The Kinder Scout Trespass

This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of the legendary Kinder Scout Trespass. On 24 April, hundreds of ramblers are expected to converge on Hayfield, in the Peak District, to celebrate the event. It was from here that the original march began, a march that to end with six of its members being jailed. This action caused a sensation at the time and controversy still occasionally flickers, in exchanges between old members in the Rucksack, the journal of the Ramblers Association. However, the trespass has now become part of the folklore of the rambling fraternity.

Kinder Scout is a high point in the Peak District, overlooking the densely populated lowlands of industrial Lancashire. It is claimed that on a clear day the suburbs of Manchester can be seen from the summit. So it is natural that workers in these crowded area should turn to the hills for an escape from dreary surroundings and for a chance to breathe clean air. But these same hills were the cherished grouse moors, playground of the rich. Here the wealthy indulged in an annual blood sacrifice, politely called sport. Here half-tame birds were driven into a circle of guns: it may be possible to miss them, but it is very difficult. The birds had to be closely guarded and allowed to breed in comfort and safety, in case a carelessly placed proletarian should cheat an aristocratic gun of its prey.

Clashes between walkers and landowners were not confined to the North; but here it took on a more brutal form, with actual assaults by gamekeepers on walkers. Some of the contemporary reports of clashes with gamekeepers make alarming reading. Many of the guardians of the moors seem to have bordered on the insane. Thus it was against a background of great bitterness that the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass took place.

Walking in the country, usually called rambling, was a well established pastime, dating from the nineteenth century or even earlier; but in the 1930s a new name came in from the Continent—”hiking’. For a decade hiking became the in thing. The song I’m Happy When I’m Hiking became a hit, and paved the way for a host of imitations. The hiker, with his “hiker’s uniform” of open-necked shirt, baggy trousers and rolled down socks, became a familiar figure, not only in reality but on posters and advertisements. They were a godsend to music hall comics and along with nudist camps, another 1930’s phenomenon, contributed generously to the subject matter of seaside post cards. They were, in fact, an example of uni-sex, with men and women sporting the same casual outfit. They can still be seen on old newsreels and on nostalgic television programmes. One of the attractions of hiking was that it was cheap—particularly appealing in areas of high unemployment.

As a result of the popularity of hiking, political and religious organisations began to see possibilities in hiking clubs as a means of propagating their ideas and gaining members by back door methods. The old rambling clubs had been largely non-political, and are so today, but clubs with political or religious aims sprang up. This reflected continental practice, where such clubs were openly political.

The body which organised the trespass, the British Workers Sports Federation, or BWSF, has been accused of being a Communist Party front organisation. This is hotly denied by others, and there is no point at this distance in trying to sort out the truth or otherwise of this claim. Certainly there were political overtones. Bernard Rothman, who led the trespass, is a Communist as he himself states, but he claims that the BWSF was a very real sports body. True or false, at the subsequent trial of the six people much was made of communist links, and undoubtedly this went against the defendants and reflected the anti-communist hysteria prevailing at the time. The jury at the trial included two brigadier generals, three colonels, two mayors, three captains and eleven country gentlemen—not exactly an unbiased collection. Ten years later they would be singing the praises of the Soviet Union and the Red Army, and expressing admiration for that pillar of democracy, Joseph Stalin. That however lay well in the future; in 1932 they saw in this handful of young men a threat to society.

The details of the trespass were as follows. On the afternoon of 24 April 1932, a Sunday, four hundred people gathered in Hayfield. The ground had already been well prepared. An announcement in the Manchester Evening News was splashed in bold headlines. In the 30s, before radio and television robbed newspapers of much of their importance, evening papers were widely read. Other papers joined in, and leaflets were distributed at railway stations. There was also much chalking of pavements (Chalk was widely favoured for political slogans, before the coming of the aerosol paint spray. It had the advantage of washing away in the rain, so you did not get political slogans years out of date still visible.) Chalking squads were a common sight before an event like this. The official rambling organisations stayed away, but the police turned up in force.

The crowd began to march off in the direction of Kinder Scout, singing the Red Flag and the Internationale as well as the usual songs. On the way up a fight broke out between keepers and demonstrators, in which one keeper was injured. They walked to Kinder Scout, held a meeting, and then returned to Hayfield in a body. It was on return to Hayfield that the arrests were made. There is even disagreement as to whether they actually reached Kinder Scout or Ashop Head, which is 400 feet lower, but it seems unlikely that people with knowledge of the area would make such a mistake. However, doubtless all such disagreements will be absent from the coming re-union.

The Kinder Scout Trespass was a romantic and exciting episode in the long, dour struggle for better access to the mountains. This struggle still goes on. In the fifty years which have passed since that day much progress has been made. Better access to mountains, the creation of national parks and long distance footpaths have brought improvements; there will, in fact, be a fell race over Kinder Scout itself. But fresh problems keep arising. The grubbing up of hedges and ploughing of footpaths in pursuit of greater profits, the wrecking of green lanes by heavy farm machinery, turning them into quagmires, and the ugly concrete buildings of the modern factory farm are just a few examples of this. The whole question of access to the countryside is just one small aspect of the continuing struggle between those who own and those who do not.


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