Rothman Benny

Benny Rothman

Born on June 1st 1911, Bernard (Benny) Rothman was the middle son of five children of Romanian Jewish parents, who came to Britain a few years before.

His father ran hardware stalls at Glossop and Shaw markets. Benny knew little of life outside the squalid, crowded environment of Cheetham, a working-class district of Manchester, until he won a scholarship to Manchester Central High School for boys.

But he had to leave, just as he was about to take his matriculation exam at the age of 14, when a kind neighbour found a job for him as an errand boy. He had no option, the family was dirt poor, since his father died when he was 12, and Benny now had to help support his widowed mother and family.

Although Benny’s uncle Arthur (Jack) Solomons was intensely political, he did not really directly influence Benny. Jack was, for a few years the national treasurer of the ILP, a friend of Jimmy Maxton and Manny Shinwell and also involved with James Connolly in a big clothing workers’ strike. By contrast, his aunt Ettie introduced him to some Upton Sinclair books and the “Ragged Trouser Philanthropists”. He became an avid reader of similar works.

In the summer of 1925, entirely on his own, he cycled to North Wales to see Mount Snowdon; it was the start of a life-long commitment to the outdoors and would lead to his most memorable political act. Benny Rothman would become the prime mover behind the historic mass trespass of Kinder Scout, despite being only 20 years old, a campaign that would eventually lead to the establishment of national parks.

Benny’s first job as an errand boy, for two years, was in the motor trade at Tom Garners’; by 1928, he was an apprentice working in Deansgate, Manchester, and began a YMCA course in geography and economics. His interests alerted Bill Dunn (see separate entry), who began discussing these subjects with his young workmate. In 1929 Bill invited him to a local YCL meeting. To quote Benny, he found “they were talking his language” and he gradually became more involved, becoming more and more outspoken on socialism and communism at his workplace.

Bill Dunn also took Benny to the Sunday night forums at the Clarion Club in Market Street, to listen to the speakers there. In late 1929, Benny was arrested for chalking on the Piccadilly pavement “Look out for the Daily Worker – Out January 1st 1930”. Despite the protest of Frank Bright (see separate entry), then organiser of the Manchester CP, Benny was taken to court and fined 7/6d. His position at Garners’ was prejudiced when the Press reported the case and even more so when Benny started selling 50 or 60 of the paper daily.  This dwindled after a short while but he still sold a few in the garage. When Garners’ merged with Rootes, rationalisation followed and inevitably the young Communist was one of the first to go; Benny was redundant.

He had acquired a bike (built of spare parts!) He began to explore the countryside, now giving full vent to his lifelong passion for the outdoors. Armed with a 6p Woolworth’s map he spent his 16th birthday climbing alone to the summit of Snowdon. Now a keen rambler and cyclist he joined the Clarion Cycling Club and within minutes of his first meeting became the minutes secretary. Benny had already become a regular on the YCL-organised weekend camps on the Derbyshire moors, held under the `respectable’ name of the British Workers Sports Federation. 

In 1931, Benny helped to establish a proper group of the BWSF and soon became its secretary for the North. He organised popular Sunday rambles and camping and cycling weekends in the Peak District, involving workmates from Garners’ and friends from the Clarion Cycling Club and Cheetham. After the Easter 1932 camp at Rowarth the idea of the Mass Trespass took hold and was realised a month later.

A section of BWSF ramblers, being led by Rothman, were threatened by a group of keepers at Yellowslacks Brook, near Rowath. There was tradition of unrestrained violence towards small groups of working class interlopers. Rothman’s group of six or seven, mostly factory lads, mused over the possibility of there having been a shop full of apprentices and the concept of a mass trespass was born.

It took place in fact on April 24th 1932, following a rally at the quarry on Kinder Road, Hayfield, where a plaque now commemorates it. Rothman stepped in at the last minute as main speaker, when the intended incumbent took fright at the sight of 200 police. 500 ramblers then marched on the highest hill in the Peak District. There was then no right of public access.  A drunken keeper sprained an ankle whist assaulting a rambler and a noisy mêlée ensued. Police and keepers fell over themselves to perjure themselves in the resulting trial of five ramblers. The judge was beside himself with the fact that three of the defendants were obviously Jewish and that they were all so relaxed about being associated with the Communist literature that was sold on the trespass. It was as if being of East European origin was in itself a crime!

Arguably, the trespassers of private property in 1932 were fighting the same battle as their forebears had generations before, when the Enclosure Acts had been resisted. However, the ambition of the rich in this period was not to gain economically, but to preserve the moorlands for themselves alone. Specifically, the aim was to maintain the grouse which provided elitist shooting ‘pleasures’. Something like three quarters of the southern Pennines and the Peak District was owned privately and the rest was owned by public bodies which admitted no public access. Less than 1% of the moorland was adequately open. Legislation to force land owners to permit the public to partake in their own heritage was the only answer.

So it was that, on Sunday April 24th 1932, ramblers gathered in large numbers at Hayfield, much advance publicity having taken place. One third of the entire Derbyshire Constabulary, under the personal command of the Chief Constable, poured into the village! Ramblers who had come from Manchester outwitted the police, by leaving before the stated starting time by a route through which police cars could not follow. A rally was convened in a nearby quarry, addressed by Benny Rothman. Hundreds of young men and women streamed across moorland, heading for the plateau above Kinder reservoir. They were challenged only by some twenty or thirty gamekeepers. Largely ignoring these, the youngsters reached the top where they met another group which had come from Sheffield, via Edale. (Activists from Derby had tended to join the Manchester group, whilst those from Chesterfield went with the Sheffield contingent.) It was an inspiring moment and the whole event was a bold gesture for “the rights of ordinary people to walk on land stolen from them in earlier times”. 

Six young men were arrested after the Trespass and a travesty of justice followed. They were first brought before the New Mills magistrates court. Subsequently, on July 21st and 22nd, the group was brought before the Derby Assizes. A Grand Jury of two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors, three captains, two aldermen and eleven country gentlemen considered their case. This was no trial by one’s peers; there was not a single working class person and no rambler amongst the jury! They were charged with riotous assembly and assault of a gamekeeper. The most damning piece of evidence, it seems, was a book by Lenin which had been in the possession of one of the defendants. This fact drew the comment from the judge, amidst much laughter: “Isn’t that the Russian gentleman?” Predictably, the ramblers were all found guilty, but sentences of six, four, three and two months jail were imposed. One young man was seemingly extra penalised because he had been selling the Daily Worker. 

The campaign did not end there. Apart from the demonstrations and activity designed to draw attention to the injustice of the imprisonments, there were other rambling protests. At the end of May, a massive turnout of over 5,000 ramblers demonstrated for the right of access to private lands at Whatstandwell. Whilst on June 26th, some 10,000 ramblers assembled at Winnats Pass, Castleton. Another mass trespass took place at Abbey brook in the Derwent valley and a rally was held at Jacob’s Ladder. With the more pressing activities on unemployment, anti-fascism and solidarity with Spain over the following years, the issue receded from the minds of the labour movement. But it was by no means in vain, the very establishment in 1949 by a Labour Government of the Derbyshire Peak District National Park, a novel concept at the time, was no accident. 

Blacklisted after serving his four months in Leicester jail Benny went, at the YCL’s suggestion, to NE Lancashire to try and build a branch there. He went to Burnley, to help out with the No Moor Looms campaign. With his zest for sport, he organised some factory football teams and a rambling club but difficulties resulted in their demise.  He was involved in the campaign against the 1933 bill to restrict camping to only officially approved sites. He returned to Manchester, after six months still unemployed he worked for a year during 1933 and 1934 for a comrade who had a small garage in Cheetham. He left to get a job at A V Roe’s Ltd (also known as AVRO), the aircraft factory in Newton Heath, where he thought he could do far more industrial and political work. Immediately he joined the AEU’s Manchester 2nd branch he became its minutes secretary and soon was elected to be its delegate to the Manchester and Salford Trades Council. His political activity soon exposed his Communist beliefs and before long the AVRO management found a pretext to sack him.

The political atmosphere in Cheetham with its large Jewish population was strongly anti-fascist and charged with the drive for peace. At this time Benny was active in the Youth Front against War and Fascism, which later merged with Cheetham YCL. He involved himself ever more in the YCL and became secretary of the Cheetham branch. He helped to build up the Challenge Club, which in addition to political activities also held social events, rambles, cycle runs, gymnastics, Sunday night dances etc. even building a ‘Flying Flea’. This attracted some 500 members, of whom roughly half joined the YCL. About 75% of the members were Jewish.  Probably the appeal of such a broad organisation coupled with the fights against the Blackshirts led by Cheetham YCL contributed to the decline of the BWSF. 

At a BUF meeting on Marshall Croft its car was turned over. At another BUF meeting opposite Crumpsall Library Benny was arrested and bound over for 12 months to ‘keep the peace’. In 1933 he intervened when Evelyn Taylor (see separate entry – she was later Jack Jones’ wife) was physically attacked by BUF stewards as she was heckling Mosley in the Kings’ Hall in Belle Vue. He threw out some anti-Mosley leaflets but then was thrown bodily over the balcony but luckily his fall was broken by a Blackshirt below, The brutality shown at that meeting was reported to a counter meeting that evening in the Free Trade Hall and later to Parliament, which led to the passing of the Public Order Act. Some 60 years later, he recalled some of these events when he was involved in a TUC education project with Danish trade unionists on tackling racism as part of the European Year of the Older Person.

Not long before he left AVRO’s Benny married the mill girl he had met at a peace camp, his comrade Lily Crabtree, who came from a Communist family in Rochdale. They lived briefly in Failsworth, then settled in Timperley in 1936 so that Benny could be nearer his new job as a fitter at Metro-Vicks in Trafford Park. Soon he began selling the ‘Daily Worker’ in the factory, though not openly. He collected contributions regularly in support of Aid to Spain.  At a big meeting in the Free Trade Hall he volunteered to be an ambulance driver but was frustrated by not being accepted, largely because he was an inexperienced driver. Moreover it was felt that he could better help the cause through his trade union and factory work.

Shortly before the war, he was victimised due to his politics and then worked at Metropolitan Vickers, in Trafford Park and which had a large Communist Party branch. Metro-Vicks was a conglomeration of factories, then employing some 22,000 workers, the biggest industrial complex in Europe. Just prior to World War II breaking out Benny, after two years as shop steward in his department, became the delegate to the Works Committee for the 800 to 900 workers in the West Works switchgear and about another thousand on radar work in West Works 5. He had won the support of nearly 2,000 workers as a first-class trade unionist ever alert to their interests, especially their working conditions and piece-rates.

But, when Benny condemned Chamberlain for the Munich agreement in 1938, he was called a warmonger and ostracised by his Labour Party workmates; although a year later there was some realisation that Munich had not brought ‘peace in our time’. Again, when the Soviet-German non-aggression pact was signed Benny had a rough time at work, the pact being seen as a sell-out by the treacherous Russians. Benny was very strongly anti-Hitler and thought that the stand taken by Harry Pollitt as to the anti-fascist nature of the war was correct right from the start. He was rejected for the army in the Second World War, being in a reserved occupation, but joined the Home Guard.

In 1942 he helped set up the Timperley branch of the AEU and served 11 years as one of its officials.  He later became the AEU’s senior Works Committee delegate. Under his leadership, West Works became 100% trade unionised, a band of united shop stewards had weekly meetings and led every struggle in Metro-Vicks for wage increases, against management manoeuvres to interfere with piece-rates and many other related issues. Benny edited the bulletin to keep their department up to date with authentic information. Small wonder that instead of the agreed one hour a day on union work he would often spend 8 to10 hours, almost full-time! As the war progressed Benny helped to establish a Joint Production Committee and secured agreement on increased output without change to ordinary norms and conditions, which boosted production greatly. On one job the bonus rose by 600 or 700 per cent%!  Young women newly recruited into the factory were initially given unsatisfactory low rates. Benny immediately blasted his way through the normal procedures to see higher management. The young women then got guaranteed new prices for their work.

By 1944 Benny was selling daily 70 to 80 copies of the ‘Daily Worker’ in the factory. This was emulated by one his stewards in another department. Some of his stewards joined the Communist Party factory branch there. Strong support was given by Benny’s department to left-wing candidates in local elections. He regretted what he considered to be the Party’s later mistake in switching from factory to area branches, considering that its leadership of the trade union movement in the Metro-Vicks factories was thereby much weakened. After the war Benny was on the Post-War Planning Committee. Without a change to alternative work, redundancies ensued. Over the next 12 months despite Benny’s battle to save the jobs they were lost.

A dispute arose in 1951 when a welder was told to do a fitter’s job. Benny called a meeting – with management permission. The men struck for an hour and the proposal was dropped. The management seized on Benny’s taking part in the hour’s stoppage as an excuse to sack him. Nearly 3,000 men struck immediately to protest at this blatant victimisation. The AEU Manchester District Committee supported the men. They remained out for eight days. The Strike Committee printed leaflets and a small paper called ‘Unity’ in defence of the right to strike and lobbied the AEU EC to recognise the strike. This was refused, although they allowed dispute benefits. The Strike Committee then became the Re-instatement Committee and in March 1952 the 75 AEU Metro-Vicks shop stewards confirmed their view that Benny had been victimised. The management conceded that an application for re-employment for Benny could be considered ‘after a reasonable time’. Reasonable was never defined. Benny started work at Staveley Machine Tools of Broadheath. He had won his point at Metro-Vicks but wouldn’t go back.

The foregoing is but a part of a much longer story. Researches are continuing into the archives left by Benny at the Working-Class Movement Library into the years after 1951. These cover his 20 years service as chairman both of the shop stewards committee and convenor at the Kearns-Richards factory (of Staveley Tools) and the Broadheath shop stewards’ forum, his service on the Manchester AEU’s District Committee, at different times as secretary and president of Altrincham Trades Council, on its executive and later on that of Trafford Trades Council and as delegate to the Lancashire and Cheshire Federation of Trades Councils. They cover his leadership of many campaigns for wage and cost of living awards, against redundancies and closures, against the Industrial Relations, Criminal Justice and Public Order bills, his Parliamentary lobbying on these and later on pensioners’ issues. He organised strong groups in Trafford in support of the Grunwick strikers and later of the miners.

Letters from Benny were frequently in the ‘Altrincham Guardian’ and other local papers and he wrote a weekly column for the ‘Timperley Independent’. He edited the monthly newsletter of Altrincham Communist Party and was its candidate in municipal elections for Dunham ward. Benny advised the Communist Party’s national congress, to which he was a delegate, on its resolution on ‘Access to the Countryside’. He advised also on the Party’s Pensioner Advisory Committee. After the collapse of the CPGB he was involved in the Communist Campaign Group’s work which led to the establishment of the CPB.

In 1982 Benny formed the Kinder Scout Advisory Committee and in 1989 the Rivington Pledge Committee and was secretary of both. He led the campaign against the privatisation of water authority land and took part in Public Enquiries on Ashton Moss, Kingswater Park and Davenport Green. He supported the efforts of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Worldwide Fund for Nature etc. to protect the environment and also fought against the motorway spoliation of the countryside, as at Twyford Down. Ever vigilant on rights of way he also encouraged urban access in his ‘Aspects of Altrincham’ articles.

Prominent in the fight against the military use of Holcombe Moor and other areas of open land and in the CND national action at Coulport on Loch Long, he was also active in Altrincham CND and TU CND and became a delegate to the CND annual conference. He gave slide shows to peace groups to show the true picture of the Soviet view of disarmament. He was a member of the National Insurance Tribunal, the Family Practitioner Committee of Trafford Health Authority and the Pensioners’ Liaison Forum. Yet however prodigiously busy he still made time to tend his allotment and supply tomatoes and other produce to the annual Daily Worker/Morning Star bazaars – the list of his activities seems endless.

In retirement, he campaigned against restrictive legislation on access to the countryside, publishing an account of the Trespass on its 50th anniversary and carving out a significant voice for himself in the media. He was effective in such a role by winning concessions in the water privatisation bill.

Still rambling and campaigning in his early 80s Benny sadly suffered a stroke in 1994 which left him confined to a wheelchair. Not that that stopped him entirely. Together and aided by his dear wife Lily he then fought successfully against a Council proposal to fence in and narrow a path near his home into a passageway, making it difficult for mothers with prams to reach the local primary school. He then retired to Essex with her, to be near his daughter and family. Requests for his advice and help, which he always freely gave, were often been made by outdoor organisations, journalists, students and occasionally by authors. He remained a well-known figure nationally in the rambling and outdoor world and also generally in the environmental field on many different issues.

In 1990 the AEU gave Benny its highest award, the Special Award of Merit. In 1996 the Ramblers Association executive made him an honorary life member. His genial but militant leadership, always based on his close touch with the working class, esured an immense contribution to its history. This selfless, untiring political and environmental workaholic had become truly a living legend by the time of his death, aged 90, on 23rd January 2002.

Even in death, the honours came in. A mountain was even named after him – in Greenland of all places. Jeremy Windsor and three colleagues made the first ascent of the 2,782m peak in eastern Greenland. Tent-bound for a few days, Windsor found a faded newspaper cutting of Benny Rothman’s obituary and read it to his friends. They realised that this was a man who had shied away from the limelight and whose actions had largely gone unrecognised. They decided the best name for peak they had `conquered’ was Mt. Rothman. As climbers who regularly visit crags and mountains in the Peak District, they appreciated the work of Benny and others who organised the Mass Trespass and provided the foundations for the wider freedoms people like themselves now enjoy. [Ramblers’ Magazine February? 2005]

Whilst there’s a train engine too! On 21st April 2007, for the 75th anniversary of the Mass Trespass led by Benny in 1932,  the Environment Secretary David Milliband, at Piccadilly Station, Manchester, unveiled on the engine of the Northern Trains locomotive the nameplate ‘Benny Rothman – Manchester Rambler’. This may now be seen regularly on the ManchesterLondon line.

The Mass Trespass over Kinder Scout in 1932 has been the subject of innumerable articles in many national and local newspapers, magazines and journals etc. It has been the main theme of schools, conferences, seminars, debates and lectures. Books, poems, plays, radio and television programmes have featured it and there is Benny’s own book “The Kinder Scout Trespass”, a truly fascinating historical document. 

It is generally accepted now that this historic event paved the way for the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.  April 24th, the date of the Trespass, has been marked over many years by anniversary reunions and celebratory rallies supported  by many leading national figures in such organisations as the Ramblers Association, the Peak and Northern Footpath Society,  the Open Spaces Society, the British Mountaineering Council,  the Council for National Parks,  the Peak Planning Board, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the Country Commission, the Woodcraft Folk, Red Rope, Sheffield  Campaign for  Access to Moorlands, Benny’s old union and others, and many others in the environmental field. All of them pay tribute to the leader of the Trespass, Benny Rothman, though he would have been the first to point out that he was simply taking part in an historic movement to win the people’s right to ramble freely over uncultivated land – forbidden to them by the selfish, grouse-shooting landowning classes.  

Sources: Guardian January 25th 2002; Bernard Barry “Not just a rambler!” WCML Bulletin (1999); Graham Stevenson “Defence or Defiance – a peoples’ history of Derbyshire” (see elsewhere on the site for full text) Chapter 11 (1927-1939) section: `The Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout’ ; Our History [new series] pamhlet c.2012

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