Open Air Mad

Harry Stopes

On 24 April 1932 around three hundred ramblers, mostly from Manchester, took part in a mass trespass of private land at Kinder Scout in the Peak District, organised by the British Workers’ Sports Federation (a Communist Party affiliate). ‘Weekends are all that the majority of working lads and girls have to look forward to and live for,’ the Manchester secretary of the BWSF, Bernard Rothman, wrote in the Worker Sportsman a few weeks before. ‘In winter it is [football], but in summer we all go Open Air Mad.’

Around a dozen gamekeepers tried to stop the trespassers. Some were beaten with their own sticks. Rothman and five others were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, a breach of the peace, and grievous bodily harm against a gamekeeper. The following day’s Daily Sketch said the keeper had suffered ‘a severe shaking and a twisted ankle’; by the 6 July this had become ‘severe internal injuries’ according to the Derby Evening Telegraph. He did not testify at the trespassers’ trial. The National Council of Ramblers Federations, later the Ramblers Association, told the Daily Express that they had ‘nothing whatever to do with this demonstration, of which we thoroughly disapprove. We do not consider these people to be bona fide ramblers.’

On the day of the trespass around a third of the entire Derbyshire police force was present in the village of Hayfield. The parents of the arrested men were visited by police officers who asked questions about their friends and associates, and how they spent their time. At the trial the prosecution noted that David Nussbaum had been seen selling the Daily Worker, that Anthony Gillett had been found in possession of literature about the USSR, and that the accused had sung the ‘Red Flag’. John Anderson was convicted of GBH largely on the evidence of a police officer who claimed to have recognised him by his jacket buttons at a distance of 120 yards. ‘You must have very good eyesight, officer,’ Anderson said.

Rothman told the court that the path of moderation was a dead end: the Access to Mountains Bill had been introduced in the Commons several times since 1888 and was always rejected. Besides, the right was with the trespassers: ‘the land originally belonged to the people as a whole.’ In a later interview, Rothman recalled Gillett, a student at Manchester University from a wealthy Quaker family, being invited by the judge to declare himself ashamed of what happened. ‘I’m not and I’d do it again,’ he is supposed to have said.

The extent to which trespass protests helped to force subsequent agreements about access is debated. June 1932 saw a mass rally of thousands – not a trespass – at Winnats Pass. Three months later a group of Sheffield ramblers trespassed on Bradfield Moor, with no arrests. Looking back in the late 1970s, Rothman said he thought a more sustained, militant campaign might have won ‘real access’. Howard Hill’s 1980 study, Freedom to Roam, describes how during the discussions in the early 1940s that led to the creation of the national parks, reluctant landowners were asked if they wanted a repeat of 1932.

‘“Access” cannot just be thought about in legal terms – it has a social dimension too,’ Faraz Shibli wrote in the Great Outdoors magazine two years ago. The original mass trespassers thought so too, demanding cheap rail fares, camping and catering facilities, as well as legal rights. Hidden barriers still keep some ramblers away: only 1 per cent of visitors to Britain’s National Parks are from BAME backgrounds. When the Muslim Hikers group organised a walk in the Peak District last Christmas Day, their Facebook page was flooded with racist abuse. Some of the mass trespassers arrested in 1932 were othered not only for their politics: Rothman, Nussbaum, Jud Clynes and Harry Mendel were all Jewish.

To mark the ninetieth anniversary of the mass trespass, Kinder in Colour held a rally on 24 April for Black People and People of Colour (and their white friends and allies). ‘The right to roam is the right to belong,’ the land activist Sam Siva told a crowd of around five hundred people. The Mancunian writer Anita Sethi read from her memoir of walking the Pennine Way after she was subject to a racist assault on a train. ‘Go back to where you’re from. This is where I’m from. I’m from the North.’

We set off on our walk, a ten-year-old girl leading the way, her father somewhere far behind. Passing underneath the railway line I remembered reading that in the 1920s and 1930s gamekeepers would sometimes keep trespassing ramblers hostage until they had missed the last train home. We made our way up the Ringing Roger path to the rocky outcrop of the Nab. The call came to turn around: there was food in the Edale village hall prepared by the Open Kitchen Social Club, and the coaches, some from as far away as London and Newcastle, would be leaving by 7 p.m.

There was no rush for my Manchester train, however, so I decided to go on for a while. A few other people were doing the same. We went another mile or two along the southern edge of the plateau, in the direction of Jacob’s Ladder, where around a hundred ramblers gathered on 17 July 1932 to demand the release of their jailed comrades. At sunset we came back to Edale via Grindsbrook, as in the second verse of ‘The Manchester Rambler’. In Ewan MacColl’s song, the rambler is interrupted by a gamekeeper. Our way was undisturbed.