This Day in Jewish History

1932: Jewish Commie Leads Mass Trespass in Bid to Secure Public Access to U.K. Countryside

Benny Rothman was imprisoned for the illegal wilderness hike, which got the ball rolling on a long but ultimately successful fight for public access to Britain’s open space.

The view from Kinder Scout at Peak District, England.
Dreamstime

April 24, 1932, was the date of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, a popular protest of Britain’s then-restrictive right-of-way laws. The Trespass, which was the start of a long process leading to the opening up of the country’s wilderness to the public, was led by Benny Rothman, a young Jewish communist, who was imprisoned for his efforts. Rothman went on to devote much of his long life to political organizing for such causes as labor rights, conservation and anti-nuclear efforts.

Bernard Rothman was born on June 1, 1911, in the working-class Cheetham Hill section of Manchester, England. His Romanian-born parents, Isaac and Fanny Rothman, had come to the United Kingdom via the United States. His father died when Benny was 12. Soon thereafter, he had to give up a high school scholarship to take a job working as an assistant at a local garage.

With some of the money he earned, Benny bought and fixed up an old bicycle, and began exploring the countryside around Manchester and further afield. In 1929, having been introduced by an aunt to left-wing literature, such as the polemical novel “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,” by Robert Tressell, Benny joined the Young Communist League.

The YCL had a recreational affiliate, the British Workers Sports Federation, which was heavily Jewish in its membership. The BWSF organized weekend outings in nearby Derbyshire, and Rothman became a regular participant. One of his tasks, according to Rothman’s obituary in The Telegraph, was to make sure young men and women didn’t get overly friendly on overnight trips, or, in his words, “keeping the buggers apart.”

After being turned away from privately owned land by gamekeepers on the Bleaklow moor, in the Derbyshire Peak District, during Easter weekend in 1932, Rothman and some friends in the BWSF decided to organize an act of civil disobedience.

A commemorative plaque for the mass trespass of Kinder Scout at Bowden Bridge Quarry in Hayfield, U.K.
Marcin Floryan / Wikimedia Commons

In Depression-era Britain, outdoors activity was especially popular, with an estimated 15,000 working-class hikers heading out from Manchester alone each weekend. But of the 150,000 acres of open space available in the Peak District, all but 1,200 acres were in private hands, and inaccessible to the public. It became hard to find a place to walk or picnic without competing for the space with other like-minded ramblers. As an article by Dave Renton on the website maintained by the Kinder Visitor Centre Group notes, “the politics of the trespass became socialist.”

On Sunday, April 24, some 400 walkers set off from the Bowden Bridge quarry, intent on making it up to the Kinder Scout plateau. Along the way, they were met by gamekeepers in the employ of the Duke of Devonshire, one of whom was injured in the ensuing scuffle. The demonstrators then proceeded on to the Kinder Scout, but when they returned to Hayfield village later that day, several were arrested for unlawful assembly and breach of peace; eventually, six went to prison for two to six months.

The publicity garnered by the demonstration and trial elicited great sympathy for the cause of access, and when another rally was called, several weeks later, some 10,000 hikers showed up.  

Seventeen years later, in 1949, the post-war Labour government passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which began the process of establishing national parks in Britain. Finally, in 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was passed, completing the process of organizing public rights of way in England and Wales.

For his part, after a four-month jail sentence, Benny Rothman became a frequent participant in violent encounters with blackshirted supporters of British Fascist Oswald Mosley, one time, finding himself thrown off a balcony by his opponents (his fall was involuntarily broken by some blackshirts). During World War II, he served in the Home Guard, and worked for Metropolitan-Vickers, makers of heavy electrical equipment, at what was the largest industrial plant in Europe. Under his stewardship, every one of the nearly 2,000 workers at his branch of Metro-Vicks joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union.   

In 1937, Benny Rothman married fellow communist activist Lilian Crabtree, who worked in a cotton mill. Together, they had a son and daughter. Lily died in 2001, and Benny on January 23, 2002, from complications of a stroke.