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How Benny reclaimed the land

Jewish pioneer’s protest 80 years ago led to the right to roam the countryside

    Standing (on the left in long trousers) at Kinder Scout, 21-year-old Benny Rothman exhorts the crowd to “mass trespass”
    Standing (on the left in long trousers) at Kinder Scout, 21-year-old Benny Rothman exhorts the crowd to “mass trespass”

    On April 24 1932, a five-foot-tall Jewish man led a hike up a mountain, which in turn led to titanic clashes between Britain's political left and right, between working and upper classes, and even to a public inquiry involving pop-star Madonna.

    The man was Benny Rothman, a Jewish communist from Manchester, who led the Kinder Scout mass trespass - the most important turning-point in the public gaining the right to roam across England's countryside.

    "He was a law-abiding citizen unless he felt the law was wrong," recalled Professor Harry Rothman, Benny's son, paying tribute to his father, who died in 2002, aged 90. "Undoubtedly his Jewish background and heritage contributed to what he became."

    Of the 500 protesting ramblers, many were Jews. The group marched to Kinder Scout, the so-called "forbidden mountain" - the highest point in Derbyshire's Peak District, owned by the Duke of Devonshire. Here, they were faced by armed gamekeepers, striving to uphold a nationwide denial of access to open country incorporated within private land.

    A scuffle at Kinder Scout resulted in Benny's arrest, alongside Julius Clyne, Harry Mendel, David Nussbaum and two others. Mr Justice Acton, who presided over the court case, did not let the Jewish background of most of the defendants go unnoticed. He was "sure the jury would not be prejudiced by the foreign-sounding names of two or three of the defendants".

    The men, except for Harry Mendel, were imprisoned. Benny Rothman received a four-month jail sentence. Their harsh treatment gave rise to such a public outcry that, some weeks later, 10,000 ramblers assembled for a march across the nearby Winnats Pass.

    "Certainly a lot of English officials and magistrates were quite antisemitic; my father had no doubts about that," said Professor Rothman, revealing that it was not the only time his father found himself before the courts.

    "At the time, there were marches by Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. They did attack many Jewish people in Manchester. Naturally, my father and these young Jewish lads got together to sort them out."

    At one protest against a BUF meeting opposite Crumpsall Library, north Manchester, Benny was arrested and bound over for 12 months. At another, only a year after Kinder Scout, Benny was thrown over a balcony by BUF Blackshirts.

    Benny Rothman continued campaigning until his last days, and this bore fruit in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which finally enshrined the right of walkers to freely roam across open English country.

    Writer and countryside expert, Roly Smith, explained: "Benny's outstanding quality was his ability to unite people. The ridiculous sentences so incited the rest of the rambling movement that they got together. His later campaigning meant that 76 per cent of the Peak District National Park's access rights for walkers are because of Benny. "

    But his battle is far from over. Last year, ramblers were at the forefront of a coalition government climb-down over selling off 248,000 hectares of UK forests.

    Following a public inquiry in 2004, Madonna and her former husband, film director Guy Ritchie, were prevented from banning ramblers walking across their £9 million country estate.

    Harry Rothman believes his father's cause is still alive because "we live in a class society with a very small elite who own most of the wealth, and the majority of people are within a few month of poverty… There have been enormous advances, but all achieved through struggles."

    For the 80th anniversary on April 24, Willow Publishing is issuing a new version of The Battle for Kinder Scout, Benny Rothman's account of the protest. Hundreds of people are due to re-enact the protest, and a blue plaque will be placed on Benny's former home.

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