Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The right to roam across the countryside has always been opposed by the rich and powerful. Access has only been seized, often by direct action, as in the 1930s. The trespass movement began on 24 April 1932, when around 600 ramblers walked from Hayfield in Derbyshire to Kinder Scout, a high plateau in the Peak District, roughly halfway between Manchester and Sheffield.
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.
When the Kinder Scout mass trespass took place, dozens of police were there--private gamekeepers and officials from water and gas companies which owned land in Hayfield. The police allowed the demonstrators to gather and then moved them on. The crowd had to assemble instead in a quarry, where it was addressed by Rothman, before marching off, singing the 'Red Flag' and the Internationale'. Two thirds of the way to the top the walkers encountered a gang of about a dozen gamekeepers, and there was a brief scuffle. The keepers thrashed around with their sticks--and one was knocked down or fell over, and sprained his ankle. After the fracas the gamekeepers fled and the demonstration moved on. On Snake Path the walkers met another contingent, coming over the other side of the hill direct from Sheffield. The trespassers stopped, welcomed each other, heard speeches and then marched down.
The demonstrators walked back to Hayfield. They found that the wounded keeper had informed the police, and one third of the entire Derbyshire constabulary was waiting to arrest the ringleaders. Many marchers noted that the police seemed to he under orders to pick out foreign looking faces, especially Jewish ones. The trial was a joke. Only two of the walkers were even represented by a lawyer. The charges were raised from trespass to riotous assembly. The jury included two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors and three captains--altogether 11 members of the landowning class. One of the accused was said to possess a book written by Lenin. Another was identified as having sold the Daily Worker newspaper. The judge noted that three of the defendants had 'foreign sounding names'. Eventually five out of six defendants were found guilty and sentenced to between two and six months in jail.
After such a set up, even official walking groups were compelled to take sides, with the Ramblers' Federation protesting against the sentence. During the weeks of the trial thousands of walkers illegally visited the route of the march. The Ramblers' Association annual demonstration had 10,000 on it. The BWSF organised further mass demonstrations. However, although the campaign continued, it was the original mass trespass which gained the most publicity. Kinder Scout has passed into legend. The mountain was 'nationalised' in 1949, under the National Parks Access To Countryside Act. Many of the people who walk on Kinder today do so in groups or on organised tours. People learn its history and know that they only have the right to walk there because the land was won in struggle.