Friday, June 29, 2018

Benny Rothman, Who Created the Right to Roam

In the U.K., folks can wander over private property without asking permission.

This is called “the right to roam” and its legal legacy can be traced back to a grassroots movement started by Benny Rothman in the 1930s.

Rothman was a member of rebellious group of Manchester factory workers who called themselves “ramblers”.  The ramblers sought to get out of sooty Manchester on their time off in order to see the beautiful Peak District that surrounded them. The problem was that almost all of this land was in the hands of private landlords who hired game keepers to keep walkers (and possible poachers) at bay.

This had not always been the case. Some 300 years earlier, most of the land in the UK has been part of the Commons where people could graze livestock and hunt as they could.

Beginning in the mid-18th century, however, the Enclosure Movement worked to privatize most common land in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. This has been described as "a revolution of the rich against the poor," and it transformed the countryside and shaped the world of dogs in general, and terriers in particular.

Benny Rothman was a member of a rambling club called the British Worker’s Sports Federation. One day while he was out with friends from that group, they were chased off by gamekeepers employed by the landowner. Benny and the other ramblers had had enough, and they decided there had to be strength in numbers.  If enough folks showed up, the game keepers employed by absentee landlords couldn’t possibly stop them. And so Benny Rothman gathered up a big group of ramblers to walk up a small mountain called Kinder Scout in order to prove the point.

Gathering in a quarry at Kinder Scout, Rothman stood on a large rock and talked about the rights that the common working man had lost during the Enclosure Acts. He emphasized that the trespass they were about to do on Kinder Scout was meant to be peaceful.  With that said, and the rules of the mass trespass detailed, they set out up the mountain. The game keepers, of course, did show up and there was a brief scuffle before the outnumbered game keepers retreated.

BennyRothman addressing the group at Bowden Bridge quarry, 1932

That would probably be the end of the story, but the game keepers called the police who came to arrest the six ringleaders as they came down the mountain.  Five of the six arrested were given prison sentences of two to six months.

While arrest is never good, it can have an impact.  In this case, the effect was to propel the mass trespass on Kinder Scout into the national news, where it received a great deal of popular support. Soon there were more mass trespasses, and in 1951 Britain opened its first national park, not coincidentally located in the Peak District where so much trespass activity had been occurring.

In 2000, the Ramblers got what they had always sought; an act of Parliament that created the right to roam.  Happily, Benny Rothman lived to see that day; he died of a stroke in 2002 as the age of 90.

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