why activists are reviving the mass home invasion protests of the 1930s

Ascending the plateau of Kinder Scout, a mountain in England’s Peak District owned at the time by the 10th Duke of Devonshire and guarded by rangers from his nearby Chatsworth Estate, around 400 walkers committed one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in history. British history. the weekend of April 24, 1932.

Kinder Trespass, as it became known, included members of the Young Communist League and the British Workers’ Sports Federation. His transgression that day was met with violence. Six men were arrested for assaulting rangers, illegal assembly and disorderly conduct. Supporters, landowners and newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian followed the subsequent trials with fascination. The episode ultimately caught the attention of various clubs and organizations campaigning for greater public access to the English countryside.

The Peak District was a symbolic choice for outsiders. The area was not only rich in outdoor spaces and natural beauty, it was also accessible to several industrial cities in the north and center of England, providing a weekend escape from working life. World War I was still a near memory, and many walking clubs included former soldiers who recalled being asked to fight through the fields and forests of their home.

Residents of Totnes in Devon and their supporters recently invoked the spirit of the 1932 mass invasion 90 years later with a staged invasion of the Duke of Somerset’s Devon estate. However, his reception was markedly different. These intruders were able to sit down, play music and eat picnics. Some explored the woods, removing empty shotgun shells and trash from the farm’s pheasant hunt.

Despite environmental subsidies and agricultural subsidies paid to many landowners, it is claimed that only about 8% of the land in England is open to the public. Only 1% of the population own half the land in England according to another claim, although the secrecy given to property trusts and corporate owners makes it difficult to provide an exact figure.

Unlike the massive invasion of 1932, there will be no high-profile court cases. Instead, the Devon trespassers have been able to use more modern methods to raise awareness of their cause. Someone in the group discovered a garbage pit and dead pheasants in the lands of the Duke and shared the images on social networks, contrasting the care of the intruders with the behavior of the landowners.

Still, there is much that unites the trespassers of 1932 and 2022. Groups pushing for greater access to land have always included environmentalists and ecologists eager to study and protect the fenced-in wilderness. Both generations of activists have also drawn attention to the disparity in power between landowners and the general public, and have urged that more must be done to unite people with a field that should rightfully belong to everyone.

The right to wander

So what has changed, legally and socially, since 1932? In 2000, access activists would have been forgiven for thinking the battle had been won. The Labor government was about to introduce its sweeping Rights of Way and Countryside Act (CRoW Act), which promised to open up large swaths of the English and Welsh countryside to public access. When Environment Minister Michael Meacher introduced the law to the House of Commons, he even claimed that it would make “the dream of [prime minister] Lloyd George that no one should be an intruder in the land of his birth.”

a sign that says
Much of Britain’s forests remain under lock and key.
D. MacDonald/Shutterstock

The CRoW Act introduced a limited compromise between walkers and landowners. People were given the right to explore mountains, moors, heaths, and hills (unfertilized calcareous grasslands), as well as registered common land. Campaigners estimate that this only covers around 8% of the land in England and Wales. The CRoW Act exempted forests, grasslands, and waterways in private hands, which remain closed to the public. Some landowners were even able to spread fertilizer to change the species of plants growing on their land to exempt it from the new rules before the mapping process could be completed.

The fact that The Guardian recently claimed that “there is no right to roam the English countryside” is testament to the limitations of the 2000 CRoW Act and the frustrations of the access lobby two decades later.

The pandemic demonstrated the importance of outdoor recreation space for our physical and mental health. The right to enjoy footpaths and moorland became a contentious issue once again, as some walkers were targeted by police for exercising in the Peak District during the first national lockdown.

As the cost of living crisis rages on, many people should be wondering how private landlords are financed and whether the public is getting good value for their tax dollars. Trespassers on the Duke of Somerset’s land noted that the Duke was receiving public money to maintain the forest for him, however this funding did not include a requirement to share the land with the public. As in 1932, the political and moral case for a broader right to roam is compelling.

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