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Benny's Story

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Benny Rothman was born in Manchester in 1911, the middle of five children. His parents, Isaac and Fanny, were both from Romania, but his father came to Manchester from America where he had emigrated as a child. The family lived in Strangeways initially but moved to Hightown just before Benny was born.

Benny’s father worked as a market trader on Glossop market selling ironmongery. After his father died, on Benny’s twelfth birthday, his mother took over the stall to support the family.

Benny’s mother was religious, but his father was agnostic. Benny attended cheder but lost interest in his religion at an early age, in part due to his involvement in left-wing politics. His family made him leave school for a job in a garage when he was 15. In the 1930s Benny became a member of the Young Communist League. He is famous for leading the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 when a reported 400 people protested the countryside being closed to ramblers.

After a jail sentence for the trespass, he went on to become heavily involved in the Amalgamated Engineering Union, serving as branch secretary of the trade union for over 20 years.

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Despite his mother’s religious family, Benny lost interest in religion as a teenager. Here he explains why.

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“Once my grandfather had died, my connections with religion were more or less severed, not abruptly or immediately, but I didn’t go to the synagogue anymore. When my grandfather was alive, I used to go to synagogue on a Friday night and three times on a Saturday and do all the … all the required things you know, from a religious point of view. When my father died, I was in mourning as you may know, for 12 months, I went to synagogue religiously three times a day, seven days a week, religiously, I was almost fanatical … Especially with the experience I had with my grandfather, as the president of his synagogue. A lot of Jewish people were quite sentimental about this Kaddish business, saying prayers for the dead and you’d get lots of people, I was only a kid at the time, I was 12 of course. But lots of men, grown men, would come to say prayers for the dead, for their mothers or fathers or wives or what have you and people with virtually no connections at all with the orthodox Jewish religion. And I can remember one chap in the synagogue where my grandfather was the president, who was a local bookie and he would be taking bets on the Saturday, under cover, but I could see it and things like that used to gall me and then I would think of some of my father’s remarks about these religious people. He particularly detested hypocrites … Then I started work and of course I had to work Saturday mornings and that put an end to my Saturday visits to synagogue … I just moved right away from religion …

On the Day of Atonement, I fasted religiously, even though I had no interest from a religious point of view. You know it was just part of the done thing, I fasted until I was about 22 or 23 and I’d been a communist for a few years then and avowed atheist … I still fasted; it was though it went against the grain to eat on that day. I used to comfort myself thinking it’ll do me no harm, it’ll probably help me etc. so it did have lingering traces, even after I’d more or less finished with religion.”

Benny was working at Tom Garner’s garage when he first became involved in left-wing politics. Here he explains how he got involved.

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“When I was at Garner’s, I decided I would go to night school. My nights were largely wasted in trivialities, so at the YMCA which was on the same street as where I worked, that is Peter Street, they used to have a type of school with evening classes on different subjects … So I took this Advertising course and also this course on Economic Geography. Now in this garage of a dinner time, there were little groups of mechanics would sit round and the lads of course, eat their dinner and discuss very, very learnedly on everything that they … that mattered, you know and football, cricket and affairs of the day … And there was one chap … called Bill Darnley … who as soon as he knew I was taking Economic Geography, made a beeline to cut me down to size, and we had terrific arguments … He invited me to go down to what I thought was going to be a discussion on economics and in point of fact, they were not discussing economics, they were meetings of one of the communist groups there that he was associated with. And I went and more or less just drifted into becoming a member. There was no opposition to them of course, they were speaking my language …

It was just about 1930, no it was ’31 that I was involving myself very much in left-wing politics and you know youngsters, just 20, aren’t particularly … how can I put it … very careful in what they say and what they do, I was arguing with all and sundry about the rights and wrongs of socialism and communism. And it was a good opportunity when rationalisation came along for them to say goodbye to me and that’s what they did and that was just prior to the mass trespass. So, a few weeks before the mass trespass I had been made unemployed.”

Benny was interested in rambling and achieved national notoriety when he organised a mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932. Here he tells his story.

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“Well, before … I joined the Young Communist League and before I set up the British Workers Sports Federation Groups, I had already been smitten with rambling and had a great desire to go out into the countryside and cycling, and almost as soon as I was at work, I chummed up with one of the lads who was in the garage and we used to go out camping into Cheshire and then, with his pals, we used to go out camping into Derbyshire. Personally, I always liked to ramble with a very, very tiny group three or four, but when we had our rambles, we rambled with 20, 25, 30 and rambled with … and invariably finish off with a sing-song in some tea rooms and a semi-ramble, semi-march in the dark, down the hills say into Stockport and places like that or Marple, where we could travel home fairly cheaply …

Now in 1932, we had a camp in Derbyshire … Kinder and all the big moor lands in Derbyshire were closed as far as rambling was concerned. I was taking this little group out … we were stopped by a group of keepers, or farmers … The landowners would employ farmers and farm labourers at weekend to police the moors and we were turned back very rudely, very threateningly and we went back to our camp there and we brooded over it, we were upset, we were humiliated … We decided that if there had been a lot more of us, they wouldn’t have been able to turn us back, very simple logic. And we decided that we’d have a mass trespass onto the moors and we picked on Kinder because it was the focal point for all ramblers in Derbyshire. Everybody wanted to go on Kinder and you couldn’t, it was too well ‘keeper-ed’. And we planned this mass trespass for April 24th … two weeks afterwards … It finished with me going to jail for four months and that was after an Assize Court hearing, I think it was in late June that year, but there was a great deal of national controversy as well as interest.”

Benny Leading The Mass Trespass On Kinder Scout, 1932.
Benny Leading The Mass Trespass On Kinder Scout, 1932.

Benny leading the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, 1932. Benny is circled on the image.

Ramblers On The Mass Trespass On Kinder Scout, 1932.

Ramblers on the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, 1932.

Benny Addressing The Crowd At The Start Of The Mass Trespass At Bowden Bridge Quarry, 1932.

Benny addressing the crowd at the start of the mass trespass at Bowden Bridge quarry, 1932.

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