Winter Hill has been an area of freedom and escape for the Bolton people for decades. During the Victorian times, people would walk up onto the moors, especially at the weekend, seeking escape from the town. Local landowner Colonel Henry Ainsworth, of Smithills Hall, was keen to keep them away from his extensive grouse-shooting grounds, which encompassed much of the Winter Hill area. He believed that only he and his invited guests should have the freedom of the moors.
He sought to achieve his aim by blocking off access points onto the moorland. In the late summer of 1896, the colonel closed the upper part of Coalpit Road – a traditional route to the summit of Winter Hill. He had a gate erected and a ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’ sign nailed to it.
On 2nd September, Smithills Parish Council discussed the closure of the road at a meeting. A decision was made to set up a committee to investigate, despite the colonel, who was chairman of the parish council, vigorously protesting. That evening, a notice appeared in the Bolton papers stating there would be a demonstration against the decision on the coming Sunday. This was organised by two groups – the Social Democratic Federation and the Bolton Socialist Party.
The First Demonstration
An initial crowd assembled at the junction of Halliwell Road and Blackburn Road on Sunday 6th September. A thousand gathered to listen to speeches by Joseph Shufflebotham and Matthew Phair, both leading lights of the Social Democratic Federation. The crowd swelled as the march proceeded up Halliwell Road and onto Smithills Dean Road, reaching 10,000 strong.
At the gate on Coalpit Road the protest halted. Barring the way was a group of policemen, led by Inspector Willoughby and Sergeant Sefton. Colonel Ainsworth’s gamekeepers were also there, accompanied by his land agent Joseph Walch and his son James. Joseph Shufflebotham again addressed the crowd. He told them that they had a right to go through the gate, that they should keep to the path and that they could face legal action. When it did not look like the authorities would budge, a number of the protestors attacked the gate. This was broken apart, and the crowd surged through. Scuffles broke out. The inspector was flung over a low wall and the sergeant was hit by a stone. James Walch, who had been writing down names, was pushed over and kicked while on the ground. One of the gamekeepers, who had been brandishing his stick at the protestors, was dragged over to a stream and ducked.
The protestors carried on along the path, marching towards Scotsman’s Stump and the top of Winter Hill. After reaching the summit, many then descended down into Belmont, heading to the Black Dog Inn and the Wrights Arms for celebratory drinks.
In the evening, the Social Democratic Federation and Bolton Socialist Party called a meeting on Bolton Town Hall steps. It was decided that another march would take place on the following Sunday. Further planning occurred on the Tuesday, and a defence fund was set up. Solomon Partington was elected secretary, Joseph Shufflebotham assistant secretary and William Hutchinson the treasurer. On Wednesday, an ‘unofficial’ march took place attended by people who had the half day off, such as shop assistants.
The Second March
When Sunday dawned, the weather was grim. Despite the raging thunderstorm, two thousand people gathered at the meeting place on Halliwell Road at 10 o’clock. Speeches by Joseph Shufflebotham, William Hutchinson and Matthew Phair were once again intently listened to. As before, numbers grew rapidly on route, reaching 12,000. As the crowd headed up Smithills Dean Road, the weather cleared.
The gate and sign were nowhere to be seen at the disputed point on Coalpit Road, but the police were once again waiting. Superintendent Leeming stated he would not stop the marchers from proceeding up the route, but there would be arrests if there were any breaches of the peace. A meeting followed that evening and a decision was taken to protest again on the following weekend, but this time on the Saturday. This was because some felt that by marching on a Sunday there was a conflict with church attendance.
The Third March and Fourth March
On Saturday 19th September, James Walch, the son of Ainsworth’s land agent, took a hansom cab to deliver ten writs to those that Ainsworth considered the ‘ringleaders’ of the protest. These included Solomon Partington, Matthew Phair, Joseph Shufflebotham and William Hutchinson. Five thousand protestors turned out, a reduced number perhaps because the threat of being prosecuted was now very real.
At the site of the former gate was Inspector Willoughby, a group of police constables, James Walch and a clutch of gamekeepers. This time the police wrote down names of the marchers. Once the protest was over, many of the walkers went to Joseph Shufflebotham’s shoe-making shop to read the writ he had received. Thirty-two new writs were sent out from the names taken that day. The following day, hundreds of protestors once again turned out and more names were taken.
Ainsworth, through his solicitors, tried to split the unity of the protestors, separating out the socialists. The more recent receivers of writs were asked if they were socialist or not, and if they replied that they were not, then providing they did not roam onto Ainsworth’s land again, the writ was withdrawn. This strategy continued and the names were whittled away until just the original ten writs stood. These were the people Ainsworth had identified as the main ‘troublemakers’.
On Sunday 30th September, the defence committee met. They took the difficult decision to abandon the marches. Instead, they would now focus their efforts on raising money for the ten defendants in the upcoming trial to be held at Manchester Chancery Court.
Pamphlets were produced by the protestors that presented the evidence for the rights of way onto the moor, and a local branch of the Footpaths Preservation Society was formed. The campaign drew attention on a national level. Both Kier Hardie (the future Labour Party leader) and Eleanor Marx (the daughter of Karl Marx) visited. A final impromptu gathering on Winter Hill happened on Christmas Day, but the route via Coalpit Road was not taken. Police once again were present.
The trial commenced on 9th March 1897, with Vice Chancellor Hall presiding. The trial focused on Coalpit Road as an access point and whether it was a right of way or not. The prosecution stated that not many people used the road and that gamekeepers had for a long time tried to prevent people from walking on the land. The majority of the prosecution witnesses were either employees or tenants of Ainsworth.
The defence focused on the historical access to the road. The fact that there had been a stile at the start of the disputed path, and that a ladder and stone steps had once stood at the council boundary wall, was emphasised. The defence stated that Ainsworth had constructed hides near the road and, accordingly, did not want people passing by them.
Witnesses testified about the tradition of going up onto the moor to buy gingerbread. This was a scheme whereby anyone buying gingerbread was given ‘free’ ale, to get around the licencing laws. Well known establishments such as Black O Jack’s, Newspaper Hall, and William Fletcher’s cottage near Two Lads were all establishments that had done this, all within the area Ainsworth wanted to keep people out of.
Other witnesses spoke about the rent slump that had occurred some years before when, unable to pay their rents, many people had gone out to live on the moor. Seasonal activities would also bring people up onto Winter Hill, with women picking whimberries in the autumn and people processing over the moor to visit the Pike Fair at Rivington. A further argument was put forth that the people of Belmont in the handloom weaving days would use the road as a route into Bolton and Horwich. This would make it a public footpath through use.
Vice Chancellor Hall wanted to get a look at the site for himself. On a rainy day, he took the train to Bolton and then went via horse and trap up the road. His experience was not a happy one as he traversed the muddy path in what were described as little more than slippers. Despite all of the evidence pointing towards public use of the road and moor, Hall ruled in favour of Ainsworth. The ten defendants had costs awarded against them along with injunctions against them to stop them walking on Ainsworth’s land. Ainsworth’s bleachworks and his tenants put out flags and bunting to celebrate the ruling.
The court judgement knocked the wind out of the campaign for access. Solomon Partington and William Hutchinson would have to pay the costs themselves, some £300 each, a huge sum for men who were not rich. Partington went on to do a large amount of research on historical access, and published six pamphlets detailing the rights of people to walk over the Bolton moors. He waged a 20-year campaign in the local papers against Colonel Ainsworth.
Solomon Partington attempted to get the council to pay his costs, claiming he had been acting in the public interest, but his campaign was in vain, although some of the costs were eventually paid off by public subscription. He also wanted the council to take the moors into public ownership, and when the council proved wanting, he managed to get himself elected as a councillor in 1904. To his disgust and dismay, a council committee that was investigating the public access to the moor ruled in favour of Ainsworth. Ten years later, the council tried to close footpaths on Turton Moor, but the public reaction was so fierce that the council backed down.
Rediscovery and Commemorations
The Winter Hill Trespass was largely forgotten in the subsequent decades until Paul Salveson, an academic and local historian, read about it in the journalist Allen Clarke’s book Moorland and Memories. Clarke was a contemporary of the campaigners, and much involved with the promotion of socialism himself. Some digging in the newspaper archives allowed Paul to unearth the full details and he gave a talk on the trespass to Bolton People’s History Group in 1982. This inspired the idea to have a march in commemoration of the original event. Work was done to raise awareness of the original conflict, with Les Smith writing a Victorian-style melodrama of the events, performed in Bolton Town Hall square and around pubs and clubs in Bolton.
The commemorative march took place on Sunday 5th September 1982, and some two thousand people joined it as it made its way along the route. Luminaries in attendance included Benny Rothman, the veteran of the famous Kinder Scout Trespass of 1932, Jessica Lofthouse, the author and tireless promoter of Lancashire history, and Mike Harding, the folksinger and comedian.
Further commemorations took place in September 1996, one hundred years after the original protest. There was a weekend of events, culminating with a mass procession over Winter Hill. Bolton Council declared Coalpit Lane to be a public right of way and a plaque was placed in the ground by the site of the contested gate. It is entitled “Will yo’ come o’ Sunday Morning?” in memory of the song Allen Clarke wrote about the original conflict.
On 5th September 2021, the 125th commemoration mark took place, with over a thousand people retracing the route. This time the marchers were addressed by Guy Shrubshole, the campaigner and author of Who Owns England?: How we lost our green and pleasant land, and how to take it back. In his writings, Guy points out that only 8% of our country is open to public access. A sign was erected by the Peak and Northern Footpaths Society to commemorate the anniversary near the summit of the hill, showing the route to Belmont and Horwich.
With passing of the CROW (Countryside and Rights of Way) Act in 2000, there is now the right to roam on rough pasture throughout England. This means that much of the moorland around Lancashire is now open access for everyone. However, fields and woodlands without public footpaths remain legally off limits. In Scotland, the residents enjoy the right to roam on all forms of land, except obvious places like people’s gardens. So grazed fields, woods and rivers are all open access. There is a movement for parity in England, but we must not underestimate how determined landowners are to keep the public off their land. Legislation for England would have to be passed by the House of Lords, many of whom represent the interest of large land holders or are huge landowners themselves. Scotland was able to bypass them as the legislation went through their own Parliament in 2003 and did not need the assent of the House of Lords. Going for a walk in the countryside should not be a crime. It would be wonderful to have the right of responsible access, to wander at will, as has been pioneered by the Scottish Government.
Update May 2023: The Labour Party has announced that they will change the law to allow a ‘Right to Roam’ in England similar to the one in Scotland if elected to government in 2024.
Author’s Note. Much of the information for this piece is sourced from Paul Salveson’s book Will Yo’ Come O’ Sunday Mornin’?: The 1896 Battle for Winter Hill. This book is now out of print but can be found second hand online. Paul continues to publish books about Bolton and Horwich, and for details of all his available books see his Lancashire Loominary website here
Guy Shrubshole is active in campaigning for fairer public access to the countryside. See his website here
Site visited by A. Bowden 2022
To follow the route of the marchers as they went onto the moor, park at the free Horrocks Wood Car Park. Turn left out of the car park onto Scout Road. At the junction with Smithills Dean Road (which the protestors had followed up from Bolton), turn right onto Coalpit Road. Head up Coalpit Road until you reach the fork where there is a gate on the right-hand side. This is the site of the disputed route and blocked gate back in 1896. Proceed through the gate. The memorial is on the right-hand side just past the gate. Head on up the path, which will take you to the top of Winter Hill.
Winter Hill Bronze Age Burial Cairn
Will Yo’ Come O’ Sunday Mornin’:The 1896 Battle for Winter Hill, Paul Salveson (1996) The Lancashire Loominary Series
Moorlands, Memories and Reflections, Paul Salveson (2020) Lancashire Loominary
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