How trespassing 'crystallised' Ewan MacColl's songwriting

Ramblers taking part in the Kinder Mass Trespass in 1932 About 400 ramblers took part in the trespass on Kinder Scout

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On 24 April 1932, hundreds of ramblers walked on to private land in the Peak District to claim a "right to roam".

The mass trespass saw working class walkers from Manchester and Yorkshire scale Kinder Scout in Derbyshire and battle with game keepers and police.

Among them was a young unemployed communist from Salford called Jimmy Miller who, driven by his experiences that day, would go on to become a world-famous political singer.

He would later change his name to Ewan MacColl, the writer of classics like Dirty Old Town and The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which won him a Grammy in 1972.

Jimmy Miller as a teenager Ewan MacColl was known by his birth name, Jimmy Miller, in 1932

At the beginning of the 1930s though, he was an "angry young man" who was out of work, a member of the Young Communist League and ready to ramble his way to a revolution, according to his biographer Ben Harker.

He said MacColl was "an enthusiastic rambler and a communist" who found himself taking a central role in the run-up to the trespass.

"The communist movement was in control of the British Worker's Sports Federation in the early 1930s and brought a more militant edge to it - it was that the drove the campaign for the Mass Trespass forward," he said.

"MacColl did a lot of pre-publicity for it. He talked about [in later life] duplicating leaflets and giving them out.

"He was himself going rambling every weekend - and during the week as well, as he was unemployed - and he'd try to get people to go along."

Dr Harker said MacColl "felt very powerfully that access to the countryside was a birthright which had been denied to working class people by industrialisation and capitalism".

"He felt that this was robbery and that [in taking part in the trespass] they were simply retrieving a right that was historically theirs," he said.

'Revolutionary fervour'

The University of Salford lecturer said rambling was seen as a militant activity by MacColl.

"He really thought he was going to see a revolution in his lifetime and certainly, MacColl saw the Peak District as an extensive gymnasium in which he was getting into peak physical condition ready for the class struggle," he said.

"It seems extraordinarily romantic now, but he really did see it that way. He was a young guy full of revolutionary fervour."

On the day of the illegal ramble, MacColl was one among the crowd, with the formidable Benny Rothman leading the charge up the hill and being arrested, along with four others, for incitement and riotous assembly.

Ewan MacColl

Ewan MacColl
  • Born Jimmy Miller on 25 January 1915. Died 22 October 1989
  • Married to theatre director Joan Littlewood, musician Peggy Seeger and actor Jean Newlove
  • Father to musicians Kirsty, Neill and Calum MacColl and grandfather to Bombay Bicycle Club's Jamie MacColl
  • Wrote many songs, poems and plays and won a Grammy in 1972 for The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face after it was recorded by Roberta Flack

Dr Harker said the day - coupled with MacColl's experience at the Battle of Bexley Square, which saw police clash with jobless workers in Salford six months earlier - had a profound effect upon him.

"They were two formative moments for a young militant," he said.

"To experience the violence at Bexley Square and the unbelievably harsh sentences following the trespass, these were unbelievably profound lessons for him which added steel to his political convictions.

"They didn't convert him to anything but they ingrained in a decisive way what was already there."

They also brought him to the attention of MI5, who monitored his theatre and musical work, BBC performances and general political activity for the next two decades.

Most importantly for music fans though, Dr Harker said the trespass led to him writing his "first important song", The Manchester Rambler.

"There is another song he wrote called Mass Trespass 1932, which he never recorded," he said.

"It's a very raw-throated rallying cry - a very powerful yawp of outrage and anger.

"But Rambler is the song where it all comes together. He'd written these rather earnest agitprop pieces prior to that, but in Rambler, he manages to pull together a political perspective with a more lyrical style.

"It crystallises his songwriting and that's the first time it happens."

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