Professor Paul Salveson is a historian and writer and lives in Bolton. He is visiting professor in Worktown Studies at the University of Bolton and author of several books on Lancashire history including the Winter Hill ‘mass trespass’

Bolton in September 1896 was the scene of uproarious events. A succession of demonstrations to reclaim a right of way over Winter Hill attracted thousands of local people.

The first, on Sunday September 6t swelled to 10,000 but even that was exceeded the following Sunday. For decades the story had been forgotten but it is now recognised as the biggest rights-of-way battle in British history.

The issue came to a head during August of that year when Colonel Richard Ainsworth, of Smithills Hall, closed off a well-used track that crossed his land on the slopes of Winter Hill. It was the continuation of Smithills Dean Road, still known today as Coalpit Road.

The contentious section was from where it diverged from the road leading down to Holden’s and Gilligant’s farms.

The colonel wanted to protect his grouse-shooting and saw walkers as an unwanted nuisance. Gamekeepers were instructed to turn people off the land and a gate was erected to prevent what the colonel regarded as ‘trespassers’.

He was a powerful man in Bolton politics and a major employer at his Smithills bleachworks. He was chairman of Smithills Parish Council and a Tory of the ‘old school’.

The issue quickly became politicised. The local socialists, led by Astley Bridge cobbler Joe Shufflebotham, decided to call the colonel’s bluff by advertising a march over the disputed road. They were supported by Liberal party stalwart Solomon Partington. The date was set for Sunday, September 6 with people urged to gather at the bottom of Halliwell Road.

The Bolton News:

The organisers were no doubt delighted by the size of the crowd, several thousand strong, that gathered by the former Waterloo pub.

What was even more remarkable was the way in which the march grew in numbers as it proceeded up Halliwell Road. Thousands more joined in.

By the time it had reached the Ainsworth Arms the throng had grown to around 10,000.

A report in The Bolton Journal commented that “the multitude far exceeded what had been anticipated. Looking from the top of the steep hill leading by the gates of Smithills Hall the sight was a magnificent one...the road was literally a sea of faces and the multitude comprised thousands of persons of all ages and descriptions.”

The Bolton News:

The crowd surged up Smithills Dean and along Coalpit Road until they reached the disputed gate. A small number of police and gamekeepers stood guard but were no match the enormous force of demonstrators. There was a melee and the gate was smashed.

The Bolton Journal reporter was carried along with the excitement, recording that “with a ring of triumph the demonstrators rushed through onto the disputed territory.”

The procession continued along the road past the Colonel’s shooting hut and on to Winter Hill. They carried on down the hill to Belmont, where they were they retreated to The Wright’s Arms, drinking the pub dry. The Black Dog did an equally brisk trade.

The demonstrations continued over two more weekends, as well as on the Wednesday afternoon to permit shop workers to attend on their afternoon off.

There was great support for the demonstrators in Bolton. Allen Clarke wrote a special Tum Fowt Sketch to help rally support which included the song ‘Will Yo’ Come O’ Sunday Mornin’?’

“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!”

The following Sunday, September 13, thousands more heeded the song’s call. It was estimated that 12,000 joined the march, which was unimpeded by police or gamekeepers.

Further meetings were held in Bolton to raise support for the campaign. A ‘defence committee’ was formed which met in Lockhart’s Dining Rooms.

Solomon Partington was appointed secretary and a statement was issued calling on the people of Bolton “to do its duty” to defend public rights of way.

If the public was on the side of the campaigners, the law wasn’t. A court case was brought by Ainsworth against the ‘ringleaders’ – including Joe Shufflebotham and Solomon Partington.

They were defended by Richard Pankhurst, husband of the famous women’s suffrage leader, Emmeline.

Ainsworth won his case against the ‘Winter Hill 10'. Although nobody went to jail, they had to pay heavy fines, most of which was covered by public contributions.

The issue didn’t go away. A march over Winter Hill took place on Christmas Day, though it avoided the disputed road.

Partington continued his campaign for public rights of way and was elected on to Bolton Council, as an independent. He retired to Grange-over-Sands after the First World War.

The Smithills estate passed into the ownership of Bolton Council and over time people started using the disputed road without hindrance.

The Bolton News:

The story of the epic events of September 1896 was virtually forgotten. However, a commemorative march took place on September 5th 1982, attended by over a thousand walkers including folk singer Mike Harding and hero of the 1932 Kinder Scout trespass, Benny Rothman.

A further march took place in the centenary year, 1996. A memorial was erected next to the gate alongside of which was provided a stile, demonstrating the road’s public status.

You can now walk over Winter Hill without fear of prosecution. It’s a lovely walk, especially at this time of year when the heather is in full bloom.

When you get to the gate on Coalpit Road, salute those Boltonians who asserted their rights to enjoy the countryside they loved.

Paul’s book Will Yo’ Come O’ Sunday Mornin’? The 1896 battle for Winter Hill was published in 1982 with a new edition in 1996. Both are out of print but his forthcoming Moorlands, Memories and Reflections contains a full chapter on the Winter Hill story