Rambling emerged as a mass recreational activity in the last few decades of the nineteenth century in northern English areas increasingly swallowed by early capitalism’s apocalyptic landscape. It was a time when visitors to the premier industrial city of Manchester were welcomed by belching plumes of black smoke. In a short essay, Charles Dickens would describe its environs as a “plague of smoke” which “obscured the light, made foul the melancholy air,” and covered “all things living or inanimate, shutting out the face of the sky, and closing in on all these horrors with a dense dark cloud.”
Choked by the toxicity of their immediate surroundings, many young workers in Manchester and other nearby industrial cities sought retreat in the heather and furze of the moorlands and mountains of the nearby Peak District. This phenomenon found reflection early on in the northern English labour movement, where rambling clubs were a consistent feature. George “Bert” Ward formed the first northern workers’ rambling club, the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers, in 1900, while Manchester’s socialist Clarion Café soon followed suit.
For socialists such as Ward, rambling was not merely escapism but a potential avenue of human improvement. Northern socialist sports publications were fond of quoting his philosophy on their mastheads: that “a rambler made is a man improved.” Regular land invasions were organised by Britain’s socialist pioneers, who enjoyed the sense of trepidation that came with discovering new paths, conquering the “unconquered,” and scaling the summits that workers were formally denied access to.
Fighting the Gentry
By 1932, Kinder Scout, a moorland plateau in Derbyshire, had become a particular favorite. It is estimated that approximately fifteen thousand working-class Mancunians left to go to enjoy its hills every Sunday, mostly dressed in cheap army surplus clothing and battered work shoes. During the Great Depression, which hit Manchester terribly, young unemployed workers were deprived of many typical leisure activities, and instead chose to shell out for the relatively inexpensive train ticket every Sunday to walk on Kinder Scout.
But their visits were unwelcome. Instead, they received scores of written warnings and stern notices prohibiting their exploration of the land. The vast majority of Kinder Scout’s reservoirs and mountains were owned by the Duke of Devonshire, who insisted that the area be kept for grouse shooting for the pleasure of the local landowners and industrialists.
The issue was fast becoming a serious political problem, and ramblers’ organisations began to promote land reform. However, these “respectable” organisations were largely toothless, confined mostly to lobbying pleas. As such, the establishment was content in ignoring them.
But they were not the only organised force interested in rambling. Seeing the right to ramble as a class issue, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) decided a more forceful campaign was needed. An internal CPGB document described how the rampant inequality on the moorland put ramblers up “against the present social system in one of its clearest and most detestable aspects” — in other words, “to be chased from a field by gamekeepers and dogs is an object lesson in elementary politics.” Through their affiliated organisation, the British Workers Sports Federation (BWSF), the radical left had an attitude militant enough to set the political agenda.
Founded in 1923, the BWSF’s membership was small, but it held significant influence over a proportion of inner-city youth. The BWSF had gained particular prestige for having sent high-performing boxing squads to the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, while its delegation to the 1931 Workers’ Summer Olympiad in Vienna — an event larger than the Los Angeles Summer Olympics of the following year — came an impressive fourth.
In Lancashire, the organisation was synonymous with Benny Rothman. Born in 1911 to Romanian Jewish immigrants in the north Manchester slum of Cheetham Hill, Rothman became an outdoors enthusiast at a very early age. His treks were often daunting: in one early anecdote, a fourteen-year-old Rothman was spellbound reading about the beauty of Mount Snowdon, so he decided to cycle the more than one hundred miles to north Wales to experience it.
Rothman was also a voracious reader, and was introduced by his aunt to socialist writers such as Upton Sinclair and Robert Tressell. While in training to be a mechanic, he studied geography and economics in his spare time — an effort that was noted by a communist coworker, Bill Dunn, who invited him to a Young Communist League meeting.
Rothman took to organising talks, becoming instrumental in creating a Lancashire wing of the BWSF. Thanks largely to his boundless enthusiasm, the Lancashire BWSF became rapidly popular with young workers from Manchester and surrounding mill towns for their Sunday rambles and cycling weekends.
It was at the Lancashire BWSF’s Easter camp that the inspiration for the mass trespass derived from. Part of the schedule, crafted mainly by Rothman, included a ramble to Bleaklow, a wild area adjacent to the BWSF campsite. However, while on their way, the BWSF ramblers were abused and physically intimidated by a group of gamekeepers and were forced to return to camp. The ramblers — who included visitors from the London branch of the BWSF — were, in Rothman’s words, “crestfallen.”
However, in their discussions of the incident, the ramblers were in agreement that the day wouldn’t have had the same ending if there was an army of factory apprentices facing the gamekeepers. Here, the idea of a mass trespass took shape: the BWSF wanted to make a human wave of ramblers that would prove a point to the bullying gamekeepers and simultaneously force the issue of working-class leisure onto the political agenda.
On Forbidden Territory
The well-publicised march called for ramblers to “take action to open up the fine country at present denied to us,” urging ramblers to attend a large BSWF rally in Hayfield. This was a diversion — and a successful one, given that a third of the entire Derbyshire police force swamped the small village in anticipation of communist unrest.
Instead, the trespassers gathered at an old quarry a short distance away in the direction of the open moors, arriving there at a route which police cars could not reach. In the quarry, Rothman addressed hundreds of ramblers ready for confrontation. In his 1982 account of the mass trespass, Rothman describes the moment when he 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 … multicoloured sweaters and pullovers, army packs and rucksacks of every size and shape.
The plan was for the trespassers to head northwards past the Kinder Reservoir, walking down an established right-of-way area up to William Clough, an ascent which offered stunning views of Manchester and Cheshire. The ramblers would then break off to charge up the prohibited Kinder moorlands.
Once they reached William Clough, two piercing whistles from the trespassers sounded. By now, the skyline was riddled with a large number of gamekeepers, many armed with large sticks. Following a third whistle, the trespassers began running up the hill towards those protecting private property. Brief but violent scuffles ensued between the ramblers and gamekeepers, in which the trespassers emerged victorious; running through prohibited land together, singing “The Red Flag” and “The Internationale,” they met fellow ramblers from Sheffield on the “other side” who had succeeded in reaching the plateau.
Rothman described in later life the sense of liberation experienced by the ramblers. On the “holiest of holies — the forbidden territory of Kinder,” hundreds of working people had asserted their right to explore their beautiful country at will.
However, this feeling was to be all too short-lived. In the scuffles, a keeper had been injured, and the huge police presence at Hayfield was still there, waiting to arrest ramblers. The trespassers agreed that they would march back to Hayfield together “with their heads held high.” As Rothman was to write later, they refused to feel ashamed — the trespass was “a demonstration for the rights of ordinary people to walk on land stolen from them in earlier times.”
Of those arrested — Tona Gillett, Julius Clyne, John Anderson, Harry Mendel, David Nussbaum, and Benny Rothman — none were over the age of twenty-three. The fact that the majority of the defendants were Jews clearly irritated the jury, and that one defendant was arrested with a copy of a Lenin text also provoked outrage.
“We ramblers,” Benny Rothman declared to the prosecution, “after a hard week’s work, [living] 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.”
He claimed that his demand, for working-class people to be granted “access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland,” was “not unreasonable.” However, a grand jury of two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors, three captains, two aldermen, and eleven aristocrats did not agree. The trial was a foregone conclusion, and all of the men were charged with various charges relating to riotous assembly and assault and jailed for upwards of six months.
“I’m a Rambler From Manchester Way”
However, the clearly vindictive sentences only helped mobilise a broad labour movement sentiment in defence of imprisoned Communists, and further popularised the cause of the right to roam. Liberal and social-democratic commentators, though irritated by the actions of the Communist-influenced BWSF, felt compelled to condemn the heavy-handed and class-prejudiced actions of the courts, and defence rallies and copycat mass trespasses were held throughout the summer of 1932.
As the opposition to fascism and war became the central focus for the European labour movement, the cause of the right to roam fell by the wayside. Many mass trespass veterans contributed to the labour movement in different ways, such as much-heralded folk singer Ewan MacColl and noted historian A. J. P. Taylor. Scores of BWSF members present on April 24, 1932 fought with the International Brigades in Spain, including Joe Norman, Wolf Winnick, the professional boxer Bob Goodman, the speedway rider Clem Beckett, and Alec Armstrong, an unemployed construction worker. Most of these figures were to never return from the Spanish front.
However, the election of the Labour Party in 1945 meant that a government now existed which shared the trespassers’ desire for land reform. A National Parks Commission was established in July 1945, and in 1949, the National Parks and Countryside Act was passed overwhelmingly. Two years later, the Peak District — of which Kinder Scout was a part — became Britain’s first national park (although other parts of the Peak District remained forbidden until 2004).
The event itself has passed onto both folk memory and national commemoration. A Northern Rail train was named in honour of Benny Rothman in 2007, unveiled by then–government minister David Miliband. A chirpy, ideologically informed song about the mass trespass by Ewan MacColl, “The Manchester Rambler,” is now a well-known verse:
I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way,
I get all my pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wage slave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday.
And many decades later, as the Left in Britain experiences a renaissance, Manchester Momentum and North West Young Labour have begun taking hundreds of socialists young and old up the hills in honour of the trespass. The ramble is not just a nostalgia trip: young people in the city, their prospects diminished by years of austerity, are once again looking for cheap forms of leisure; and, although nowhere near as bad as eighty years ago, Manchester is once again becoming increasingly polluted, a consequence of rampant deregulation, with its toxic air being held responsible for a thousand premature deaths annually.
The Kinder Scout trespass was one of the most audacious and important direct actions in British labour history. Its cultural and political impact was profound, drawing reference as late as 2000, when the Labour government passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. But decades later there is still a distance to walk in the battle against landlordism and enclosure. As Benny Rothman himself was fond of saying, democratic rights are like public footpaths — if you don’t use them, they become hidden, get ploughed up or fenced off, one day to be built over and vanished.