Although T.A. Leonard’s main interest was the provision of holidays in the outdoors, he was a strong advocate of the rambling movement. Living in Conwy in North Wales after 1914, he was a keen member of the Merseyside Ramblers, based in Liverpool and was, for some years, President of the Liverpool and District Ramblers’ Federation, formed in 1922. It was as President of the Liverpool and District Ramblers’ Federation, and in recognition of the pioneering role he had played in the outdoor movement, that he was asked to chair a conference held at the Holiday Fellowship’s centre, Longshaw in the Derbyshire Peak District, on 26 & 27 September 1931, to consider the establishment of a national body to look after the interests of ramblers. The meeting was attended by delegates from ten federations: Bolton and District, Glasgow and West of Scotland, Leicestershire, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Nottingham, North Lincolnshire, Sheffield and the West Riding of Yorkshire. George Mitchell, Secretary of the London Group of Holiday Fellowship Rambling Clubs, acted as secretary.
At this time, there was a measure of conflict between those societies devoted to the protection of footpaths and landscape preservation and those pursuing access to open moorland. At a previous conference organised by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) in October 1929 to discuss the access to mountains issue, the northern ramblers realised that they were unlikely to receive much support from amenity organisations for an access to mountains campaign. As a consequence, the Sheffield and District Ramblers’ Federation contacted other northern ramblers’ federations with a view to forming a national federation of ramblers to push the access issue. However, there was by no means unanimity amongst ramblers’ federations that a national body should be formed. At a meeting in January 1930, a joint conference of the Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool and District Federations considered that the time was not yet ripe for the formation of a national federation.
At the subsequent conference in September 1931, chaired by Leonard, the Manchester Federation maintained its doubts about a national body and put forward the motion that two unions should be formed, one for the south and one for the north, with a joint consultative and co-ordinating council. The Manchester Federation was wary of too much power in a national organisation going to the London Federation. However, following behind-the-scenes negotiations between T.A. Leonard, who represented the northern federations and George Mitchell from the London Federation, a small sub-committee was formed to work out a resolution. Whether it was down to Leonard’s negotiating skills or not, when the conference resumed on the second day, Arthur Hewitt, the Manchester Federation representative moved that a National Council of Ramblers’ Federations should be formed and this was carried unanimously. To reassure the Manchester Federation, it was agreed that District Federations be allowed to organise public meetings to promote access to the mountains.
Leonard was elected as the first Chairman of the National Council of Ramblers’ Federations at the September 1931 conference, an office he held until 1935 when the National Council was reconstituted as the Ramblers’ Association (RA) and he was elected its first President. During Leonard’s tenure as Chairman of the National Council, the access to mountains campaign continued to be a prime concern of the fledgling organisation. The National Council was not, however, directly involved in demonstrations such as the “Kinder Trespass” of 14 April 1932, which was prompted by the Sheffield Clarion Club led by G.H.B. Ward and was dominated by Manchester ramblers affiliated to the British Workers’ Sports Federation (BWSF), an appendage of the Communist Party led by Benny Rothman. The National Council sought to gain access to restricted areas such as grouse moors and water-gathering grounds through negotiation although individual federations organised demonstrations such as the famous series of annual demonstrations held at Winnats Pass, near Castleton in Derbyshire, jointly organised by the Sheffield and Manchester Federations.
Under Leonard’s influence, the National Council was strongly committed to the setting up of national parks. A joint committee of open-air organisations to discuss the establishment of national parks in England and Wales, formed in 1932, included representatives from all three of the organisations Leonard had been involved in founding; the Co-operative Holidays Association, Holiday Fellowship and the National Council of Ramblers’ Federations. It was following a meeting of this joint committee at Central Hall, Westminster in January 1935, that the Standing Committee on National Parks was formed in December 1935, with members drawn from a range of outdoor and conservation groups, which co-ordinated the campaign for national parks over the next ten years.
Leonard’s period of tenure as President of the Ramblers’ Association from 1935 until 1946 was a controversial period in the RA’s history. The first legislation with which the RA was actively involved was the Access to Mountains Bill 1939, the introduction of which was greeted with great enthusiasm by the RA. However, when a clause was inserted which, in effect, restricted public access to uncultivated land in certain circumstances and made trespass in these cases a criminal offence, the membership voiced vigorous opposition to this “trespass clause” and the RA agreed to oppose the Bill. Nonetheless, when the Bill became law in January 1940, with the “trespass clause” retained, the RA decided to try and work with the Act and over the next few years this decision was the subject of much controversy. The RA did eventually resolve to press again for unrestricted access to mountain and moorland at a special meeting held in 1943 but the 1939 Access to Mountains Act was not repealed until the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act became law in 1949. However, the RA’s goal of freedom to roam in the open countryside in England and Wales was not fully achieved until the year 2000 with the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
Leonard resigned from the presidency of the Ramblers’ Association in 1946, due to ill-health, to be replaced by John Dower, the architect of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 who had also been Secretary of the Standing Committee on National Parks.
The Ramblers’ Association, re-branded as the “Ramblers” in 2009 comprises some 550 Ramblers groups with over 120,000 members. The Ramblers continues to promote walking, safeguard footpaths, campaign for increased access to the countryside as well as its protection.