We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Rothman, Bernard [Benny] (1911–2002), communist activist and countryside access campaigner, was born on 1 June 1911 at 68 Mary Street, Cheetham, Manchester, the third of five children and the elder son of Isaac Rothman, smallware merchant, and his wife, Freda, née Solomon. His parents, both Jewish, had emigrated from Romania around the end of the nineteenth century. The family was poor and his father died when Rothman was twelve. He won a scholarship to the Central High School for Boys, Manchester, but left aged fourteen to help the family's finances by taking a job as a garage errand boy and later a mechanic at 7s. 6d. a week. The wage enabled him to buy a bicycle and explore north Wales, where he climbed Snowdon with a sixpenny map bought in Woolworth's. Later in life he described his fear on the loose scree and his astonishment at ‘that great open view, with the sea all around’ (Perrin, ‘Benny Rothman’).

A lifetime's love of the countryside and concern for access to it had begun, but Rothman was also becoming politically conscious, attending debates at the Clarion Café in Manchester and joining the Young Communist League. (He was fined for chalking Daily Worker slogans on the pavement.) The Communist Party now ran the British Workers' Sports Federation (BWSF) for the expanding open-air, cycling, and hiking movement; and it was while staying at a BWSF camp in the Derbyshire Peak District in 1932 that Rothman and some friends were rudely turfed off the hills by gamekeepers. A few weeks later on 24 April they were back with perhaps 400 walkers determined to reach the summit of Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District and strictly preserved for game by its owners. Evading the police who were watching the trains from Manchester, Rothman led the trespassers onto the slopes of the mountain where they scuffled with keepers wielding sticks. He and four others were arrested and charged with public-order offences, including ‘riotous assembly’. The composition of the jury (mostly landowners and military men) and the judge's undisguised antisemitism became part of the tradition of the rambling movement. Rothman, defending himself, was gaoled for four months, which he served in Leicester gaol.

While the Kinder Scout mass trespass (as it became known) was a seminal event for the ‘right to roam’ movement, it was only one aspect of Rothman's development as a communist. After prison he was unemployed for a time in the nadir of the depression, but the party had jobs for him inter alia as an organizer in the More Looms strike (a textile dispute in north-east Lancashire) and as an opponent of fascism. Going to the aid of a girl (Evelyn Taylor, later the wife of Jack Jones, trade union leader) who was heckling Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, he was thrown over the balcony of the meeting hall by blackshirts and violently manhandled out of the building. He volunteered to drive an ambulance for the Spanish republic but was rejected—probably because the party wanted him in Manchester. He worked for a time as a fitter at A. V. Roe's aircraft factory, where he was victimized for his politics. By the outbreak of the Second World War he was an Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) shop steward at the enormous Metropolitan Vickers works at Trafford Park. There he sought to increase productivity for the war effort against fascism and won notably good pay deals for his workmates. He volunteered for military service but was turned down because his was a reserved occupation; he joined the Home Guard. On 27 December 1937 he had married Lilian (Lily) Crabtree (1913/14–2001), a Rochdale mill girl and fellow communist, and daughter of Paul Crabtree, iron moulder. They had a son and a daughter.

After the war Rothman was sacked from his job at Metropolitan Vickers in a demarcation dispute, won reinstatement but preferred to work elsewhere. He served on the AEU district committee and as secretary and then president of the Altrincham and Trafford trades councils; he was a delegate to the Lancashire and Cheshire Federation of Trades Councils. He also worked on his own account as an industrial counsellor in Broadheath, Cheshire.

The main ramblers' organizations had at the time condemned the Kinder Scout trespass as interference with their ‘constitutional’ campaign for access to mountains. After the war Tom Stephenson, secretary and later president of the Ramblers' Association, persistently challenged Rothman's account of the trespass and its significance. But the event acquired mythic importance among ramblers and when, in the late 1980s, David Beskine, an astute Ramblers' Association leader, revived the access campaign, he successfully used Rothman and his memories for propaganda purposes. In old age Rothman appeared frequently on Ramblers' Association and other environmental platforms, and his small, stocky frame (he was barely 5 feet tall) never failed to evoke cheers and affection. He also took part in deputations to ministers and MPs, and played a role in ensuring concessions for ramblers during the passage of legislation privatizing the water industry. In retirement he lived at Timperley, Cheshire, tending his allotment, but after a stroke and the death of his wife in 2001 he moved to his daughter's home at Billericay, Essex. He died on 23 January 2002 at Basildon Hospital, Basildon, Essex, following a series of strokes. He was survived by his son and daughter.

Chris Hall

Sources  

J. Perrin, Yes, to dance: essays from outside the stockade (1990) · The Times (25 Jan 2002) · Daily Telegraph (25 Jan 2002) · The Guardian (25 Jan 2002) · The Independent (2 Feb 2002) · J. Perrin, ‘Benny Rothman: the making of a rebel’, Kinder Scout mass trespass, 70th anniversary celebration, Saturday 27th April 2002, ed. R. Smith (2002) · personal knowledge (2006) · private information (2006) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

under £210,000: probate, 8 March 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales