Britain’s biggest-ever rights of way dispute took place outside Bolton 125 years ago. Martin Challender tells the story of the Winter Hill mass trespass, and of plans to commemorate it with a specially commissioned signpost.
For generations, Winter Hill, to the north of Bolton, has been a popular destination for walkers, bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts. It is an area where people from far and wide can enjoy the freedom to access the moors and, on a clear day, enjoy amazing views across the North West. It wasn’t always this way. In 1896, landowner Colonel Ainsworth, closed off access to Winter Hill and historic rights of way to host private grouse shooting parties for his wealthy friends. For local mill and factory workers and their families, there was a real sense of injustice and outrage. A Sunday walk on the moors was for many working-class people, their only escape from the noise and pollution of daily life in the town below.
In response to the actions of Colonel Ainsworth, public meetings were held and notices published in the local newspaper. People were urged to assemble at the bottom of Halliwell Road on Sunday 6 September with the intention of walking up Winter Hill. The procession got steadily bigger as it made its way up Halliwell towards Smithills Dean Road, Coal Pit Road and Smithills Moor itself. People eventually reached a locked gate with a notice indicating that public access to the moors was denied. In defiant mood, walkers tore down the gate, a policeman and some of Ainsworth’s men were brushed aside. An estimated 10,000 people defiantly made their way up Winter Hill. Some reached the top and simply turned around, while others carried on to the Lancashire village of Belmont on the opposite side. Whilst in Belmont, walkers packed into the local pubs and proceeded to drink them dry. Further mass walks followed in the days ahead. Any sense of triumph, however, was short lived. Ringleaders were prosecuted and punished with heavy fines. Years later Bolton Council took ownership of large sections of Winter Hill, helping to ensure public rights of way. Today much of Winter Hill is under the care of the Woodland Trust, who remain committed to maintaining access and taking care of the environment for future generations.
The events of September 1896 had largely been forgotten until Bolton historian and writer, Paul Salveson wrote and published his book about the Bolton mass trespass, Will yo’ come o’ Sunday mornin in the early 1980s. The title had been taken from a 1896 folk song written to help popularise the rights of way campaign. On Sunday 5 September 2021 more than 1,000 people marked the 125th anniversary of the original walk with a Sunday morning walk up Winter Hill. As Paul Salveson said of 1896, “This was a time when tens of thousands of local people marched up to the moors after Colonel Ainsworth after he had blocked off public rights of way so that he could hold private grouse shooting parties with his friends. It’s a fascinating part of our town’s history that should never be forgotten”. Historians have since recognised the battle for Winter Hill and events of 1896 as Britain’s biggest ever rights of way dispute. There’s a Winter Hill 125 Facebook group, where people can find out more.
Signpost appeal – donations welcome!
Plans are underway for a special signpost to mark the anniversary of the 1896 battle for Winter Hill. The sign is being commissioned by one of Britain’s oldest rights of way organisations, the Peak and Northern Footpaths Society (PNFS). A crowdfunding site has been set up to enable people to contribute towards the cost.
The Peak & Northern Footpaths Society (PNFS)
The Peak and Northern Footpaths Society, based in Stockport, is a registered charity and the oldest regional footpaths society in the UK, covering the North West and the North Midlands. Its origins can be traced back to the Manchester Association for the Preservation of Ancient Footpaths of 1826. Further information about the Peak and Northern Footpaths Society.
Martin Challender is one of the organisers of Winter Hill 125.