I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way
I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wage slave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday
Today, 24th April marks the 80th anniversary of what has become known as the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, a turning point in the struggle of ordinary working people to gain access to the huge swathes of the British countryside which at the time of the trespass they had no legal right to enter. It’s difficult to imagine now but in 1930’s Britain walking the land, “rambling”, could be a risky, sometimes illegal business. In the case of the Kinder Scout trespass it was also an act of deliberate civil disobedience which led to the arrest and imprisonment of the leaders of the ramblers.
Land enclosure in Britain, begun in the 16th century was the process by which, over time vast areas of previously “common” land, free for all to use, were effectively appropriated by the well-connected aristocracy for its own use and benefit. The word “enclosure” in this context often meant precisely that – the land was fenced off and transferred into the legal ownership of a group of well-placed individuals. Any right to public access was then heavily restricted or removed entirely. This was nothing less than the concentration of ownership – and therefore power in the hands of a tiny minority and led directly to the creation of the landless “working class”, those who were to become cheap, disposable labour in the factories of the industrial revolution, and the cannon-fodder for the never-ending wars which continue to this day.
Ever since the late 18th century working men and women fleeing the squalor of the cities in the heavily industrialized north had escaped to the countryside to breathe the fresh air of the Peaks, Lakes and Dales. By the 1930’s, tired of the tight restrictions imposed on their access by landowners the Right to Roam movement was born. In the Peak District, an area of largely deserted mountains and moorland sandwiched between the industrial cities of Manchester and Sheffield just 1,200 acres of its 150,000 acres, less than 1 percent, was open to the public. Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District had been public land until 1836 when it was “enclosed” and divided up amongst the adjacent landowners with the lion’s share going to the Duke of Devonshire. The 15 square miles, used as a breeding ground for grouse, the flightless moorland birds shot for amusement by the landed gentry thus became entirely inaccessible. Walkers straying onto private land did so at the risk of violent confrontation with armed gamekeepers, a situation which became aggravated once landlords saw that their right to the land was being questioned, and in some cases openly challenged.
By the spring of 1932 many working people had had enough. The Ramblers Movement with its roots in Socialism saw no reason why vast swathes of land should be kept as playgrounds for the wealthy. Trespass was the method they used to make their point, and on Sunday April 24, following protests over the failure of the legal system to prevent landowners from denying access to ancient rights of way members of the Lancashire branch of the British Workers’ Sport Federation set off to walk to Kinder Scout.
About 400 ramblers led by 21-year-old Benny Rothman, started out from Bowden Bridge quarry, eventually confronting the Duke of Devonshire’s gamekeepers who tried to prevent their access. After a “brief but vigorous hand-to-hand struggle” the ramblers pressed on to the Kinder plateau, joining up with a group of Sheffield-based trespassers who had started off that morning from Edale. After exchanging congratulations the two groups then retraced their steps and were met by the police on their return. The following day Benny Rothman and several others were arrested and subsequently received prison sentences of between 2 and 6 months.
Although the rambler’s victory was a temporary one their statement set off a chain reaction which led to more acts of trespass, bigger protests and eventually to the passage of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949. This allowed for the creation of the first National Parks, and for the negotiation of access agreements to open country. The Peak District was the first to be designated, and access agreements were negotiated with landowners for the former ‘battlefields’ of the 1930s; Kinder Scout and Bleaklow. Even so, huge areas of moorland remained inaccessible to the public for another 50 years until the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act in 2000, and its final implementation in 2005.
Who Owns the World?
It’s worth looking for a moment at the events of April 24 1932 in a wider context. Although land ownership is less of an emotive subject for most people in the UK today than it was in the 1930’s it’s a little understood fact that pretty much every inch of the ground under our feet, wherever we are in the world, is owned by someone, someone we’ve never met and are never likely to. This includes the land you may think you’ve bought and paid for with your hard-earned mortgage. The writer Kevin Cahill has done exhaustive research on the subject of who owns the world and some of his often startling conclusions can be read here and here.
Let’s Keep That Kinder Scout Spirit (stravaigerjohn.wordpress.com)
- I’m a Rambler……Postcard from Wales