William Clough
William Clough

The great issue which motivated the protesters was access. Their area, the Peak District, composed of moorland and mountains, was bad farming land and used mostly to graze sheep or to keep game birds. Kinder Scout itself was used to hold grouse for local landlords. These rich men only rarely went shooting and Kinder Scout was worked only around 12 days a year. The rest of the time the land was deserted, and walkers were not allowed.

The trespassers demanded one simple change: the landowners should open a public path through Kinder Scout, allowing local walkers to ramble through when the land was not in use. But behind this simple demand there were deeper questions. By the 1920s and 1930s most ramblers were working class. With so many unemployed, rambling grew in popularity. Tens of thousands of workers used their Sundays to go walking. By 1932 it is estimated that 15,000 working class ramblers left Manchester every Sunday.

For many, rambling was not easy. Rambling clothes had to be improvised. For jackets, most used old army tops; for boots, old work shoes. The rich loathed the ragged workers they saw walking on their land, while the ramblers were contemptuous of the pampered aristocrats who claimed to possess the earth.

Of the 150,000 acres of mountains and moorland in the Peak District, only 1,200 acres, less than 1 percent, enjoyed public access. There were only 12 ‘legal’ paths to choose from. Paths became crowded and many walkers would sneak off to somewhere quieter. If people walked onto private land, they would be chased by gamekeepers with sticks, dogs and sometimes guns. This was class conflict, if in a minor key. Many trespassers did not believe that the landowners had any real right to own the land and saw it as wrong that anyone should claim the land as private. So the politics of the trespass became socialist.

The Kinder Scout trespass was called by one small group, the British Workers’ Sports Federation (BWSF), largely made up of members and supporters of the Communist Party, which enjoyed significant working class support. The majority of those on the trespass were apprentices, engineers and other workers. Some were unemployed. Others came from Jewish families living in Manchester. Of the six walkers who were eventually arrested, two were cotton piece workers, two engineers, one unemployed and one a student.

The federation was a campaigning organisation, set up in 1928, and had gained a reputation through campaigning for Sunday football leagues and new football pitches and facilities. It held camps in the Peak District at Rowarth and over Easter 1932 a group of ramblers were assaulted by gamekeepers there, encouraging the BWSF to call the Kinder Scout trespass.

When news of the trespass came out, official rambling associations rushed to complain. The Manchester District Ramblers Federation sent a telegram stating that it would have ‘no part in the events’. The Stockport Group of the Holiday Fellowship expressed its ‘utter disgust’ at what it called ‘organised hooliganism’. These official walking clubs were very respectable organisations. Provided that they applied for permission, and respected the property rights of the landowners, they could walk wherever they wanted. With dukes and earls among their patrons, they reflected a different class and possessed a different strategy from the young unemployed Communists in the BWSF.

Extract from article by Dave Renton for the Socialist Review

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