Arthur Creech Jones, who died 50 years ago today on 23 October 1964, is remembered in our circles as the MP who got the Access to Mountains Bill 1939 on the statute book. Unfortunately by the time parliament had finished with it, the bill was very different from the one Creech Jones introduced, to his great disappointment and the fury of ramblers.
Creech Jones was Labour MP for Shipley (1935-50) and Wakefield (1954-64). In the Atlee administration formed after the Second World War he became, in 1945, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Colonial Office and a year later colonial secretary, where he was pioneer of the ‘wind of change’ which ultimately freed so many British colonies.
In 1938 as an opposition MP he was no doubt delighted to get the chance to introduce the Access to Mountains Bill, for which the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society) and the Ramblers’ Association (RA) had long fought. It was largely the same bill as had been introduced by James Bryce 50 years earlier. Unfortunately the landowners soon got at it, and Creech Jones was weak about defending his bill. He‘expressed willingness to allow almost unlimited modification to the bill in committee’ (Hansard, 2 December 1938).
The bill was butchered as it went through parliament, the Commons Society secretary Lawrence Chubb conniving with landowners behind the backs of the RA, with the result that a bill that was intended to allow freedom to roam on open county became an act which gave access in limited circumstances and made trespass a criminal offence.
It received royal assent on 13 July 1939, fortunately it never came into effect.
During the bill’s passage Creech Jones seemed to remain upbeat. He spoke about the bill at the Commons Society’s AGM on 10 May 1939. According to the report in the society’s Journal of July 1939, he ‘testified to the goodwill and spirit of accommodation which had been shown by all those with whom they had had to negotiate. He wished to say emphatically that the landowners in these negotiations had attempted to meet the promoters’ point of view with a genuine regard to the public interest’. He considered the bill ‘marked a very considerable social advance.’ These sentiments also appeared in the Manchester Guardian and attracted angry responses from ramblers. Even so, the RA elected Creech Jones as a vice-president in 1939.
He served on the Commons Society’s committee from 1939 to 1956. On his death in 1964 he left his estate to his widow Vi, and on her death a decade later the estate was divided between the Commons Society and the William Morris Society ‘expressing the hope that the societies will as far as possible use the same in some way that would preserve the name of my late husband Arthur Creech Jones’. The Commons Society made a number of useful grants to local societies with the fund.
According to his colleague, Carol Johnson MP, Creech Jones was ‘keenly interested in the protection of the countryside and the opening up of facilities for walking and climbing. For many years he led walking parties in the Alps (France, Switzerland and Austria) and was one of those responsible for creating the Workers’ Travel Association Mountain Group which opened opportunities for serious climbing in the Alps for many young people. In this country he and his wife entertained many people at their country house, first at Leatherhead and later at Elstead.’
He is described by Patricia Pugh in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as ‘unimpressive in appearance’, ‘not a brilliant or witty speaker; but he was one whom the House of Commons greatly respected for his knowledge, integrity and sincerity’.