On 24 April 1932, hundreds of ramblers from Manchester and Sheffield set off for the highest point in the Peaks. They were intending to highlight the gross unfairness of their severely limited rights to access an outstandingly beautiful area of country which was rarely farmed by its wealthy, aristocratic owner but instead kept only for occasional grouse shooting. The walk would go down in history as the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932 (named after the moorland plateau), and would later be seen as a seminal moment in the struggle for public access to private land.
At the time of the Trespass in 1932, calls for a “right to roam” had been being made for years. This was at base a question of competing freedoms, and of course one of class: should the land-owners be able to prevent the common man and woman from traversing open country, or did the latter have a fundamental and basic right to enjoy the countryside as much as the former?
In the 18th and 19th centuries, various Enclosures Acts packaged up common land and moved it into privately-owned estates. Altogether, millions of acres of common land, which had been used by Britain’s rural population to graze cattle and grow crops, were privatised. This in turn robbed many of their livelihoods and way of life.
The first parliamentary demand for the right to roam was made in 1884. It was unsuccessful, as were the many subsequent calls.
In 1932, the Kinder ramblers were stopped by the local police force. Five were subsequently jailed for breach of the peace and unlawful assembly. It only caused the pressure for working people’s access rights to areas of open country grew stronger. As public awareness of the campaign increased, its popularity grew and more and more people became involved in the subsequent trespasses which followed.
However, as is true of the history of many progressive causes, it wasn’t until the election of the next Labour government that the cause saw progress. In Clement Attlee’s post-war administration of 1945, the ramblers at last had a government which shared their desire for reform of landowners’ rights as against those of the public.
A National Parks Commission was established in July 1945, under the chairmanship of Sir Arthur Hobhouse, and in 1949, the National Parks and Countryside Act was passed by Parliament. The Act facilitated the enhancement, protection and public enjoyment of “those extensive tracts of country in England and Wales” designated “by reason of their natural beauty and the opportunities they afford for open-air recreation”. Two years later, in 1951, the UK’s first national park – the Peak District – was formally born.
Attlee’s legislation did not just allow for the creation of national parks, but also for the negotiation of access agreements to privately-owned areas of countryside. It was the Labour government’s view that working people ought to be able to enjoy their country’s areas of natural beauty. A view borne of the same philosophical underpinning which characterised much else in that post-war Parliament – a radical reformism which aimed to reconstruct war-ravaged Britain as a more fair and more equal country. It was of course the same government which introduced the National Health Service and the “cradle to grave” welfare state.
This said, for all the strides forward for public rights to private land made under the post-war Labour government, very significant parts of British countryside remained completely out of bounds for working people.
Whilst more national parks came into being over the years, and further access agreements were negotiated with estate owners, it wasn’t until the 1997 Labour government introduced the Countryside and Rights of Way Act that the right to roam formally made its way on to the statute book. That it took so long for this country to recognise public access rights to open countryside is shocking – but not surprising given the historic power and influence of landowners in our democracy.
Now, 85 years on from the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, we should commemorate and celebrate its power, and of course the rights we take for granted today. But the anniversary should also serve to give hope to all those of us who campaign for all manner of progressive change – hope that one day we will see the causes we campaign for today made law.