Winter Hill: Britain’s Biggest ‘Mass Trespass’

Tuesday 6th September marks the 126th anniversary of The Winter Hill Trespass - Britain's biggest. Paul Salveson tells Mag North how 'People Power' works
September 6, 2022

The Winter Hill rights of way battle of in 1896 was Britain’s biggest ‘mass trespass’, though the participants would deny they were ‘trespassing’ at all. Over three successive weekends thousands of Lancashire people marched over Winter Hill to reclaim a right of way they claimed had been illegally blocked by the landowner. Whilst the 1932 Kinder Scout Trespass is rightly celebrated, the events of 1896 lay forgotten for many years, until the 1980s. The 125th anniversary of the battle was celebrated last year by over a thousand people who marched over the hill on September 5th.

The story of the event was told by Lancashire writer Allen Clarke in his book Moorlands and Memories, published in 1920. He wrote that “on Sunday September 6th 1896, ten thousand Boltonians marched up Brian Hey to pull down a gate and protest against a footpath to Winter Hill bring claimed and closed by the landlord.”

The main confrontation was at the gate which Colonel Ainsworth (the landlord) had erected to stop people accessing the track from Coalpit Road to Winter Hill. A small party of police and gamekeepers was no match for the huge crowd of protesters, who broke down the barrier and continued on their way along the disputed stretch of road to the top of Winter Hill. They continued down to the moorland village of Belmont, before heading home to Bolton. The Bolton Journal commented afterwards:

“Thus ended a demonstration perhaps unprecedented in the history of Bolton, a great majority returning to the town, and the remainder besieging the local hostelries for refreshments. The demand was said to be so great that the wants of the hungry and thirsty ramblers could not be satisfied; and the appearance of such a mighty host naturally created much excitement in the village.”

Solomon Partington: One of the Mass Trespass Leaders

Bolton socialist poet Allen Clarke wrote a popular song, in dialect, called ‘Will Yo Come O’ Sunday Mornin’?’ which urged people to claim their rights and join the next Sunday’s march:

“Will yo’ come o’ Sunday mornin’

For a walk o’er Winter Hill?

Ten thousand went last Sunday

But there’s room for thousand still!

Oh there moors are rare and bonny

And the heather’s sweet and fine

And the roads across the hilltops –

Are the people’s – yours and mine!”

And many thousands did. The huge demonstrations continued over two more weekends. The marchers gained in number as they tramped through the working class streets of Bolton and out onto the moors.

Ainsworth issued writs against the leaders and the case was heard in Manchester, in March 1897. The key figures were Joe Shufflebotham, a clog-maker and leader of the local branch of the Social Democratic Federation, and Solomon Partington, a journalist who went on to become a local independent councillor. They were represented in court by Richard Pankhurst, husband of the suffragette leader Emmeline and an active member of the Independent Labour Party. Despite a strong defence, with many witnesses stating the road had been used for generations, Ainsworth won his case - with costs totalling £600 -£80,000 in today’s money. Yet if the law was on the side of Ainsworth, the people were behind the campaigners. Local folk rallied round and the fines were paid off, but the road remained officially closed for nearly another hundred years.

The events of 1896 were celebrated 86 years later with a march over Winter Hill, led by Benny Rothman who took part in the 1932 Kinder Scout Mass Trespass. It was led up Halliwell Road by Eagley Band and the Horwich Morris troupe. A further event took place in 1996 when the road was finally declared a public right of way, though it had been walked without hindrance since the 1930s, after ownership had passed to Bolton Council. A memorial was erected at the gate recalling the events of 1896.

The 1982 March

The route of the ‘mass trespass’ is easily walkable today and is a recognised public right of way – but only since 1996. There is a memorial stone to the 1896 campaigners at the start of the track, which continues to the summit of Winter Hill with stunning views across Bolton and Greater Manchester, as well as Rivington Pike and the Lancashire coast.

A celebration of the original march was held on Sunday September 5th 2021. Over a thousand people took part in the procession along the original route, with a newly-made banner leading the way accompanied by the PCS union’s Samba Band. As well as many local people, contingents joined in from the Ribble Valley, Preston and East Lancashire. At Belmont, buses provided free of charge by Diamond Bus North-West, took walkers back to Bolton. The original so-called ‘trespassers’ would have been proud of the day, celebrating their stand for ‘the right to roam’ over a century ago.

Paul’s book Moorlands, Memories and Reflections features the story of Winter Hill and his biography of Allen Clarke has more material about his life and his moorland writings.

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