Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Occupy Kinder Scout: remembering the mass trespass

Rights of access in the UK owe much to a mass trespass onto Kinder Scout 80 years ago, Dave Toft writes

August 9, 2012
7 min read

The 1932 mass trespass onto Kinder Scout is an event that has immense significance in the history of working class struggle, and continues to resonate through campaigns such as those by the Occupy movement today.

The very idea of trespass, and the implied concept of ownership, goes to the heart of all class struggle, and there is still much we can learn from the 1932 action – not least because it was spectacularly effective. On the 75th anniversary Roy (Lord) Hattersley described it as ‘the most successful act of direct action in British history’. It is widely seen as having given a crucial impetus to the creation of the national parks and still acts as a rallying point for the whole right to roam movement, a point made repeatedly during the week of celebrations held around Edale and Hayfield, which were poignantly attended by the only two surviving members of the trespass.

The mass trespass was part of a long campaign to gain access to open moorland appropriated by the landed gentry during the enclosures. The main target for generations of campaigners was Kinder Scout, the dark, brooding plateau of rugged moorland lying between the industrial conurbations of Manchester and Sheffield. It was this proximity to large populations of young and politically aware factory workers that made Kinder the symbolic battleground for the struggle between the feudal landed gentry and a militant working class, a struggle that began in earnest in the late 19th century and continues to this day.

Individuals had long trespassed on the moors, often walking long distances from Stockport and the outskirts of Manchester just to get to the hills, where they faced constant harassment and often violence from the gamekeepers. Lengthy negotiations had been taking place between the Ramblers Association and the landowners, but many were becoming impatient with this process. Members of the Communist Party British Workers’ Sports Federation in Manchester became increasingly frustrated and decided to force the issue. Benny Rothman organised the event and a young Ewan McColl, who was later to immortalise the struggle in his song ‘The Manchester Rambler’, acted as the self-proclaimed press officer, ensuring full coverage in the Manchester Evening News and Manchester Guardian.

Police and protesters

On the day, Rothman cycled to the rallying point in Hayfield, partly because he couldn’t afford the train fare and also because he was concerned that police might try to prevent supporters from joining the protest. Despite the efforts of the Derbyshire constabulary, more than 400 Manchester ramblers did make it to Hayfield, with a smaller Sheffield contingent arriving in Edale on the far side of the plateau.

The leader of Hayfield parish council attempted to read the Riot Act, while police focused on what would today be called ‘kettling’ the trespassers to prevent them gaining access to the Kinder approach routes. Then, according to an unpublished interview with Benny Rothman (conducted by Graeme Atkinson in 1978, used here courtesy of Kinder Trespass Archive Project, Hayfield), the walkers broke through and streamed across Hayfield cricket pitch and onto Kinder Road, ‘singing the Red Flag and the Internationale’. In the same interview, Rothman says that the police were much less fit than the trespassers and unable to keep up with their pace, allowing them to regroup in a quarry at the foot of Kinder, where Rothman and others addressed them and outlined their strategy for gaining access to the top of the plateau. They then marched past the reservoir, onto the slopes of Kinder and into the history books.

There were some minor scuffles with hired ‘gamekeepers’, but most of the hikers reached the top and briefly met with their Sheffield comrades, before heading back into Hayfield and the waiting police, who made five arrests (a sixth was arrested in a separate incident). Benny Rothman said that all five were ‘Jewish or Jewish looking people’, and he certainly believed that this was deliberately racist behaviour by police.

The trial of the six took place some weeks later, with full national coverage, and there was widespread outrage in liberal and left circles when all of the accused received prison sentences. And so the trespass entered popular folklore, becoming synonymous with the struggle for greater access to the countryside.

Behind the scenes, of course, there was a great deal of low profile, day-to-day hard work in lobbying and negotiating, led by the tirelessly committed Tom Stephenson of the Ramblers Association. He and many others initially resented what they saw as attention‑seeking behaviour that might threaten the painstaking and precarious progress being made. Tom later recanted, however, and accepted that without the mass trespass, progress towards access would have stalled and the setting up of the national parks would not have happened. Even at the time, he was canny enough to use the event to put pressure on the landowners and politicians by raising the spectre of further mass trespasses should more tangible progress fail to be made.

Why the trespass succeeded

So why was it so successful? First, it was well planned, with a careful eye on positive publicity – the protesters even had a Guardian special reporter ‘embedded’ with them on the trespass – and they were able to gain public sympathy by panicking the authorities and provoking them into a wholly disproportionate response. The prison sentences created instant martyrs to the cause and the heavy-handed, patently unjust reaction exposed the nature of the rich and powerful feudal landowners to a wide urban audience.

Another key factor was that the actions were very focused and had a clear objective. Yet it was not seen as a single issue campaign, either by the participants or the authorities. For those taking part, it was consciously and explicitly part of a wider, revolutionary struggle to overthrow the capitalist system. Several of those on the trespass fought – and died – in the International Brigade in Spain four years later and many of the others continued a life of political activism in their trade unions in Manchester and Sheffield.

It is no coincidence, then, that the first national park was established in the Peak District, centred on Kinder. It is now one of the busiest such parks in Europe, with an estimated 10 million visitors a year. The park is incredibly well managed by the National Trust, which has large landholdings, and the Peak Park and the Ranger Service, who together are somehow able to balance the often conflicting needs and demands of famers, locals, hikers, mountain bikers, campers and car park tourists who flock there every weekend.

The Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000) has consolidated gains in access and helped extend it, but overall progress towards a ‘right to roam’ in the English and Welsh countryside has been patchy (there are different, far more extensive rights in Scotland). There still remain significant areas of the country where access is restricted, threatened or resisted, with landowners such as the Duke of Westminster fighting every inch of the way.

Even in Hayfield itself, the gateway to Kinder, the trespass can still ignite strong feelings. In 2011 the parish council astonishingly turned down grant funding of more than £90,000 awarded to set up a permanent exhibition of the mass trespass.

The trespass was a crucial event that must not be forgotten, but neither should it be remembered as simply an isolated historical event. Rather we should celebrate it as an inspirational moment in a continuing struggle that we cannot afford to lose, and learn its lessons well.

The Kinder Trespass Archive Project, Hayfield, is committed to establishing a permanent archive and exhibition to commemorate the mass trespass and link it to the continuing struggle for access to our countryside. Its website is www.kindertrespass.com

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe


307