Celebrate the 82nd Anniversary of the Kinder Trespass!

It was 82 years ago last week that 400 men of the British Workers Sports Federation marched up to Kinder Scout, a bleak moorland plateau in Peak District of England. The march was an act of civil disobedience to protest the lack of legal access to “ramble” on open lands. As the trespassers scrambled up toward the Kinder plateau, they encountered the Duke of Devonshire’s gamekeepers.  What happened next is the stuff of grand lore in British rambling: 

In the ensuing scuffle, one keeper was slightly hurt, and the ramblers pressed on to the plateau. Here they were greeted by a group of Sheffield-based trespassers who had set off that morning crossing Kinder from Edale. After exchanging congratulations, the two groups joyously retraced their steps, the Sheffield trespassers back to Edale and the Manchester contingent to Hayfield.

As they returned to the village, five ramblers were arrested by police accompanied by keepers, and taken to the Hayfield Lock-up. The day after the trespass, Rothman and four other ramblers were charged at New Mills Police Court with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace [and]….were found guilty and were jailed for between two and six months.

The arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the trespassers unleashed a huge wave of public sympathy, and ironically united the ramblers cause.   A few weeks later in 1932 10,000 ramblers – the largest number in history – assembled for an access rally in the Winnats Pass, near Castleton, and the pressure for greater access continued to grow.

On the 75th anniversary of this act of civil disobedience, in 2007, Lord Roy Hattersley described the “Kinder Trespass” as “the most successful direct action in British history" (unless you want to count Gandhi's quite larger direct actions as part of British history!).  (Here is The Guardian’s account of the Trespass in 1932.) 

Why did this event have such an impact on British consciousness that it is still celebrated – and remains controversial in some quarters? 

Because it was about the legitimate scope of private property rights. The Kinder Trespass was intended to point out how unfair and anti-social private land ownership laws were, and how they constrained the public's “right to ramble."

Put another way, should the lords and ladies fine be able to exclude working class ramblers from their vast holdings of moorlands so that they could engage in grouse hunting undisturbed?  Or should ordinary folks have the right to roam and hike on open stretches of land that happen to be privately owned?

In this case, the Kinder Trespass is credited with sparking legislation in 1949 that established national parks in the UK. The incident also contributed to the development of a number of long-distance walking trails and established the right of walkers to walk over open country and common land.  To this day, the mass trespass is celebrated by ramblers with a series of walks, talks and exhibitions. (Thanks to Kate Ashbrook, General Secretary of the Open Spaces Society, for bringing this event to my attention.)

The story of the Kinder Trespass reminds me of a wonderful book, Property Outlaws:  How Squatters, Pirates and Protesters Improve the Law of Ownership, by Eduardo Moisés Peñalver and Sonia K. Katyal (Yale University Press, 2010).  he book argues the counterintuitive proposition that disobedience of property laws – squatting, trespassing, piracy, file-sharing – can often lead to an improvement in legal regulation.  Yes, breaking the law and appealing candidly to public opinion is sometimes needed to rally public support to change the law. 

Of course, not all self-styled acts of civil disobedience about land are the same, and not all elicit the same public response.  One need only look at the recent travesty involving Cliven Bundy, the right-wing, libertarian Nevada cattle rancher who let hundreds of his cattle graze on public lands.  Bundy was using the lands and causing ecological harm while refusing to pay – for ten years! -- even the minimal fees charged by the U.S. Government.   

Bizarrely, ideological property-rights advocates such as Fox News have celebrated this proud free-rider as a brave hero, casting him as a libertarian Everyman willing to rebel against the oppressive, heavy hand of government.  Of course, Bundy was simply ripping off the public and hurting the fragile ecosystem in the name of (his own) freedom.  Bundy’s egregiously racist remarks to the news media later revealed him as a yahoo, causing his erstwhile backers to run for cover.

But back to the Kinder Pass:  It’s a pleasure to see such an event of mass civil disobedience still celebrated in UK as a source of inspiration. As the Bundy episode illustrates, it takes full public exposure and the scrutiny of history to reveal whether property outlaws are selfish free riders looking out for their narrow self-interests, or brave fighters for the common good.  The verdict on the Kinder Trespassers is quite clear, and British commoners owe a debt of thanks to their bravery that day in 1932.