Trade unionist Benny Rothman, the man who led the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout, Derbyshire, in April 1932, is commemorated with a blue plaque at his former Timperley home, seven miles south of Manchester.
Born in 1911 it wasn’t until Benny acquired a bike in his teens that he discovered life outside the overcrowded environment of working class Cheetham in north Manchester. He soon became a keen rambler and spent his 16th birthday climbing to the summit of Snowdon.
At the end of World War 1 in 1918 returning British soldiers had been promised by prime minister Lloyd George a “land fit for heroes.” Landowners, represented in Parliament and the Lords by the Tories, were intent on ensuring that didn’t include the right for those soldiers and others to roam Britain’s mountains and moorlands.
Since 1884 there had been numerous unsuccessful attempts made for an Access to Mountains Bill to be presented in Parliament and with each passing year the chances of an Act being passed seemed to recede.
In this situation the British Workers’ Sports Federation (BWSF) that started in 1928 as a working-class movement to organise sport for workers decided to trespass on Kinder Scout. It was not a universally popular move amongst ramblers.
On a sunny Sunday April 24, 1932, Benny, an active BWSF member, found himself thrust forward as the leader of 400 ‘kinder scout mass trespassers’.
Together in opposition to a line of gamekeepers, the trespassers successfully crossed the Derbyshire Peak District’s ‘forbidden mountain.’ Stung by this deliberate defiance of the law the police arrested six of them.
If the authorities felt this would be the end of the matter they miscalculated by sending Benny Rothman, listed in court as a storekeeper, and four (John Anderson, Julius Clyne, Anthony Gillett and David Nussbaum) others to prison - where Benny used his time productively to learn shorthand - for up to six months. The public outrage that followed helped bring the issue of the countryside to the fore.
More importantly it emboldened many access campaigners who in subsequent negotiations with landowners over obtaining access for walks could point to the trespass when their requests were refused.
A radical post-war Labour government responded by introducing the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949. Lewis Silkin, the then Labour minster for town and country planning described it as, “a people’s charter for the open air, for the hikers and ramblers, for everyone who loves to get out into the open air and enjoy the countryside.”
The Peak District became the first designated national park and today there are fifteen. The passing of the Act also means there are over 50 designated areas of outstanding natural beauty and over 200 natural nature reserves that are there to protect what are seen as the most important areas of wildlife habitat and geological formations and as places of scientific information.
Th right to roam took much longer to obtain. Again, Benny played an important part. In 1982, with access still restricted on many hills, 2000 ramblers celebrated the 50th anniversary of the mass trespass by following the same path.
According to Terry Howard, Sheffield Ramblers chairman, “Benny Rothman addressed us in the quarry where the original trespass had started. He helped inspire a whole new generation like myself to finish what earlier campaigns had started.”
In 2000, under another Labour government, the Countryside Rights of Way Act established the right to roam on certain upland and uncultivated areas of England and Wales. Many new paths allowing open access have been created.
Benny died aged 90 in 2002. According to his son Harry, “he rarely spoke about Kinder Scout as he had far too much going on in his life as he was engaged in things that were immediately important such as trade union and Communist Party work.” His passion for a better world was shared by his wife, Lilian, a mill worker from Rochdale.
In the 1930s Benny played an active role in physically opposing Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and over forty years later he helped to inspire a new generation of anti-fascists by speaking to them about the dangers of the National Front.
Benny worked as a fitter for most his life. He was regularly elected to represent his fellow members in the Amalgamated Engineering Union. (one of the forerunners to Unite)
At Metro-Vicks in the 1950s his reputation for winning the best piecework rates led to him being sacked and, sadly, his workmates did not support him. He was later victimised by his employers when the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 took place. He nevertheless continued to be an active trade unionist.
“There were always visitors to our home in Timperley such as guys who had been unfairly sacked.
“Dad was a clever bloke and had a good memory. He used his shorthand to keep good notes and so when it came to negotiations with management I understand he would constantly refer back to them when someone might like to say something different.” Professor Harry Rothman.
|Benny training an apprentice at Kearns|
|Lilian and Benny celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in 1987|
Throughout the 1984-85 miners’ strike, Benny was tireless in organising support for strikers. In 1990, Benny Rothman, who was a great friend of Hugh Scanlon, was given the Amalgamated Engineering Union’s highest award, the special award of merit. Six years later he was made honorary life member of the Ramblers Association.
* A booklet on Benny's life is currently being written by myself for the Unite Education department. All being well it will be out in 2016.