How mass working-class action established the ‘right to roam’

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Scout mass trespass, which paved the way for the establishment of the national parks in the UK. Dave Gorton of Chesterfield Socialist Party celebrates that victory and looks at the tasks still needed to gain ‘open access’ in the countryside.

The rights we have to roam in 15 national parks were won through direct action 90 years ago. The mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District, Derbyshire, in April 1932 is rightly celebrated as the key event in a series of challenges to landowners by organised socialists, workers and the unemployed.

In the early part of the 20th century, rambling was mainly a working-class pursuit, particularly in the North of England. It provided a break from the hard life in the factories, pits and mills of Lancashire, Yorkshire and further afield. Growing unemployment in the early 1930s increased its popularity – it was cheap and a few hours’ escape from the daily struggle to survive.

By 1932, an estimated 15,000 working-class people left Manchester every Sunday heading for the Pennines or the Peak District.

In his song ‘Manchester Rambler’, folksinger Ewan MacColl famously wrote: “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday”.

From the 18th century, enclosure acts made it possible for landowners to enclose land without reference to parliament, denying the poor centuries-old rights to cultivate or graze animals there.

Possibly 14 million acres were out of bounds to most, used for just a few days a year by the ruling class for grouse shoots (as was the case with Kinder). In the Peak District, less than 1% of the land was openly accessible, with only 12 ‘legal’ paths.

In the 1920s the Communist Party held some influence in Manchester’s engineering factories, and several members played major roles in the radical British Workers’ Sports Federation, set up by the National Clarion Cycling Club, among others.

It was this overtly political movement which organised the deliberate mass trespass from Hayfield, Derbyshire, on to Kinder Scout. Their actions were opposed by the more middle-class, official rambling associations – which relied on occasional passes handed out by landowners to a select few.

On 24 April, around 500 set off up Kinder. Following a few minor scuffles with the hopelessly outnumbered gamekeepers, they met a small Sheffield contingent who had walked from Hope. The Manchester Guardian reported the day after: “As they marched they sang. They sang the Red Flag and the International”.


Five marchers were arrested and jailed for riotous assembly, unleashing a huge wave of public outrage. One of the jailed had a pamphlet by Lenin on him at the time, something used against him in court.

The sentences boosted the campaign for the right to roam. Just a few weeks after, 10,000 walkers, the largest number in history, amassed for an access rally at Winnats Pass, outside Castleton in Derbyshire.

Mass civil disobedience succeeded where years of doffing the cap to the landowners had failed. In less than 20 years the Peak District National Park was created.

The lawbreakers of the 1930s helped enshrine the right to roam in the minds of ordinary people. Today, almost three-quarters of the land in the Peak District is open access, although the lack of an affordable and efficient public transport network means the majority, including those like myself who live short distances away, can’t properly benefit.

But in Kent, less than 1% of land is open access. These huge differences between upland and lowland areas is replicated throughout the UK, meaning the 80% of the population who reside in towns and cities have the least access to land close to where they live.

Most of the ‘green belt’ has no open access, only allowing us to walk on designated paths. Much woodland, grassland, and river and lakesides were excluded from Labour’s Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act in 2000. Only 8% of England and Wales is open access land. The socialist pioneers of the Kinder Scout trespass earned their place in history; others will follow suit in the future to re-establish the demand that the land belongs to the people and should be returned to us.