One of my favorite things to do is go for a long walk and listen to BBC World Service. Last night was an episode of Witness which interviewed some of the men involved in an incident in 1932 that led to the founding of the first national park in the UK - The Peaks District National Park founded in 1951. Looks like a beautiful place.
Context in 1932
The great issue which motivated the protesters was access. Their area, the Peak District, composed of moorland and mountains, was bad farming land and used mostly to graze sheep or to keep game birds. Kinder Scout itself was used to hold grouse for local landlords. These rich men only rarely went shooting and Kinder Scout was worked only around 12 days a year. The rest of the time the land was deserted, and walkers were not allowed.
The trespassers demanded one simple change: the landowners should open a public path through Kinder Scout, allowing local walkers to ramble through when the land was not in use. But behind this simple demand there were deeper questions. By the 1920s and 1930s most ramblers were working class. With so many unemployed, rambling grew in popularity. Tens of thousands of workers used their Sundays to go walking. By 1932 it is estimated that 15,000 working class ramblers left Manchester every Sunday.
For many, rambling was not easy. Rambling clothes had to be improvised. For jackets, most used old army tops; for boots, old work shoes. The rich loathed the ragged workers they saw walking on their land, while the ramblers were contemptuous of the pampered aristocrats who claimed to possess the earth.
Of the 150,000 acres of mountains and moorland in the Peak District, only 1,200 acres, less than 1 percent, enjoyed public access. There were only 12 'legal' paths to choose from. Paths became crowded and many walkers would sneak off to somewhere quieter. If people walked onto private land, they would be chased by gamekeepers with sticks, dogs and sometimes guns. This was class conflict, if in a minor key. Many trespassers did not believe that the landowners had any real right to own the land and saw it as wrong that anyone should claim the land as private. So the politics of the trespass became socialist.
The Kinder Scout trespass was called by one small group, the British Workers' Sports Federation (BWSF), largely made up of members and supporters of the Communist Party, which enjoyed significant working class support. The majority of those on the trespass were apprentices, engineers and other workers. Some were unemployed. Others came from Jewish families living in Manchester. Of the six walkers who were eventually arrested, two were cotton piece workers, two engineers, one unemployed and one a student.
The federation was a campaigning organisation, set up in 1928, and had gained a reputation through campaigning for Sunday football leagues and new football pitches and facilities. It held camps in the Peak District at Rowarth and over Easter 1932 a group of ramblers were assaulted by gamekeepers there, encouraging the BWSF to call the Kinder Scout trespass.
When news of the trespass came out, official rambling associations rushed to complain. The Manchester District Ramblers Federation sent a telegram stating that it would have 'no part in the events'. The Stockport Group of the Holiday Fellowship expressed its 'utter disgust' at what it called 'organised hooliganism'. These official walking clubs were very respectable organisations. Provided that they applied for permission, and respected the property rights of the landowners, they could walk wherever they wanted. With dukes and earls among their patrons, they reflected a different class and possessed a different strategy from the young unemployed Communists in the BWSF. From the Guardian
"Let me take him up to the hills at weekends, Mrs Allison. That'll keep him out of trouble." Those words, uttered by a neighbour's son to my mother in 1955, sparked a flame in me that has burned brightly ever since. Frank was a hiker, a clean living lad in his late teens. I was 13, in trouble with the law and set to appear at the juvenile court – again. My mother agreed to the expedition and the next Saturday saw me and Frank on the train, from Gorton, east Manchester, to Hayfield, a small Pennine village, nestling below the lower slopes of Kinder Scout.
We set off along Kinder Road, passing the quarry – a path I have trodden countless times since – and the first sight of Kinder, the "dark peak", has never failed to lift my spirits and imbue me with a sharp sense of freedom. That liberation, for me and all those who tramp the Peak District, came at a price. In 1932, five men were jailed for their part in the mass trespass of Kinder Scout, when about 500 men and women took to the hills in defiance of the law, which then decreed those hills and open moorland the sole province of the landed gentry, enabling them to shoot grouse for a few days each August.
As the men's spokesman, 21-year-old Benny Rothman was to say in his defence, at Derby Assizes: "We ramblers, after a hard week's work, in smokey towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation and fresh air. And we find the finest rambling country is closed to us … Our request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable." The jury, mostly county establishment, thought otherwise, and the five were jailed for between four and six months.
By all accounts, the protest was intended to be peaceful, but keepers, employed by the Duke of Devonshire and armed with sticks, confronted the marchers. The Guardian recorded: "The protesters fought a brief but vigorous hand-to-hand struggle with a number of keepers specially enrolled for the occasion. This they won with ease, and then marched to Ashop Head, where they held a meeting before returning in triumph to Hayfield … There will be plenty of bruises carefully nursed in Gorton and other parts of Manchester tonight."
Though the protest cost Rothman and his fellow marchers their liberty, their actions created a tide that could not be stemmed. Three weeks after the trespass, some 10,000 ramblers held a protest rally at nearby Castleton; the right-to-roam movement was on the march. What Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the Labour party, was later to describe as "the most successful direct action in British history" would lead, in 1951, to the creation of the first national park. Fittingly, it was the Peak District, described as the "lungs of the industrial north". In 2000, freedom-to-roam legislation was passed, finally making lawful what Rothman and his comrades marched for. Next week, a festival will celebrate the 80th anniversary of their derring-do.
Frank, if by chance you are reading this, sadly, you were wrong; your kind intervention did not keep me "out of trouble" but it enriched my life beyond measure. Thanks.
• Eric Allison is the Guardian's prison correspondent. Kinder 80 will be launched at the Moorland Centre, Edale, on April 24. More details of the festival at http://kindertrespass.com