Mass Trespass: Q+A with filmmaker Jordan Carroll
The Mass Trespass has been described as one the most important events of civil disobedience in the history of this country
On the morning of April 24, 1932, roughly 500 men and women met in the small village of Hayfield before heading towards Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District. Once at the top of the mountain, they enjoyed a celebratory meetup with a separate contingent of walkers from Sheffield before the groups headed back down together. It might be hard to believe today, but this seemingly innocuous act of comradeship was in fact a defiant breach of law due to large swathes of the moorlands being owned by the upper gentry. Backed by a series of Enclosure Acts which allowed common land to be easily secured by the wealthy, vast open spaces would be used for occasional grouse hunts and gamekeepers employed to keep the lower classes consigned to a small selection of easily congested footpaths.
The event was a pre-planned, politically motivated protest against class discrimination and later became known as the ‘Mass Tresspass’. During the march, demonstrators sang the ‘Red Flag’ and engaged in hand-to-hand scuffles with wardens and police attempting to keep the group away from restricted areas. Upon their return to Hayfield, five men were arrested (six detained overall), charged with riotous assembly and some later received jail sentences ranging from two to six months. Such heavy-handed treatment caused outrage amongst a wider section of society, exposing the greed of wealthy landowners and highlighting the injustice of land ownership laws at the time.
To celebrate the 85th year anniversary of this momentous occasion, one which lit the touchpaper for decades of ‘right to roam’ activism in the UK, Sheffield-based filmmaker Jordan Carroll was commissioned by Well Red Films to make a documentary on the social and cultural significance of the protest. We spoke with Jordan to find out more about that fateful day on the moors and its continuing legacy today.
How did you first get involved in making this film?
I contacted WellRedFilms, a left-wing film company who’ve covered the tree-felling in Sheffield and other important social issues such as fracking. As a filmmaker, I’ve always wanted to use my skillset to help make change or at least do something for the better. The guy who runs Well Red Films, Alan, an ex-journalist from Canada, had the idea to do a film on the Kinder Scout trespass. He told me about it and mentioned that he had some of the archive materials from the Working Class Movement Library. Without them, we wouldn’t have had the images to work with.
Being based in Sheffield, in such close proximity to the Peak District, I suppose there’s a local affiliation with the story too?
I always try to visualise a film before deciding whether I’d like to take it on, so when Alan told me about the Mass Trespass I could see it quite clearly as I’m often going out to the Peak to hike. And even though we didn’t have footage of the actual event, it was all about graphic matching it; I knew I could recreate it and give people something visual. It stood out to me because people look at the early-30s as a very boring time – grey, cold, factories, no money, Great Depression. But, despite all of this, loads of dudes would often go out to the Peaks on a Sunday and have the time of their lives. There’s a really famous quote that the ramblers used to say: “I’m a slave on Monday but a free man on Sunday.” It was their form of entertainment.
So rambling was basically a cheap, easily accessible form of leisure for the working classes?
It’s not really a class thing now, is it? But I think that’s where it stems from. It was cheap. We touch upon it a lot in the documentary. Back then, you could get a tram to the Peaks for barely nothing, and it’d cost nothing to walk out if you wished to do so. But it was the Great Depression as well, so loads of people would go out in ex-military clothes; they didn’t have proper hiking and rambling gear. With ex-military and working class factory workers out hiking together, it’d have been a real mishmash of characters you could see out there.
This was an inherently class-based struggle. What in particular sparked the more organised forms of resistance amongst ramblers?
It starts from the 18th century with a thing called the Inclosure Act, which saw the Crown confiscating land across the country and redistributing it to favoured landowners. So the Peaks initially, hundreds of years ago, were just free land. This meant it became a very class-divided subject. After the act was passed, people were still allowed out into the Peaks, but only on extremely strict footpaths. The problem was that factory workers would have to work Saturdays, so everyone in Manchester and Sheffield had the same idea to go out on a Sunday. The small designated footpaths would be full of people, all looking for some escapism from the factories. There was no enjoyment in that. What we see today is people going to the peaks and wanting to go the top: it’s a challenge, it’s fun, it’s rewarding. They weren’t allowed to do that back then. The closed areas were purely reserved for the grouse hunting that rich people used to do. They’d only do it five or six times a year but they’d hire gamekeepers armed with sticks to keep the working classes off the moors. That caused scuffles and fights, and that’s what started a mass trespass – loads of little trespasses happening constantly.
Without modern forms of communication how did they get hundreds together in one place?
The idea of doing a mass trespass was to publicise it and make a big deal. They had a press officer, started flyering, basically did everything to get to the news out there and show their resistance. Police ended up arresting some of them. The most successful part of the protest was the court case that followed. When the men were prosecuted for walking on the moors, people from different areas really started to come together and realised that the consequences – for merely walking across some moors – were hugely unfair. It made it a bit more real; people with jobs and families were going to prison for this, and lot of others could relate to them. They were essentially sat in a cell because they walked on a hill, which is just crazy.
That tends to be the trigger for most large-scale change: when the Establishment deals harshly with the original protesters it makes others sit up and pay attention.
Benny Rothman, who was the leader, and five others were arrested. There was a prejudice against them from the start because they were related to communist groups, which was hugely vilified in those days. The jury used it as an argument against them, but the whole thing was already so biased since it was made up from the same landowners keeping them off the moors. A new law was passed in the 50s, certain unrestricted areas were introduced and allowed to walk on, but it wasn’t until the 2000 actual law, the Right to Roam Act, was passed. By the time it actually happened, most of the original trespassers were dead.
With no original footage, how did you re-enact the walk?
I tagged along on the 85th anniversary walk. Roly Smith is one of the leading figures behind embracing this story and defending access in this county. He organised the walk and I tagged along with my camera. Some of the participants effectively re-enacted it. There’s a scene where Benny Rothman stood on a rock and gave a speech in the quarry, and a guy called Martin Porter from Greenpeace actually climbed on a rock and gave that speech. Effectively, everyone just mirrored the event in a similar way to how it happened.
Why is the story behind Kinder Scout Mass Protest so important?
There’s obviously the history behind it all. People now take open access for granted; they know it’s public land, it’s ours, we have the right to be there. But the reality is others fought for that freedom over 80 years ago. The overriding message that comes with the film is still hugely relevant, a message of effective protest. The Trespass is an example of how we can still conduct productive protest now. That’s why in the film we’ve referenced the tree-felling that’s happening in Sheffield at the moment, and the wider anti-fracking movement that’s happening in the country. These issues are affecting green public spaces. It’s about encouraging people that if they did it effectively in the 1930s, it can certainly be done now.