The Infrastructure Bill currently before Parliament, could pave the way for the biggest land-grab by private interests since the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It endangers our National Parks and could see access to some of our best loved landscapes, once again forbidden.
The Chumbawamba song ‘You Can (Mass Trespass, 1932)’ on their 2005 album ‘A Singsong and A Scrap’ captures the bravery and positive attitude of a working class movement that began at the end of the nineteenth century. The movement for access to our Pennine hills and moors by ordinary people, cooped up all week in grimy industrialised towns and cities, in pursuit of clean air, exercise and the simple appreciation of our beautiful Pennine landscapes, which eventually led to the celebrated 1932 mass trespass on Kinder Scout.
At the time iconic Peak District landscapes such as Kinder Scout, Stanage Edge and Bleaklow where the privately owned preserve of the privileged few. These grouse shooting moors were fiercely guarded by estate gamekeepers, only used for a short time each year to provide sport to the landowner and his parties of privileged friends. At Stanage Edge on most days, you will now find climbers all along the escarpments, but in the early years of the twentieth century, climbers used to bribe gamekeepers to turn a blind eye with barrels of beer, in order to pursue their sport.
It hadn’t always been this way. Even when William I parcelled up Britain into ‘Honours’ for his supporters in the Norman gentry and great swaths of our lands were declared to be Royal hunting parks, some common land was put aside in most manors, for use as a resource by ‘commoners’. Manorial tenants had rights to pasture their sheep, take wood and turf, fish or take sand and gravel and what was considered waste ground, was farmed by the landless.
This arrangement stood for centuries, throughout the medieval period, the English Civil War and into the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Enclosure Acts had existed since the twelfth century, but from circa 1750, the pace of enclosures of ‘common’ and ‘waste’ land increased sharply. Land would be divided into parcels (many of Yorkshire’s famous dry stone walls date from this period) and either sold or leased out. The obvious effect of this was to increase profits for the estate owners, it also saw many people who had previously worked the land evicted and forced to move to the towns and cities to work in industry. The punishment for throwing down fences that enclosed common land was death.
As trade between the growing towns and cities increased, the informal network of tracks and hollow ways became very literally bogged down and unsuitable for growing coach traffic. Turnpike Trusts were formed to build improved roads and charge a fee at toll houses to pass along these new roads. As many of the ancient routes used for centuries had been blocked by enclosures, more traffic was forced onto the turnpikes. It is no coincidence that the landowners also tended to be trustees of the turnpikes. Nothing really changes!
The early eighteen century was a turbulent time and probably the closest that Britain has ever come to a revolution. Fearing that the influence of the French Revolution would spread, the Combination Acts of 1799/1800 outlawed the formation of trade unions. This act was repealed in 1824 and a push for universal representation began, in the form of the popular movement of Chartism. By the end of the century, trade unionism had entered a period of unparalleled growth and by 1918, membership stood at six and a half million, inspired by the revival of socialism.
Workers not only demanded better pay and conditions, but a better work-life balance too in the reduction of working hours to eight hours per day. It is worth remembering that at this point, the working week was still six days and workers (particularly the young) who had been cooped up in factories all week began to look for better uses of their leisure time. This led to the formation of a number of sports and recreation clubs within the growing Labour movement.
In 1900 George Herbert Bridges Ward, the first Secretary of the Sheffield Labour Representation Committee, formed the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers (named after the socialist newspaper ‘The Clarion’). This was the first true working class rambling club, as opposed to the existing rambling associations that tended to be composed of the middle classes, with Dukes and Earls amongst their patrons.
GHB Ward (centre with stick and white jumper) trespassing on Kinder Scout with fellow members of the Clarion Club in January, 1924. (Picture courtesy of Ann Beedham)
Much of the moorland of the Peak District was at this time privately owned and used for only a few days of the year for grouse shooting. Only twelve legal footpaths were available to walkers, allowing access to about one percent of the Peak District, access to the vast majority of moorland was forbidden. These few footpaths became overcrowded as the number of ramblers grew. Walkers would often sneak off the paths to find quieter places, to be chased off by gamekeepers. Resentment towards the landowners was growing.
As early as 1907 the Clarion Ramblers organised a mass trespasses on Bleaklow. 1924 saw a trespass on Kinder Scout and Winnats Pass in 1927. It is thought that by 1932, 15,000 people left Manchester alone, every weekend to walk in the Peak District.
The 1932 Kinder Trespass has become an iconic event in British history. A demonstration that people power can really work and a small part of the over all movement for a fairer and more equal society. Benny Rothman, one of the trespass organisers who were imprisoned for their part, became the movement’s figurehead. He campaigned about access and environmental issues for the remainder of his life.
The initial spark for the 1932 trespass happened at the British Worker’s Sports Federation’s (composed largely of members and supporters of the British Communist Party) Easter camp that year, held at Rowarth, a few miles west of Kinder Scout. A small group headed for an organised ramble over Bleaklow. Benny Rothman recounted:
“The small band was stopped at Yellow Slacks by a group of gamekeepers. They were abused, threatened and turned back. To add to the humiliation of the Manchester ramblers, a number of those present were from the London BWSF on a visit to the Peak District, and they were astounded by the incident. There were not enough ramblers to force their way through, so, crestfallen, they had to return to camp.”
The rally at Bowden Bridge Quarry.
Flyers distributed around Manchester called for attendance at a rally in Hayfield Recreation Ground on 24th April. This was changed to Bowden Bridge Quarry at the last minute to avoid the police and the Parish Council, who had posted copies of local bylaws forbidding meetings there and supplied the Parish Council Clerk to read them if anyone attempted to make speeches. About 400 ramblers met at the quarry, and after short speech by Benny Rothman, who stepped in when the scheduled speaker decided to pull out, set off along the legal footpath towards William Clough at 2.00pm.
At Nab Brow, they caught first sight of the keepers dotted along the slope beneath Sandy Heys. A whistle was sounded for the troupe to stop. On a second whistle they turned right to face Kinder Scout. When the third whistle sounded, they began to scramble up the steep slope towards the keepers. Although a few minor scuffles ensued and in some cases, the gamekeeper’s sticks were taken and turned against them, there was only one injury (a gamekeeper knocked unconscious suffered a twisted ankle). In the majority of cases, the protesters just walked through the line of keepers, where they reformed and headed for the plateau. Once at the top, they were greeted by a smaller group from the Clarion Ramblers who had made their way up from Edale.
A short rally was held at Ashop Head, before retracing their steps along the path down William Clough. They were met by the police at the Stockport Corporation Water Works and an attempt to grab someone from the crowd was chased off by the ramblers. At the beginnings of Hayfield village, they were met by an inspector in a police car, who suggested that they form a column behind him to lead them into the village. They did this and sang as they marched into Hayfield.
It was of course a trap, as when they reached the centre of the village they were stopped by police who began to search amongst them, accompanied by gamekeepers. Six arrests were made (five on the return to Hayfield and another later that afternoon). Benny Rothman was one of those arrested. They were first of all detained at Hayfield, then taken to New Mills, due to the crowd gathered outside calling for their release and charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace (notably not trespass, which was a civil offence), as the Duke of Devonshire insisted on pressing ahead with charges.
All pleaded not guilty, so Benny Rothman, Tona Gillett, Harry Mendel, Jud Clyde, John Anderson and Dave Nesbitt were committed for trial at Derby Assizes. It was said that the jury was composed of a cross section of the Derbyshire country establishment, including two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors and two aldermen. Despite an impassioned speech by Benny Rothman, they were handed jail terms of between two to six months each.
The sentences, seen as draconian even then, caused outrage and probably did more to promote the cause than the trespass itself. A few weeks after the trespass, 10,000 ramblers assembled at a rally at Winnat’s Pass. On 18th September 1932 another trespass of about 200 people took place at Abbey Brook in the Upper Derwent Valley, via the Duke of Norfolk’s Road. The authorities had learned their lesson at Kinder Scout and did not wish for the trespass to become public knowledge, so there were no arrests this time, but upon arriving at Abbey Brook the trespassers found about forty gamekeepers and a few police waiting for them. They were beaten by the gamekeepers and marched back along the road.
The momentum for public access to the hills and moors was growing. Throughout the 1930s, moves were made towards the creation of national parks, an idea first raised by Ramsay MacDonald in 1929 and the subject of the Addison Report in 1931, although it would be another twenty years before the establishment of the Peak District National Park. The Addison Report was kicked into the long grass during the depression of the early 1930s but resurrected at a conference in 1935. The Standing Committee for National Parks was formed in 1936 and published ‘The Case for National Parks in Great Britain’ in 1938.
In 1939, the Access to Mountains Act finally passed through parliament as a Private Member’s Bill, introduced by Arthur Creech Jones (Labour MP for Shipley) but in such a mutilated form that it was described as a landowner’s charter and for the first time, made trespass a criminal offence in certain circumstances. It was bitterly opposed by the newly formed Rambler’s Association, who sought to repeal the long fought for bill.
Throughout the 1940s, the momentum towards the establishment of national parks continued, including the publication of the 1947 Hobhouse Report, suggesting 12 potential national parks. This resulted in Clement Atlee’s visionary post-war Labour Government passing the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. The Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council were formed under the new act (both merged in 2006 to form Natural England). On 17th April 1951, the Peak District National Park became the first of its kind in Britain. In 1955 the first access agreement for Kinder Scout was signed and in 1962, access to Stanage Edge was agreed.
Benny Rothman (left) and Tom Stephenson (centre).
Alongside these gradual steps towards the creation of the national parks, a special mention must be given to Tom Stephenson, who in 1935 set into motion the idea of the ‘Jubilee Trail’. Many long years of negotiation followed and his dream was eventually realised when in 1965, the Pennine Way opened, stretching from Edale to Scotland.
The 1968 Countryside Act placed a duty on every minister, government department and public body to have, “due regard for conserving the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside.” In 1970, the Peak District National Park purchased the North Lees Estate, including Stanage Edge. In 1982, the National Trust bought Kinder Scout and declared it open for access in perpetuity.
When the Countryside Rights of Way Act was passed in 2000, it signified the final realisation of over a century of struggle for the Right to Roam. At the 70th anniversary celebration of the trespass on Kinder in 2002, Andrew, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, publicly apologised for his grandfather’s actions:
“I am aware that I represent the villain of the piece this afternoon. But over the last 70 years times have changed and it gives me enormous pleasure to welcome walkers to my estate today. The trespass was a great shaming event on my family and the sentences handed down were appalling. But out of great evil can come great good. The trespass was the first event in the whole movement of access to the countryside and the creation of our national parks.”
All of this may now be about to change. When the Tory/Lib Dem government signalled its intention to sell off our forests, they were met with a storm of protest and forced to beat a retreat. They are now however back with the Infrastructure Bill (2014) and they are not just after the forests. All publically owned land is now at risk.
As I write, the bill currently sits in its committee stage before the House of Lords (next due before the Lords on 14 October 2014). You may or may not have heard of it. It is a mixed bag of legislation, its best known component is to introduce the right for companies to ‘frack’ under your home, without first seeking your permission.
There is an even more insidious aspect to this bill that could undo the hard fought for progress in terms of the formation of our national parks, access to our landscape and the protection of our wildlife. The intention of this bill is clear. Its primary purpose is to ease the way for corporations and developers to gain unhindered access to any part of our land that they wish to use for development or to frack for shale gas.
Local councils will be ordered to give over 90% of their brownfield land to the Housing and Communities Agency (HCA). Brownfield sites are previously developed sites that have become vacant, but could be reused and include parks, playing fields, allotments, woodlands, public facilities and village greens.
The bill states that, “The Secretary of State may at any time make one or more schemes for the transfer to the HCA of designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body.”
It continues, ”These transfers are to take effect irrespective of any requirement to obtain a person’s consent or concurrence, any liability in respect of a contravention of another requirement, or any other interference with an interest or right, which would otherwise apply.”
This bill will take away any local power of decision over land use and pave the way for publically held land to be transferred to the HCA, who can extinguish existing protection and rights of way, such as access under the Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000), possibly even protection for Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, grant permission for new roads and buildings and sell off land as it sees fit.
Any private company that buys the land will no longer be subject to local planning regulations and consultation. The Secretary of State will be able to grant to any development without the involvement of locally elected members or council departments such as planning , simply by consulting a panel of as little as two people.
In short, we could well see our national parks, playgrounds, village greens, woodland, allotments or any other publically owned facility, sold off to private companies to build on, frack, quarry, lay railway lines or do whatever they like. One thing can be taken as a certainty, we will have no say. When George Osborne stated that green spaces would be protected, he meant the estates of his wealthy friends. Lands belonging to the Crown are conveniently exempt.
As for fracking, that is another matter entirely which would need an extended essay in its own right. Let’s just say that it would be a disaster for our national parks, countryside or communities to have this nightmare imposed upon them. It represents no cure at all for our energy security or economy, will not bring about any appreciable long-term boost for jobs, will not lower energy prices and will be an environmental disaster in terms of its effect on wildlife, water supplies and air quality. There is a growing body of information on fracking which you are encouraged to go and find for yourself.
What does Labour have to say about this? Surprisingly little, considering that the movement for access to forbidden land grew out of and alongside the fledgling Labour party. It was Labour that introduced the Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000), so surely we can rely on Labour to champion the rights of common people? Unfortunately not, they have no current plans to oppose the bill. It seems that the transformation of the Labour Party from its socialist roots to neoliberal corporatists is complete.
So there we have it, all nicely stitched up for a foregone conclusion. Private companies win and the rights of ordinary people are trampled over once again. Once these measures are passed into law, they will be very hard to reverse, even if the will from any future government to do so is there and all current indications point to that being unlikely.
What can we do to stop this? In all probability not an awful lot, but we must try. You can write to your MP or councillors and express the strength of your opposition. With next year’s general election on the horizon, your local politicians will be keen to gain your support, especially in marginal constituencies. Let them know how much of an important issue this is. You can get involved in your local community groups, rambler’s groups or outdoor sports groups and spread the word, or get involved in your local anti-fracking group. But most important of all, keep the spirit of Benny Rothman, Tom Stephenson and all of those men and women who fought for our right to protect and access our beautiful landscape alive!
Ernest Jones at the 1846 Chartist Rally on Blackstone Edge.
Our Pennine hills have for centuries fostered the expression of free thought, radicalism and the rights of common people. Maybe it is something in the water that falls from the boundless skies, to percolate through the peat and gritstone into our reservoirs. From one of the first named individuals in British history, the first century Brigantine Queen Cartimandua’s estranged husband Venutius and his stand against the Romans amongst the Pennine hills, through to tales of Robin Hood. The Luddites practised their drills on the moors near Huddersfield and the Chartists held their meetings on the hill tops, away from the prying eyes of authority and the factory owners. The Manchester lawyer (a contemporary of Friedrich Engels and Karl Mark) Ernest Jones’ 1846 speech amongst the gritstone outcrops of Blackstone Edge is still remembered.
Those wild Pennine hilltops are as important as any meeting hall or trade union headquarters. And should this bill result in the sale of our public land to private interests, or a bar placed on access to our cherished landscape, they will once again ring with demands for justice from common people.