Kinder Scout Mass Trespass: how the Peak District became Britain's first national park
The Kinder Scout Trespass is regarded as one of the most successful acts of civil disobedience in British history. Rhiannon Davies explains how it led to the creation of Britain's first national park
In a windswept quarry in the Peak District on 24 April 1932, a crowd of ramblers had gathered together, poised to set off on a long day of walking.
“There were hundreds of young men and women, lads and girls, in their picturesque rambling gear: shorts of every length and colour, flannels and breeches, even overalls, vivid colours and drab khaki… multi-coloured sweaters and pullovers, army packs and rucksacks of every size and shape,” recalled Benny Rothman, who was involved in the event.
They were headed for Kinder Scout, a vast elevated plateau that offered stunning views of the surrounding landscape.
Getting there wouldn’t be easy – it’s one of the Peaks’ most challenging routes. But it wasn’t scrambling up steep rockfaces or crossing over streams that posed the biggest problem for the ramblers: it was the group of gamekeepers, some of them wielding sticks, who were determined to keep them away at all costs.
At the turn of the 20th century, vast swathes of the English countryside were seen as the playgrounds of the landed gentry – and those who weren’t aristocrats were barred entry
The great outdoors hasn’t always been meant for everyone to enjoy. At the turn of the 20th century, vast swathes of the English countryside were seen as the playgrounds of the landed gentry – and those who weren’t aristocrats were barred entry.
The Peak District was no different, and Kinder Scout was home to grouse, which landlords would shoot at their leisure. But these rich men rarely found themselves in the mood to traipse up there for a day of shooting, and went on average only 12 times per year. When they weren’t visiting, the land was empty, save for the grouse – with strictly no walkers allowed.
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This proved problematic, as in the 1920s and 1930s rambling had become something of a craze among Britain’s working classes. Every Sunday, tens of thousands of people would take to the great outdoors. By 1932, around 15,000 working-class Mancunians left the city for a long Sunday walk.
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Why did the Kinder Scout Trespass happen?
But there were limited places they could legally go. The Peak District then spanned more than 150,000 acres, but only 1,200 were open to the public – less than one per cent.
With so many ramblers squashed onto the paltry 12 paths they could legally traverse, some tried to leave the beaten track and take their chances on private land. But the penalty of being caught was steep: gamekeepers would regularly give chase with sticks or even guns.
The penalty of being caught was steep: gamekeepers would regularly give chase with sticks or even guns
Unsurprisingly, the working classes wanted to be able to walk across more of the Peak District, including Kinder Scout.
This call for greater freedom in outdoor spaces was echoed up and down the country, as the right to roam movement (which called for everyone to have access to the countryside), was picking up steam.
Discontent started to bubble over in Easter 1932. The British Workers’ Sports Federation (BWSF), a sports organisation with communist sympathies, had set up camps in the Peaks. A group had been rambling to Bleaklow, a hill in the Peak District, but they were stopped by gamekeepers. This was the final straw.
The group decided to stage a public protest against the land restrictions, and settled on a mass trespass on Kinder Scout. The radical ramble was scheduled for 24 April (a Sunday, of course), with scores of participants expected to pour in from local cities.
The exact route of the trespass was worked out on the day itself, when, after finding themselves hemmed in by police at the recreation ground in nearby Hayfield – and in contravention of a byelaw that prevented meetings there – the ramblers moved on to a Water Board property before assembling at Bowden Bridge Quarry.
Local gamekeepers were only too willing to attack the trespassers – not that it deterred the men and women from continuing their spirited protest
Hundreds of trespassers showed up, heralding from Manchester and Sheffield. (Other Sheffield contingents were planning to walk different routes and meet them later in the day at Kinder Scout itself.) The ragtag group was made up mainly of engineers and apprentices, although some unemployed people also joined.
After Benny Rothman, the young Lancashire secretary of the BWSF, had spoken to the assembled crowd, the group set off for Kinder Scout, traipsing over moors and hills. However, they weren’t alone in the Peaks that day.
When they were scrambling up William Clough, one of the routes up to Kinder Scout, they were confronted by keepers from the Park Hall estate on whose land they were trespassing. They were determined that the ramblers would go no further.
According to a report of the ensuing clashes published in The Manchester Guardian: “The protesters fought a brief but vigorous hand-to-hand struggle with a number of keepers specially enrolled for the occasion. This they won with ease, and then marched to Ashop Head, where they held a meeting before returning in triumph to Hayfield… There will be plenty of bruises carefully nursed in Gorton and other parts of Manchester tonight.”
What happened to the Kinder Scout ramblers?
Shortly after the 1932 trespass, around 10,000 ramblers held a rally in nearby Winnats Pass as part of continued campaigning efforts
But it wasn’t a total victory – the police were waiting for the jubilant trespassers. One of the ramblers, John Harvey Jackson, recounted: “Leaders of the party were soon picked out and arrested, and in those days to get yourself arrested and in court could lead to losing your job.
We decided to avoid trouble: we would retrace our steps to the top of the Chunal and head home. We were met by a group of so-called keepers, more like hired thugs, who set about us with sticks and boots, gave us a savage beating and then pushed us into a bed of nettles. We did not dare complain as this would have been trouble for us.”
A handful of the ramblers – including Benny Rothman – were arrested. The next day, they were brought to New Mills Police Court and charged with unlawful assembly (later changed to the more severe charge of riotous assembly) and breach of the peace.
Their trial took place in July 1932, at Derby Assizes. All of the ramblers pleaded not guilty, and Rothman used the opportunity to passionately defend the mass trespass. Standing before the jury, he declared: “We ramblers, after a hard week’s work, in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation and fresh air. And we find the finest rambling country is closed to us… Our request, or demand, for access to all Peaks and uncultivated moorland is nothing unreasonable.”
But his speech was in vain. Five of the men – including Rothman – were handed prison sentences, spending up to six months behind bars.
While the courtroom hadn’t been convinced, the general public was. The fate of the five ramblers led to an outpouring of sympathy for them and the right to roam movement
While the courtroom hadn’t been convinced, the general public was. The fate of the five ramblers led to an outpouring of sympathy for them and the right to roam movement. Four years later, in 1936, a Standing Committee on National Parks was set up, and pressed the government to make spaces such as the Peak District open to all.
The campaigning paid off: in 1951, the Peaks became Britain’s first national park. John Harvey Jackson said: “On seeing the creation of the national park in the 1950s, I realised how worthwhile it had been for campaigners to fight for access to the hills, which are now accessible for all to enjoy.”
In 2000, the freedom to roam in Britain was enshrined in law – a fitting legacy for the impassioned ramblers who had taken to Kinder Scout to demand change.
This content first appeared in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
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