ensuing altercations’, said one report.
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.
The secret to victory? More ramblers than wardens and police had assembled that day on the Derbyshire hillside. “The keepers offered little or no resistance and we just walked past them,” Rothman said later, and the young and determined hikers did reach the summit of the “forbidden territory of Kinder,” again in Rothman’s words.
Rothman, a member of the Young Communist League, and five mates were arrested. And although they did not convince a jury composed of the upstanding Derbyshire county establishment of their innocence, they did set in train a protest and lobbying movement that led in 1951 to the creation of the Peak District National Park, Britain’s first. It took more than five decades longer for the right to roam to be protected by statute.
Issues not historical curiosities
The wider issues raised by the mass trespass – the ownership, sustainable protection and use of land in the British countryside – are not historical curiosities. All continue to bite.
A book called Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land and How to Take It Back, which will be published on 2 May, has found that ‘half of England is owned by less than one per cent of the population.'
Guy Shrubsole, the book’s author, writes that “most people remain unaware of quite how much land is owned by so few… A few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own far more land than all of middle England put together.”
“Land ownership in England is astonishingly unequal, heavily concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite,” Shrubsole continued.
Take the current Duke of Devonshire, 74, who is the seventh richest person in the UK. In fact, he and the Duchess are wealthier than the Queen. With a net worth of £870 million, a recent Sunday Times ‘rich list' found that “like most of the aristocrats on this list, the Duke of Devonshire's wealth comes from owning large amounts of land, such as Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and a 30,000-acre Yorkshire estate.” Stoker, as he is called, also owns an art collection worth £900 million.
Furthermore, there remains numerous and major, often underreported, issues in the countryside and its regulation. Fracking is one.
“If my father was still alive today, I'm sure he would be very involved in the anti-fracking movement; in fact he’d probably be at the head of any marches that were organised," Benny’s son Harry Rothman told me a few years ago when I was doing research for a film – Benny Rothman died, aged 90, in 2002.
In 2015, there were – amazingly! – parliamentary discussions held that considered allowing fracking within the boundaries of the Peak District National Park. Although fracking within the national park boundaries now seems unlikely to occur, possible fracking around the borders of the park and expanding shale gas extraction at many other sites in our legendary “green and pleasant land” remain a threat. All of this in an era when there is growing outrage and an increased fight-back over climate warming that is caused, in large measure, by fossil fuels. Another possible Extinction Rebellion target?
These days, lots more young Benny Rothmans are being created daily; perhaps they will include students who learn of the 1932 mass trespass for the first time. It is not a topic taught on the national curriculum.
Access to parks still difficult, but the mental health benefits remain
In Rothman’s day, access to the countryside was often difficult for working class and poorer people – on 24 April 1932, Rothman and many of his mates travelled out from Manchester on their bicycles. Access to our national parks is still difficult for many.
Research commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and released in February 2019, revealed that poorer people are finding themselves ‘increasingly estranged’ from our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Travel to many of them is often costly.
Nine in 10 journeys to national parks are made by car. Affordable and frequent rail travel is not always available and normally requires some onward travel, such as a local bus service, many of which have suffered severe cutbacks due to austerity measures brought in since 2010.
Meanwhile, the mental health benefits of being able to get out and about in the countryside and to “commune with nature” are as real today as they were in Rothman’s time. I live in nearby Sheffield and my partner and I visit the Peaks almost every Sunday morning; fortunately, I own a car.
Finally, it should never be forgotten that the mass trespass was, as one Red Pepper commentator put it succinctly, “spectacularly effective".
Let’s be up front: the progressive movement today often has some pretty dark and depressing moments. Demagogues like Trump and Farage have large followings.
When we are met with abuse and cat-calls that “protesting never gets you anywhere”, replying “remember the mass trespass” is a helpful rejoinder. (Mind you, their victory did not come overnight.)
New book and video on mass trespass
In recent years, interest in the mass trespass and Rothman’s story has stepped up a notch. In 2016, Unite the Union published Mark Metcalf’s book, Benny Rothman – a fighter for the right to roam, workers’ rights and socialism.
It sets out the context and provides one of the best accounts of the mass trespass by local expert Roly Smith. But Metcalf’s book also goes on to highlight other political campaigning Rothman carried out later in the 1930s such as organising Manchester-area young people, including from the Jewish community in which he was raised, to physically challenge Oswald Mosley and other British fascists when they tried to hold meetings.
In May 2018, a 13-minute documentary was released called Mass Trespass; the video includes a brief dramatisation of the 1932 trial in Derby.
Actor Maxine Peake endorses it: “This film is a must see! A gem. Informative and inspiring. Lest we never forget Benny Rothman and the mass trespassers... because of their passion and bravery we have our freedom to roam. Long may they continue to inspire us.” (Full disclosure: I am the producer of Mass Trespass.)
Yet, due to the reputation of the 1932 mass trespass, some try to use it to cover up their own repressive actions. For example, last year at the height of the Sheffield tree crisis when a number of tree campaigners protecting healthy trees were being arrested under anti-trade union legislation, they were not pleased to read a tweet about the mass trespass from a member of the cabinet of Sheffield City Council. The tweet read: “Very proud of this part of our history and the role Sheffield Labour played in it. Inspiration 4 future! “
And we also can be certain that Benny Rothman – if he were alive – would not find it inspirational to learn who has been chosen as a featured speaker for Saturday afternoon’s ‘Spirit of Kinder’ event: Lord David Blunkett of Sheffield. His column last week in The Daily Mail on Extinction Rebellion was headlined: “Why hasn’t the full force of the law been used against these eco anarchists who fill me with contempt?”
Racked with what he called “outrage”, Blunkett wrote that “these anarchists seem to think they own the issue of climate change” and said he had learned as Home Secretary between 2001 and 2004 that “that you had to be tough” when dealing with “anti-social protests.” Not exactly ‘The Spirit of Kinder’.
Hence the even greater value in remembering, maintaining and, more importantly, acting upon the radical spirit of the mass trespass.
Details of mass trespass celebration event
The Manchester Greenpeace 87th anniversary walk starts at 11:00am on 27 April in the Derbyshire village of Hayfield where the 1932 mass trespass also began. It continues for 1.5 kilometres on a moderate incline.
The official ‘Spirit of Kinder Day’ event will start three hours later at 2:00pm in The Winnats Pass in nearby Castleton. Speakers include the director general of the National Trust, a number of former and current Labour Party politicians, including Lord Blunkett, and former Pulp frontman and BBC Radio 2 presenter Jarvis Cocker.