Railways and other schemes for industrial expansion were not the only threats to the countryside in the 1880s. The length and breadth of the country, age-old rights of way were being closed to public access. The Commons Preservation Society had been successful in preventing the enclosure of common land in and around London, but there was as yet no national organisation in place to prevent property owners from closing footpaths and other public rights of way across their land, a common practice which for a number of years had been gathering pace unnoticed.
As the countryside became depopulated by migration to urban areas, and local trains made the population more mobile so that they no longer necessarily frequented their local amenities, many old footpaths fell into desuetude and disrepair. Landowners, seizing the opportunity, then arbitrarily closed the paths and fenced off the rights of way. Local people who still wished to use the footpaths were for the most part powerless in the face of this high-handed behaviour, since few could afford the cost of legal action against the proprietors. Since these infringements of the rights of the public were usually local issues, attempts to fight the closures did not attract the same level of regional and national publicity as had the campaigns against the construction of railways and other high-profile industrial developments.
The Lake District did not escape the closure of footpaths and rights of way. According to Rawnsley, at least twenty-two paths had been closed in the vicinity of Ambleside during the fifteen years from 1870 to 1885. Hardwicke had for some time expressed the view that the Lake District Defence Society should be much more actively involved in resisting the closure of rights of way Unfortunately, however, the Articles of Association of the Defence Society did not allow for such involvement. Rawnsley and Hills canvassed the membership to ascertain whether they would support joining forces with a Footpath Preservation Committee for the Lake District, in order to fight the increasing number of closures. The membership was divided on the issue.
In the course of a lecture to the Keswick Literary & Scientific Society on 22 March 1886, Hardwicke went out of his way to congratulate landlords, such as Lord Bective and Lord Muncaster, who he said, understood the importance of ancient rights of way, both to residents and to visitors from outside the district. He pointed out that:
The mischief had been growing through the last fifty years, simply because mercantile success had enabled many men who had no traditions of country life to become suddenly possessed of large landed property, and to inaugurate their reign by a general shut up all round of public privileges … What was most needed was an organisation in which landlords and people might all join good naturedly, and not in a spirit of quarrelsomeness.1
Galvanized into action by this lecture some of those present called a meeting for 30 March. The principal item on the agenda was the resurrection of the original Keswick Footpath Society which had been formed as long ago as 1856 but had since become defunct. The revived organisation was to be entitled the Keswick and District Commons and Footpath Preservation Society, eventually abbreviated to Keswick and District Footpath Preservation Association. The declared intention was that the new organisation should be made up of both landowners and local people, the motto being ‘arbitration, not war’. The offer of the presidency was made to Mr J. J. Spedding, a local landowner and magistrate but, perhaps fearing a conflict of interest, he declined the honour. Other local landowners also refused to join. Hardwicke’s initial hope that such a group would settle disputes by discussion and compromise was, it appeared, wishful thinking. As no-one else was willing to take on the post, Hardwicke himself was appointed President by default. Mr Henry Irwin Jenkinson, a writer of guidebooks who had lived in Keswick for twenty years, agreed to be Hon. Secretary. The Mission Statement of the new Association was:
That the objects of the Association shall be the Preservation and Improvement of, and Securing Access to, Ancient Foot and Bridle Paths, the Maintenance of Rights of Way by Land and Water, and also the Preservation of all Vacant Spaces of Land such as Village Greens and Roadside Slips and Wastes.2
As he had done in his earlier railway campaigns, Rawnsley succeeded in bringing the issue of closure of rights-of-way to national prominence. In an article published in the Contemporary Review he argued that footpath preservation should be a national and not just a community concern. It was of primary importance that everyone who wished to do so should be able to seek the solace and rest which only the countryside could provide. It was equally essential for the wellbeing of England as a nation that its workers should be able to find the ‘recreative enjoyment’ that free access to rights-of-way provided.
Before the summer of 1886 was over, and only a few months after the formation of the Keswick Footpath Preservation Association, reports appeared in local and regional newspapers drawing attention to the fact that at least three footpaths had been closed in the Keswick area. These were a path along the western shore of Derwentwater crossing Fawe Park, another leading to the top of Latrigg, and a third near Castlehead Wood on the Derwentwater estate of Mr. R. D. Marshall. The interest in this question was not confined by any means to the Lake District. The London Pall Mall Gazette reported of these closures:
A Keswick and District Footpath Preservation Association was founded some weeks ago. Logically, it will be the duty of this body to justify its existence by vindicating the public claims to rights of way, including the Fawe Park and Latrigg roads, for instance. A determined stand must be made, if the most beautiful parts of the district are not, so to speak, to be preserved in a glass case, for the benefit of a few country families.3
As the issues involved in each case were different, it is worth examining these closures individually.
The residence at FAWE PARK was built by James Spencer-Bell in the late 1850s on the western shore of Derwentwater near Nichol End. Carriages and pedestrians had used an ancient track crossing the estate for many years, establishing a right of way from custom. After the death of James Spencer-Bell in 1872, the property was occupied by his widow and her eldest son, James Frederick. In the early 1880s they closed the ancient path which led past the house. However, a public outcry and pressure from neighbours forced the path to be reopened. In late 1885 Mrs. Spencer-Bell once again blocked access to the path on the grounds that its use invaded her privacy, and furthermore that people using the footpath had caused damage to the property. In November 1885 Hardwicke wrote to W. H. Hills:
The Spencer Bells of Fawe Park have closed what it is believed is one of the most ancient Rights of Way in the district. They refuse arbitration and are determined to fight it from Court to Court because it is of such importance to them.4
At a meeting of the Keswick Footpath Preservation Association on 3 March 1887, it was agreed to compile a report on the evidence supporting the public’s right to use the footpath across Fawe Park. This report was submitted to counsel for a legal opinion. Counsel’s opinion was that the Association had a good case to defend. At a well-attended meeting of the Association on 29 August, at which Hardwicke was not present, Mr W. Routh Fitzpatrick reported that he and Mr Jenkinson had held discussions with Mrs Spencer-Bell, but still to no avail. He told the meeting that she firmly believed that the law was on her side and that she had a perfect right to close the path and that what she was doing was both reasonable and legal. The situation, he continued, could only be resolved by going to law. Accordingly, Fitzpatrick moved the resolution:
That this meeting empowers the sub-committee to make arrangements for asserting the public rights to the paths on Latrigg and on the Fawe Park estate in such manner as the solicitors recommend, and that the Society holds itself responsible for the result.5
The objective was to remove the barriers and force Mrs Spencer-Bell to take them to court for trespass. On 30 August Jenkinson and Fitzpatrick led a group of protesters to Fawe Park, where they were duly confronted by Mrs Spencer-Bell, who refused to remove the barriers. She made an impassioned speech in which she said that her only son had recently been drowned; that the family brought much financial advantage to the area, and that she was saddened by the actions being taken against her. Having heard her out, and apologising for the distress caused, Fitzpatrick ordered that the barriers nonetheless be removed. This was duly done, and the protesters proceeded in an orderly fashion along the path.
Over the next few weeks Mrs Spencer-Bell re-erected the barriers but did not go so far as to take legal action for trespass against the perpetrators. At a meeting on 21 September, the Footpath Association voted to reiterate their claim to their right to use the Fawe Park path and announced that they would once again remove the barriers. The action was planned for 28 September. On that occasion Mrs Spencer-Bell was not present but was represented by her legal advisers. A crowd of 500 people marched onto the estate, many, it was said, for the first time. Once again, the barriers were removed. This time Mrs. Spencer-Bell prudently accepted defeat and did not proceed with an action for trespass, and at the end of the year the path remained open to the public.
Overlooking Keswick, LATRIGG, the lowest of the Skiddaw range of hills, was described by Hardwicke as ‘lying like a cub at its mother’s side’. There were at least two routes used by local people and visitors to reach the top. A track known as the Terrace Road ran along the foot of Latrigg, with an alternative path leading to the summit via Spooney Green, which after the arrival of the railway, became the route most often used. The land through which both footpaths ran had been the property of the Spedding family since 1829, and the owners had from the outset always allowed free access to both paths. In 1850 the estate was inherited by Jane Spedding who, as an absentee landlord, entrusted the management of the property to her brother. In the summer of 1886 local newspapers reported that attempts were being made to block the road on the breast of Latrigg:
It is stated that Mr J. J. Spedding’s rabbit-watcher is now turning people back and taking the names of those who are not disposed to go off what looks uncommonly like the Queen’s highway … The newly-formed Footpaths association at Keswick will also be expected to justify its existence.6
Mr Spedding erected notices on the footpaths warning that trespassers would be prosecuted. He maintained that damage had been done to his property by walkers using the paths. Furthermore, he claimed that there was no prima facie right of access and that his predecessors had only allowed the public to use the paths on sufferance. He was willing to allow the public to continue using the paths provided that his right of maintaining them as private was acknowledged. It was also reported that Mr Spedding was prepared, as a concession, to create a new footpath for public use.
Rawnsley and other members of the Association now realised that access to Latrigg was not just a Keswick issue, and that the outcome of this dispute could have far-reaching consequences for the whole country. If the public was to be prevented from going to the top of Latrigg, except on sufferance, then free access to other hills and mountains throughout the country could likewise be compromised.
The meeting resolved to inform Mr Spedding that on the 30 August the members of the Association planned to walk the disputed path and remove any barriers placed in their way. This they duly did, in the afternoon of the day that the barriers had been removed from the path at Fawe Park. As before, the march was led by Henry Jenkinson and Routh Fitzpatrick. Rather than at once initiating legal action, Mr Spedding simply reinstated the barriers. This provocative action left the Association with little alternative but to organise another march. This took place on 1 October, three days after the repeat performance at Fawe Park. This second march, involving the removal of the new barriers on the path to Latrigg, attracted over 2,000 people.
The second removal of barriers spurred the Spedding family to action. A writ to prevent any further removal was served on 31 October from the High Court of Justice (Chancery Division) upon Messrs. W. Routh Fitzpatrick, Henry Irwin Jenkinson, Joseph Birkett, (Revd.) Algernon R. Goddard, Norman Vickers Swindle, John Henry Jeffrey, Henry Michael Newland, and (Revd.) Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley. Undeterred, members of the Keswick Footpath Preservation Association continued to take down the barriers. There is no evidence that Hardwicke ever personally took part in any physical removal of barriers although he must have been supportive of the Association’s members doing so.
Both sides agreed that the case should be transferred to the Queen’s Bench Division in Carlisle and a date was set for July. The Association being aware of the likely financial cost to each of its eight defendants if the case were lost, Hardwicke set off around the country to drum up support and publicity for the case, and to obtain pledges to a Defence Fund. He spoke at many meetings in towns and cities including Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, London, and Oxford. Henry Jenkinson, dashing off letters to the press, was also actively keeping the forthcoming court case in the public consciousness.
The case, before Mr Justice Grantham and a jury, opened at Carlisle on 5 July 1888. Witnesses called to give evidence included local residents, guides, and walkers. After two days of hearing evidence the judge called both sides together and suggested that they try to reach an amicable settlement. The outcome, in essence that the Keswick Footpath Preservation Association agree to give up access to Latrigg via the Terrace Road whilst Miss Spedding agree to give up her claim on the Spooney Green Lane path, was essentially identical with the proposal that the Association had made to Mr Spedding a year earlier. Each side agreed to pay their own costs. Although a compromise, the agreement was exactly that which Hardwicke and his colleagues had sought all along.
The third noteworthy case in the Keswick footpath furore was that of the large estate on the eastern shore of DERWENTWATER, owned by Mr Reginald Dykes Marshall, lord of the manor of Castlerigg. Discussions with Mr. Marshall on access to footpaths on the Derwentwater estate had begun immediately after the formation of the Keswick Footpath Preservation Association. These discussions never attracted public attention until after the settlement of the court case over access to Latrigg. Several footpaths crossed the Derwentwater estate. Throughout the years of negotiations, it seemed that both Mr. Marshall and the Association wanted to avoid legal action, and in many cases a compromise had been reached, with the Association giving up the right of access to certain paths in return for agreed access to others. Because of the number of paths involved, the discussions were lengthy and complex.
These protracted negotiations proceeded at a snail's pace for a number of years, but at a meeting of the Keswick Footpath Preservation Association on 7 July 1890 Hardwicke reported that, with the exception of a slight alteration to the boundary line at the point of access to the fells at Rake Foot, both the Association and Mr Marshall were at last in a position to sign an Agreement in respect of all the disputed footpaths across the estate. He indicated that he, with a majority of the members, was ready for the agreement to be signed, and a motion was put before the meeting empowering Hardwicke to sign the agreement with Mr Marshall on behalf of the Association.
In the 1890s, Rawnsley, now a County Councillor, was heavily involved with his new role and had less time available for the affairs of the Keswick Footpath Preservation Association. As a result the latter lost much of its momentum and vital energy. The big battles had been won. Hardwicke continued to lead it over the next few years but its activities from then on, while certainly beneficial to the public, with the Association making itself responsible for the installation of stone seats on paths, the repairing of stiles, the erection of finger posts and a collection of maps for the use of members and visitors, its activities were unspectacular compared with the headline-catching events of the 1880s.
It seems that, even for Hardwicke, the Keswick Footpath Preservation Association might have outlived its usefulness. The remit of the organisation was narrow, and there were now other footpath societies in the Lake District such as those at Kendal and Carlisle, to take up the torch. It is not surprising, therefore, that following the success of the three major campaigns for which it had been founded, little by little the Association quietly faded from sight.
As a County Councillor, Hardwicke worked tirelessly, at local and national level, to raise awareness of the issues involved and to persuade Parliament to award County Councils the power to take responsibility for rights of access over the land, and in 1892 he wrote to the Home Secretary petitioning him to receive a deputation of County Councillors to argue the case for footpath preservation to be made the responsibility of County Councils. The following year he was jubilant when the Local Government (England and Wales) Bill included a clause which would make it the responsibility of District Councils to protect rights of way and prevent, as far as possible, their obstruction. He did not, however, consider that the new Bill went far enough, and petitioned, alas unsuccessfully, for additional clauses to be added.
Landowners were formidable opponents and as a result, legislation to guarantee free access to footpaths, rights of way, mountains, moorland and so forth, was slow in coming. Throughout the twentieth century, numerous Acts of Parliament were passed detailing the rights and responsibilities of individuals and landowners with respect to access to their land, and doubtless Rawnsley would have been delighted at the successful passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which at last accorded to the public the ‘right to roam’ on upland and uncultivated areas of England and Wales.
1 ‘Preservation of Old Footpaths’, Carlisle Patriot, 2 April 1886, p. 6.
2 ‘Keswick and District Footpath Preservation Association: Rules’, Cumbria Records Office (Kendal), WDX 422/2/4.
3 ‘“Rights of View” in Lakeland’, Pall Mall Gazette, 11 September 1886, p. 4.
4 Letter from Hardwicke to W. H. Hills, 2 November 1885, Cumbria Records Office (Carlisle), DSO 24/7/2.
5 ‘The Footpath Question at Keswick’ Carlisle Express and Examiner, 3 September 1887, p. 6.
6 Carlisle Express and Examiner, 28 August 1886, p. 4.
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