Winter Hill: Britain’s
biggest mass trespass

The 125th anniversary is to be celebrated next month, writes Paul Salveson

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The Winter Hill rights of way battle of 1896 was Britain’s biggest mass trespass. Over three successive weekends thousands of Bolton people marched over Winter Hill to reclaim a right of way they said had been illegally blocked by the landowner. Although the 1932 Kinder Scout trespass is rightly celebrated, the events of 1896 lay forgotten for many years. A group of Bolton people have got together to plan a major celebration this year to mark the 125h anniversary.

The memory of the event was kept alive by Allen Clarke in his book Moorlands and Memories, published in 1920. He wrote that “on Sunday September 6th 1896, ten thousand Boltonians marched up Brian Hey to pull down a gate and protest against a footpath to Winter Hill bring claimed and closed by the landlord”.

The main confrontation was at the gate that landowner Colonel Ainsworth had erected to stop people accessing the track from Coalpit Road to Winter Hill. A small party of police and gamekeepers were no match for the huge crowd of protesters, who broke down the barrier and continued on their way along the disputed stretch of road to the top of Winter Hill. They continued down to the moorland village of Belmont, before heading home to Bolton. The Bolton Journal commented afterwards: “Thus ended a demonstration perhaps unprecedented in the history of Bolton, a great majority returning to the town, and the remainder besieging the local hostelries for refreshments. The demand was said to be so great that the wants of the hungry and thirsty ramblers could not be satisfied; and the appearance of such a mighty host naturally created much excitement in the village.”

Clarke wrote a popular song, in local dialect, called Will Yo Come O’ Sunday Mornin? which urged people to claim their rights and join the next Sunday’s march.

“Will yo’ come o’ Sunday mornin’
For a walk o’er Winter Hill?
Ten thousand went last Sunday
But there’s room for thousand still!
Oh there moors are rare and bonny
And the heather’s sweet and fine
And the roads across the hilltops –
Are the people’s – yours and mine!”

And many thousands did. The huge demonstrations, organised by local socialists, continued over two more weekends. The marches gained in number as they tramped through working class areas of Bolton and out onto the moors.

Ainsworth issued writs against the leaders and the case was heard in Manchester, in March 1897. The key figures were Joe Shufflebotham, a clog-maker and leader of the local socialists, and Solomon Partington, a journalist who went on to become a local independent councillor. They were represented in court by Richard Pankhurst, husband of the suffragette leader Emmeline. Despite a strong defence, with many witnesses stating the road had been used for generations, Ainsworth won his case – with costs. Yet if the law was on the side of Ainsworth, the people of Bolton were behind the campaigners. Local people rallied round and the fines were paid off, but the road remained officially closed for nearly another hundred years.

Above and main photo: the 1982 commemoration of the mass trespass. This year’s commemorative procession is on 5 Sept

The events of 1896 were celebrated 86 years later with a march over Winter Hill, led by Benny Rothman who took part in the 1932 Kinder Scout Mass Trespass. It was led up Halliwell Road by Eagley Band and the Horwich Morris troupe. An eight-year old Maxine Peake took part in the procession. A further event took place in 1996 when the road was finally declared a public right of way. A memorial was erected at the gate recalling the events of 1896.

The route of the mass trespass is easily walkable today. A bus from Bolton Interchange takes you as far as Smithills Hall, the former family home of the Ainsworths. Continue up Smithills Dean Road and on to Coalpit Road and after another mile you reach the gate that Ainsworth closed off. There is a memorial stone to the 1896 campaigners. The track continues to the summit of Winter Hill with stunning views across Bolton and Greater Manchester, as well as Rivington Pike and the Lancashire coast.

A group of people and organisations in the Bolton area are planning to celebrate Winter Hill 125 in September. They have come together as the Winter Hill 125 Memorial Group. There will be a procession along the original route, on Sunday 5 September. It will start from the bottom of Halliwell Road, assembling at 10am for departure at 10.30am – just like the original march. There is a Facebook page, Winter Hill 125. The walk will reach Belmont by mid-afternoon and a fleet of buses, provided by Diamond Bus North-West, will be on hand to take people back to Bolton or get dropped off where they need.

Paul Salveson has published a book celebrating Allen Clarke’s 1920 classic, called Moorlands, Memories and Reflections, which features the story of Winter Hill. It is available for £25 inc post and packing. Details on or email

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