Earlier this year, the British labour movement marked a little-known yet
important milestone. Eighty years ago, in April 1932, hundreds of
working class ramblers defied police and landowners to trespass across
Kinder Scout, an iconic moorland plateau that marks the highest point in
the Peak District, in Derbyshire.
Earlier this year, the British labour movement marked a little-known yet important milestone. Eighty years ago, in April 1932, hundreds of working class ramblers defied police and landowners to trespass across Kinder Scout, an iconic moorland plateau that marks the highest point in the Peak District, in Derbyshire. At the time, the land was used by wealthy landlords to breed grouse, which were to be shot for fun by assorted aristocratic and upper-class types. Even though the land could not be farmed, it was of course strictly off-limits to everyone else. The ramblers, mostly unemployed lads from nearby Manchester and Sheffield, organised the trespass, wishing to "take action to open up the fine country at present denied us." Their actions played a decisive role in reclaiming the land for the enjoyment of ordinary people.
In the early 1930s unemployment and poverty were rife in Britain (as now!), which was still in the midst of the great depression. Walking was one of the few leisure activities that working class families could afford. However, the ‘official’ Ramblers Association was largely middle class and took no action to secure access to the countryside. In frustration, young walkers responded by forming the British Workers Sports Federation, which was heavily influenced by the Communist Party. At the time the Communists had a significant base in many northern working class cities and as a result the federation took a far more militant approach and played the decisive role in organising the mass trespass.
The Workers Sports Federation organised and built up support for the trespass through meetings, handbills, and word of mouth. In the end nearly 500 marchers gathered in the Derbyshire villages of Hayfield and Edale on the 24th of April, and set off towards Kinder Scout. The marchers were led by people like Benny Rothman, an unemployed mechanic and communist from Manchester who lost his job when his boss discovered his political convictions. Many of the ramblers were card-carrying Communists, who fought hand-to-hand battles on the moors with gamekeepers and police. As the ramblers crossed the moors they easily overcame the gamekeepers, and sang the socialist anthems The Red Flag and The Internationale as they headed towards the top of Kinder Scout. Although the march was successful, on their return to the villages five ramblers were arrested and charged with public order offences, including Benny Rothman. They were given hefty prison sentences.
However, that did little to quell the enthusiasm for the trespassing. In fact, their draconian treatment led to public outrage. Just a few weeks later, 10 000 ramblers took part in a rally at Winnats Pass, near Castleton. This was the biggest gathering of hikers in British history. Another mass trespass took place in September of 1932 on Yorkshire’s Bradfield Moors. These events, as well as numerous others, were directly inspired by the actions of the Kinder Scout trespassers.
The campaign eventually led to the introduction of a number of reforms over the next few decades that improved access to the countryside. The most notable of these were those introduced by Labour governments in 1949 (the creation of National Parks, including the Peak District) and in 2000 (the introduction of Right to Roam legislation). Despite these victories however, there is still some way to go. It is estimated that just 1% of the population own 70% of Britain’s 60 million acres of land. Many of these landowners gained their title deeds through the enclosures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or through family inheritance that stretches back to the Norman conquest. It is the job of the next Labour government to finish the work that was started in 1932, and return the land to common ownership.
The mass trespass still has a powerful impact, even 80 years on. "We cannot be complacent”, Kate Ashbrook, the president of the Ramblers’ Association, told an audience earlier this year. “The threats which the trespassers fought are still very much with us, but in a different guise. We live in uncertain times, where finance comes before freedom.”