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Remembering Winter Hill, Britain’s Biggest Mass Trespass

125 years ago, 10,000 walkers took to the road to Winter Hill in Lancashire to protest its closure by its wealthy owner – and to stand up for the rights of all to roam the country's land.

Walkers commemorate the anniversary in 1982.

Ay, the moors lie round Bolton like a magic mantle; a magic mantle from the Goddess Hygiene; and there be those who would take this mantle, the people’s property, from those who have every right to it.

— Allen Clarke

In 1920, the Lancashire dialect writer and socialist Allen Clarke wrote of Winter Hill that ‘wolves have been mentioned as prowling round these regions in olden time. No doubt they were a pest and a danger, but one wonders if they were as much a nuisance as some of our modern gentry, who enclose lands and bar people from footpaths over the moors.’

Historically, the beautiful West Pennines moorland—situated above and around the Lancashire towns of Bolton, Horwich, and Chorley—was the property of Colonel Richard Ainsworth. From a ‘notable’ family who had made their great wealth in the slave trade, Ainsworth was the owner of a local bleachworks; a die-hard Tory, he was acutely paranoid about Lancashire’s growing working-class movement. As a fervent anti-socialist and anti-union voice in late-nineteenth-century local politics, he was an active opponent of trade unionist Tom Mann’s campaign to open Bolton’s public libraries on a Sunday.

In the summer of 1896, Ainsworth decided to close off the moorland road which led up to Winter Hill, hoping that his grouse-shooting wouldn’t be disturbed. Local people—who had walked over the moor, mostly without trouble, for generations—were furious. The parish council ordered a committee of enquiry. But it was left to local socialists to take more direct measures. With just a few days’ notice, the Bolton branch of the Social Democratic Federation advertised a procession on the morning of Sunday 6 September ‘to test the right of way’.

A few hundred met at the bottom of Halliwell Road, on Bolton’s north side. The road was a busy one, climbing through a dense network of terraced streets before reaching open moorland, and little of it has changed today. By the time the procession reached the top of Halliwell Road, the numbers had swelled to around 10,000. There was a sense of carnival in the event, with many placards poking fun at ‘The Colonel’ and local people selling home-brewed ale to the processionists.

The crowd surged up Smithills Dean and then along Coalpit Road until they reached the gate which had been closed off by Ainsworth. After a brief melee, the gate was smashed, and the processionists burst onto the disputed road. From there, they carried on over Winter Hill and down to Belmont, where they were said to have had a great time in the Wright’s Arms pub, drinking the pub dry. The Black Dog in Belmont—still standing and named as such today—also had an equally brisk trade.

The confrontation created a huge stir, and demonstrations continued over three more weekends – as well as on a Wednesday afternoon to permit shop workers to attend on their afternoon off. On the Thursday after the second march, Allen Clarke brought out his weekly newspaper, Teddy Ashton’s Journal. In a powerful Lancashire dialect sketch about the Winter Hill events, he also included a song, ‘Will yo’ come’ o’ Sunday Mornin’?’:

Will yo’ come o’ Sunday mornin’
For a walk o’er Winter Hill?
Ten thousand went last Sunday
But there’s room for thousand still!
Oh there moors are rare and bonny
And the heather’s sweet and fine
And the roads across the hilltops –
Are the people’s – yours and mine!

And many more did. The following week it was estimated that 12,000 joined the march, which was unimpeded by police or gamekeepers. Meetings were held in Bolton to raise support for the campaign. If the public was on the side of the campaigners, the law wasn’t. The court case brought by Ainsworth against the ‘ringleaders’—mostly local socialists like Joe Shufflebotham of Astley Bridge, but also the venerable radical Liberal, Solomon Partington—was successful.

Although nobody went to jail, they had to pay heavy fines, some of which was covered by public contributions. The track up to Winter Hill remained closed for a century, though when ownership passed to the local authority in the 1930s, people re-asserted their ‘right to roam’ over the moors.

Clarke’s Moorlands and Memories, published in 1920, was important in keeping alive the memory of what happened in 1896 – Britain’s biggest ever ‘mass trespass’, far eclipsing Kinder Scout of 1932. Although, it must be stressed, those thousands of Boltonians didn’t regard themselves as ‘trespassing’ at all – they were reclaiming their rights that had been arrogantly usurped.

Both events—Winter Hill and Kinder—were organised, in the main, by local left-wing activists. In 1896 it was led by Bolton branch of the Social Democratic Federation, forerunner of the Communist Party of Great Britain, whose members organised the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass. I was able to show Benny Rothman, leader of the 1932 action, the site of the Winter Hill events in 1982; he joined us on the commemorative march later that year.

That was not the only year that the Winter Hill events were celebrated. The centenary of the demonstrations was marked by another march in September 1996, where a stone plaque was erected by the gate bearing Clarke’s poem. The 125th anniversary took place on 5 September 2021, and ramblers were welcomed from across the North of England and beyond. As the march progressed up Halliwell Road, scores of people turned out to cheer the marchers on, with the landlord of The Ainsworth Arms displaying a hand-written sign proclaiming: ‘Trespassers Welcome’. The local bus company Diamond provided free buses to get people back to Bolton from the end of the march in Belmont. And the sun shone.

You can now walk over Winter Hill without fear of prosecution. When you get to the gate, salute those thousands of Boltonians who asserted their rights over those of the landowner. It’s a fairly easy walk all the way up to Winter Hill from here, though strong footwear is recommended. The further you go, the better the view becomes. Clarke’s exuberant but heartfelt celebration of the view remains every bit as true today as it was in 1920:

Sit down here, on a summer’s day, on the green moorland under the blue sky, and though you own not a yard of land nor a stick of property, you are on a throne, and king of the world – a happier and far more innocent king than any ruler who ever held tinsel court and played havoc with the destiny of nations – you are monarch of all the magic of the moorlands, of healthy air for the lungs, of Nature’s pictures for the eye, of Nature’s music for the ear…