“I may be a wage slave on Monday / But I am a free man on Sunday.” The final, defiant lines of Ewan MacColl’s The Manchester Rambler are set to a jovial tune that has become a standard for English folk singers; yet one could be forgiven for not having heard it. The song, and the trespass it commemorates, occupy a somewhat niche space in English history – side-lined, along with the entire debate around land ownership and access, by ingrained and unquestioned notions of property.
The Kinder Scout Trespass is unique in the extent of both the debate and the reverence it inspires; it has variously been cast as heroic, a turning point in the English access movement, and a communist stunt that set the campaign back years. To understand why, let us go back to 1932: to the trespass itself, and the circumstances that inspired it.
Once common land, the Peak District was enclosed in 1836, used for grouse shooting by the Duke of Devonshire. It nonetheless became a popular spot for ramblers around the turn of the century – workers from Manchester and Sheffield, who would catch a train along the newly-constructed Hope Valley line and head for the moorland. Public paths were few and crowded, but that didn’t deter those who flocked there to escape the dirt and grinding misery of the industrial towns. By the 1930s, it was estimated that fifteen thousand would visit every Sunday; amongst them, in early 1932, was 20-year-old motor apprentice Benny Rothman, and a group of friends from the British Workers’ Sports Federation.
They had planned a hike to Bleaklow, a high peak just north of Kinder Scout, but were unable to complete it after being turned away by gamekeepers. Perhaps a less politically-minded group would have simply resolved to stick to marked paths from then on: but not Rothman, who was sure that “if, instead of 6 or 7, there’d been 40 or 50 of us, they wouldn’t have been able to do it”.
And so the idea of the Mass Trespass was born. Publicised as such by Rothman himself, who gave interviews in the Manchester Evening News and leafleted at train stations, the intention was to make a political statement. The 400-strong crowd that turned up more than justified the label – working-class young people from across Lancashire converged on the small village of Hayfield, before setting off for Kinder Scout together, singing as they went.
Benny Rothman’s hypothesis of strength in numbers was right: there was a scuffle with some gamekeepers as they climbed, and one was knocked unconscious, but the ramblers were undiscouraged. They met for jubilant speeches at the edge of the plateau; and descended once more toward Hayfield, still triumphant. It was on the footpath into Hayfield that they were finally stopped by police, and six arrested – of those, five (including Benny Rothman) would go on to be charged; their combined sentences were upwards of a year.
The public outcry to this disproportionately harsh sentencing generated far more publicity than the trespass alone. Many believe it played a greater part in “rally[ing] public opinion” in favour of the cause than the trespass itself could ever have done. What exactly created the myth of Kinder Scout depends on who you ask: whether it was Rothman and the BWSF’s deliberate framing of it as significant at the outset; or the vindictive sentencing of its organisers, symbolic of the lengths to which the old elite would go to protect their right to exclude. What is clear, though, is that the evocative power of myth has an enduring importance that extends to the access campaigns of today.
Critics of the Kinder Scout Trespass as hasty and un-coordinated, too militant to inspire genuine change, miss the point. It might have played no part in the passing of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act; it might have usurped the rightful place of early ramblers and access pioneers in histories of the British access movement. But it was a powerful and uncompromising attempt to “challenge the power of ownership right at its narrative source”, to change the way land ownership, and trespass, were popularly understood.
English land-ownership has always had a peculiar character: since William the Conqueror invaded in 1066, its history has been one of systematic exclusion. This exclusion has no moral justification, though many philosophers (most of them subsidised by the aristocracy) have tried to find one. However, it is integral to the power that land ownership confers. E.P. Thompson called land “the plinth on which power was erected”; and just as land can empower, exclusion from it can disempower.
Separating people from the land on which they depend – and in which their histories are embedded – not only strips them of agency, but of identity and connection. This was the central injustice articulated by the trespassers in 1932, and it remains true today. Ultimately, land as private property is a “hallucination”: underpinning all its legal protections and grasping philosophical justifications, there is nothing moral or natural except greed. Trespass, in its simple mundanity, shatters this hallucination; the power of Kinder Scout was that it shattered it so completely and publicly it could no longer be ignored. There has never been any reason why a rich few should prevent millions from setting foot on vast swathes of the countryside. This land is ours and no-one’s: it has outlived and will outlive us, and all our attempts to remake it.