Tuesday 14 August 2012

Bolton Moors "Liberated" 1896

by Paul Salveson
Tribune 27 August 1982

Compared with the events at Kinder Scout in 1932, the great mass trespass over the Bolton moors in 1896 is virtually a forgotten incident. Yet over four successive weekends in September, tens of thousands of Bolton people — spinners, miners, bleachworkers — marched over Winter Hill in a unique display of working-class unity.

The target of their action was the local landowner, bleachworks boss and petty tyrant, Colonel Richard Ainsworth, a rabid anti-socialist who detested the very idea of trade unionism.

The moors above Bolton — Smithills, Winter Hill, Rivington — are areas of great natural beauty. For decades handloom weavers, colliers and the local bleachworkers had used the old moorland roads for their weekend recreation. One such road was the old Coalpit Road, which crossed the windswept heights of Winter Hill.

The land was owned by Ainsworth, and in 1896 he decided that he would close the road, so as not to interfere with his grouse shooting.

The reaction from the working people of Bolton astounded not only Ainsworth but every other observer in the town. The small 'Bolton branch of the Social Democratic Federation, and their allies in the Bolton Socialist Club, called for a demonstration over the moor on Sunday, September 6.

Hundreds gathered at the appointed meeting place, and as they proceeded up the Halliwell Road thousands of people from the huddled terraced street adjoining the road flooded out to strengthen the ranks. By the time they had reached the edge of the moor 10,000 men and women were on the march.

When the marchers reached the start of Coalpit Road they were met by a group of police and gamekeepers — but they were no match for 10,000 determined demonstrators. These adversaries were brushed aside and the newly erected gate was smashed down. A "trespassers will be prosecuted" sign met a similar fate.

From there onwards, the moor returned to its rightful owners 7 the people of Bolton.

A collection was taken to start a Defence Fund, and in Bolton that night the SDF held a-massive meeting on the steps of Bolton Town Hall.

Meetings were held by all the Labour movement 'organisations in the town during the week — SDF, Socialist Club, Labour Church and ILP. The SDF announced that a further demonstration would take place the following Sunday, and a local dialect writer and socialist, Allen Clarke, penned the following lines: Will you come on Sunday morning for a walk over Winter Hill ten thousand went last Sunday But there's room for thousands still! 0 the moors are rare and bonny an the heather's sweet and fine an the road across the hilltops is the public's — yours and mine Thousands more did come the next Sunday. This time no fewer than 12,000 turned up, and met no opposition. Ainsworth was too busy preparing writs to be issued to• `the ringleaders". Ultimately, 42 writs were issued though many were withdrawn, leaving ten outstanding. These included Joe Shufflebotham and Matt Phair, the SDF leaders, and Solomon Partington and William Hutchinson, two prominent local radicals.

More demonstrations were held, but in view of the impending court case it was finally decided to halt them, and concentrate on building the defence fund. The trial -took place in March 1897.

Despite a magnificent defence by Richard Pankhurst, the highly respected socialist lawyer, the case went against the ten. Costs totalling £600 were awarded against them.

Ainsworth responded by instructing all the tenants on his land, and his serfs at the bleachworks, to display flags and bunting in celebration.

It was a pyrrhic victory for the colonel. Through the mass demonstrations, and the - propaganda put out by Partington and Shufflebotham, Bolton Council became acutely conscious of the "rights of way question," and more land was steadily opened to public access.

Yet even today, vast tracts of lovely moorland countryside is still sealed off to the public. Bolton Socialist Club, which was closely' involved in the original event, has taken the initiative once again and is organising a mass procession over the original route for this coming Sunday, September 5.

The aim is two-fold. We want to honour the epic struggle put up by the likes of Partington, Shufflebotham and the working class of Bolton, but we also want to see the beginnings of a more forceful campaign to open up the moors. Access to the countryside and local areas of beauty is a vital part of the e for socialism.

We want to make Sunday, September 5 1982, as much a day . to be remembered as the original event. Many local celebrities and musicians are joining us, and the march will be led off up Halliwell Road by Bolton's historic Eagley Brass. Band. It is hoped that a plaque will be unveiled comniemorating the lads and lasses of 1896, and a play about the event is now in the course of being written.

The last word should go to Bolton's beloved writer, Allen Clarke: Must poor folk stroll in cinders while the rich cop all the green? Is England but the landlord's who locks up each pretty scene? If they only could, these tyrants would enclose the road to heaven! So let us up and fight 'em Even seventy times and seven! • Assemble Sunday, September 5, 10am, junction of Halliwell . Road and Blackburn Road (20 minutes from rail and bus stations, . Distance to end of march at Belmont is about five miles.

Paul Salveson is a member of the Bolton Socialist Club and secretory, of the Winter Hill Anniversary Committee 1982.