Kinder Downfall close-up
Kinder Downfall close-up

David Hey sums up the conflict and controversy that surrounds the Mass Trespass even after over 80 years:

The Mass Trespass of 1932 is regularly offered as a simple explanation of the triumph of the ‘right to roam’ movement. Even the Ramblers’ Association whose members strongly opposed it at the time, now joins in every anniversary with loud praise for Benny Rothman and the hundreds of Mancunian youths who accompanied him up the western edge of Kinder Scout… The harsh prison sentences on the five of the leaders were headlined in national and local newspapers and, amidst widespread sympathy for these youths, a legend was born that this ‘direct action’ brought success to what had been a feeble, ineffective campaign led by middle-aged and middle-class men. But another 68 years were to pass before the CRoW Act (2000) enshrined the ‘right to roam’ in law.

An alternative view, held by many seasoned ramblers at the time, was that the Mass Trespass was a one-off stunt organised by the Communist Party, which did more harm than good.

Kinder Scout and the legend of the Mass Trespass – David Hey

Like all historical events, the truth of the event and the myth are at odds. Over 80 years the media has perpetuated the myth that it was only the Mancunians who participated overlooking completely the importance of the role the Sheffielders had to play. This could be due in part to the pressure on journalists to produce stories using rewrites of previous features on similar issues.

There were in fact three groups of trespassers from Sheffield on the day – those who went to Hayfield via Rushop Edge and joined the main Manchester contingent; another group of at least 40 (Albert Shirtliffe was one) who walked over from Edale via Jacob’s Ladder, Kinder Low and over Kinder summit and met the main group at Ashop Head; there were another group who walked via the Snake Inn.

One participant from Sheffield was Bob Brown (a friend of Howard Hill), who was interviewed by High Peak Community Arts in 2007 aged 95. He raised the possibility that the trespass was created by someone who didn’t want their participation to be public, for example GHB Ward or Arthur Henderson MP and they had chosen Benny Rothman to lead the ramble on their behalf.

Another area of controversy is how much trespassing occurred that day, and exactly where it occurred. Tom Stephenson (secretary of the Ramblers’ Association from 1948) always maintained that the Manchester trespassers never got to on Kinder Scout. If he was referring to the summit plateau, he may have been right; both Benny Rothman later agreed with him that on reaching the top of Sandy Heys the party turned towards Ashop Head for their victory celebrations. The main trespassing done on the day was done by the Sheffield group via Edale and the trespassing done by the main group from Hayfield has always been subject to dispute, some claiming that they stayed on a recognised public footpath that had been re-opened in 1897.

John Watson (one of the keepers waiting on Sandy Heys) said: “we could hear them cheering and yelling as if they had achieved something, when they had achieved nothing at all. They had only trespassed 100 yards – they never got halfway up the Clough”. His son Ian Watson later researched the minutes of the Stockport Waterworks Committee dated 9th May 1932, and found that the trespass assault did not occur on land belonging to James Watts as previously thought.

Also they were never charged with the offence of trespass. The charges of unlawful assembly were changed to the more serious charge of riotous assembly. Mr Justice MacKinnon at Chester Assizes in 1933 stated that the Act of Parliament which made it an offence to trespass after being warned not to do so had been repealed, making ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’ signs unenforceable.

The contribution of Ewan MacColl has also been seen to be exaggerated. He was Jimmie Miller until he changed his name in 1945 when he came out of hiding following desertion from the Army, and then reinvented himself as Ewan MacColl. It has been claimed that he exaggerated his own contribution during the Mass Trespass, saying he was the Press Officer. Benny Rothman claims not to have known him at all. There is no proof either way.

Conflict and Controversy will always dog the Mass Trespass as there are so many different versions and accounts: ‘Even at the time of the trespass itself, there are as many different versions as there are newspaper reports, and since 1932 many and often contradictory accounts have been written’. There has been dispute even about the trial dates and those who participated. After over 80 years, it may be impossible to ever clear this up.

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