Taking the High Ground
TRESPASSING. Some called them "hooligans" but today their action is celebrated. (right) Benny Rothman, one of those who went to jail for our freedom.
TODAY is the 80th anniversary of a working class battle that took place not in the mills or the streets, and not in the collieries underground, but high in the Peak District where folk sought escape at weekends; and it helped win a freedom for all to roam which may yet be threatened again.
For young people from Manchester, Sheffield and other towns, the bleak moorlands offered an escape at weekends from crowded streets, factory smoke and grime, a chance to feel free and breath lungfulls of fresh air. But here too they encountered the laws of private property and privilege. Though uncultivated and often boggy, large areas of the dark peak on the millstone grit were private, and reserved so rich men could get in a fortnight's grouse shooting.
Efforts to extend access to the moors had not got far. There were only 12 legal paths, and only one per cent of the Peak lands open to walkers. Step off the main track and you could face gamekeepers with sticks and dogs, and even guns.
It was after some ramblers had been turned off Bleaklow, near Glossop, by gamekeepers, one day in the early Spring of 1932, that they decided on some action. They were members of the British Workers' Sport Federation, a Communist Party-inspired organisation started in 1928. Among the Manchester activists was a keen young walker and cyclist from Cheetham Hill, the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania, Bernard, or as he was better known, Benny Rothman.
Born in 1911. Benny was forced to leave school early after his dad died, and he obtained a job as an errand lad with a motor firm. But in the evenings he studied geography and economics, and at weekends when he could he made for the hills, though when he joined the Young Communist League (YCL) an increasing amount of his time and energy began to be taken up with political meetings and selling Challenge or the Daily Worker.
What Benny and his pals decided was that they would not try to sneak up on to the moors to dodge the keepers, but turn up in force to make their point, having announced their intentions beforehand. The target for this Mass Trespass would be Kinder Scout, a moorland plateau part of which rises 636 metres (2,087 ft) above sea level, being the highest point in the Peak District, and in Derbyshire. It was the property of the Duke of Devonshire.
On the morning of Sunday, April 24, 1932, police were watching every railway station between Manchester and Hayfield, but Benny and his mates evaded them by coming on their bikes. About 400 ramblers gathered in a disused quarry at Bowden Bridge, above Hayfield, where after a rousing speech from Benny they set off, singing, towards William Clough, and the scramble on to Kinder's plateau.
This brought them face to face with the Duke of Devonshire's gamekeepers. There was a scuffle, and one of the keepers was slightly injured, but the ramblers managed to press on. On Kinder they met up with a contingent of 30 from Sheffield, who had come up that morning from Edale. There was a stop for tea, and an accompanying Guardian reporter noted "The trespassers were urged not to leave any litter about, and to their credit it must be said they were particularly neat in this matter". Of course. They appreciated and cared for the countryside. After a brief victory meeting, the two groups set off to retrace their steps, the Sheffield trespassers back to Edale and the Manchester contingent to Hayfield.
As they neared the village, the Manchester ramblers were met by a police inspector in a car, who suggested they follow him, and so they formed up into column and marched into Hayfield led by the police car. It was not until they were right into the village that they were stopped by more police, and then police officers accompanied by a gamekeeper began moving among them making arrests. Five of them were taken to the police station and detained. Another man had been taken earlier. The day after the trespass, Rothman and the others were charged at New Mills Police Court with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace.
Pleading not guilty, they were remanded to be tried at Derby Assizes – 60 miles from their homes – in July 1932. The jury at their trial was drawn from Derbyshire's establishment, with landowners and brigadier generals. The judge drew their attention to those defendents with "foreign"-sounding names and origins. All were found guilty and received custodial sentences. Benny did four months in Leicester jail, after which for some time he could not get employment.
Respectable bodies like the Manchester Ramblers' Federation and the Stockport Holiday Fellowship had said they would have nothing to do with these "hooligans", but within weeks of the Kinder Scout trespass some 10,000 ramblers rallied in the Winnats Pass, near Castleton, demanding access to the moorlands. Around the country there was wide sympathy and support for the young men who had gone to jail for the cause.
Returning to Manchester, Benny Rothman resumed his political and trade union work. He took part in the mobilisation to combat Oswald Mosley's fascists. He eventually got a job at the Avro aircraft factory, ironically as Alliott Verdon Roe its founder was a supporter of Mosley, and though this did not last, he was able to move on to the giant Metrovicks plant in Trafford Park, where he was active in the Amalgamated Engineering Union. During the war he was rejected for the army because he was in a reserved occupation.
After the war, and 17 years after the Mass Trespass, the Labour government brought in the Access to the Countryside Act (1949). The Peak District was the first area to be designated a National Park, and access agreements were negotiated with landowners for Bleaklow and Kinder Scout.
Growing up in Manchester, I was able to enjoy walks in the Peak District, and went up Bleaklow and Kinder Scout with friends while a teenager, little aware of the young men of an earlier generation who had gone to prison for my right to roam those hills freely. But I did later hear a song called The Manchester Rambler: "I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday". The author had been a YCLer from Salford called Jimmy Miller who took part in the Trespass, but was to be better-known to us as Ewan MacColl.
In April 1982, there was a rally to mark the 50th anniversary of the Mass Trespass, and Benny Rothman was invited to unveil a commemorative plaque in Bowden Bridge quarry. That year he also produced a little book on the trespass "... because I believe that the Mass Trespass is too important to be dismissed either as youthful folly, or as a political stunt."
Benny died in 2002, but his book on the Kinder Trespass is to be republished this year. Various events are happening as part of the Kinder 80 Festival opening today April 24, at Edale. Benny Rothman's son Professor Harry Rothman, himself the author of Murderous Providence, which is about the environment, will be travelling from Wales, joined by Jan Gillett from Warwickshire, the son of Tona Gillett, a student who was only there to observe the incident but was imprisoned for two months. Singer and broadcaster Mike Harding, a past president of the Ramblers Association, will also be there.
Chairman of the Kinder 80 committee Roly Smith commented: “The 1932 Mass Trespass was an iconic event not only for freedom to roam legislation, finally achieved by the CROW Act of 2000, but as a catalyst towards the creation of our National Parks, of which the Peak District was the first in 1951".
As the Trespass of 1932 is remembered, there are warnings that new planning laws and the relentless drive for private profit are bringing renewed danger to our open spaces and the right to enjoy them.
The Working Class Movement Library in Salford, which holds Benny Rothman's papers, is holding a Twitter event, whatever that is!