25-02-2022

Speakers Corner

The concept of a Speakers’ Corner, a hive of debate and discussion, originated from a small corner of Hyde Park. It grew to encompass parks around London. Other countries have similar landscapes of conversation, but Speakers’ Corner is renowned across the globe.

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Since the mid-1800s, people had been using the portion of Hyde Park near Marble Arch for public speaking. The concept came from the grisly history of Tyburn Gallows. Between 1196 and 1783, when the gallows were dismantled, over 50,000 people had been executed. Those sentenced to death were granted a final speech, a plea for innocence. The hangings were a spectacle, with the speeches of convicted criminals adding to the event. After being dismantled, ‘the tradition for protest and pleasure in Hyde Park continued’. It has been noted that many protests in this era would end in Hyde Park, often at Speakers’ Corner.

The corner was borne from the activism of the Chartists and their aim of attaining rights and influence for the working classes. They utilised the corner as the assembly point of their activism. The Chartist demonstrations, between 1855 and 1872, often descended into rioting. Hyde Park was a space that forbade these protests, leading to the Reform League holding their meetings here to challenge the institutions of the monarchy and ruling class. Police regularly battled with the people, becoming increasingly desperate in their attempts to prevent trespass. Yet ‘the people have triumphed, in so far as they have vindicated their right to meet, speak, resolve and exhort in Hyde Park’. The government had to recede to the pressure. The will of the Reform League and others led to the Parks Regulation Act of 1872. Speakers’ Corner was now to be recognised as a public speaking and meeting place. This was a legal declaration of the authenticity of this corner of Hyde Park.

Speakers' Corner in 1968

Speakers’ Corner has been an important space for several social movements. Suffragettes frequented the park between 1906 and 1914, meeting to campaign for women’s votes and rights. In 1910, Charlotte Marsh was photographed in Hyde Park, proudly displaying a pin that identified her as a former prisoner. Stood in front of a sea of grey-suited men, Marsh would have been subject to derogatory comments and heckling. On Women’s Day of 1908, 250,000 women marched to Hyde Park. In 1913, the Women’s Social and Political Union were banned from meeting in the park by the police. Their defiance in continuing to congregate at Speakers’ Corner contributed to sweeping societal reforms.

More recently, the corner was an important site for debate surrounding the Iraq War in 2003, with up to 2 million protestors drawn to the park. Speakers and supporters included the honourable Tony Benn MP and human-rights activist Bianca Jagger. Protestors marched with a feeling of comradeship; few recent events have galvanised the masses into protest as profoundly. Some individuals claim that the protest against the Iraq War and the subsequent decision to ignore the wishes of millions destroyed the political passion of a generation. In turn, it could be argued that the decades of political indifference to appaling inequality has been allowed to fester by a disillusioned generation of voters. Yet Speakers’ Corner is still a site of promise.

The soapbox orators of Hyde Park are a unique breed. Their conflicting beliefs bring about danger, when simmering debate brings about the threat of arguments, is ever-present. It takes little to turn the polite debate into a slanging match, two boisterous personalities battling to be heard above the murmurs of a growing crowd. Several fights have been captured on video, leading to a constant police presence that lurks metres away.

Free speech in the United Kingdom is protected by law and largely celebrated as an important tenet of our society. Speakers’ Corner is, informally, a space where the most extreme thoughts can be professed. To incite religious or racial hatred, to threaten the monarchy or endorse terrorism would be punishable on the street. The corner promotes ultimate freedom of speech, though expect to meet verbal resistance if you profess extreme views.

Contribution

A selection of found photographs within this article were sourced from Flashbak: https://flashbak.com/photos-of-speakers-corner-in-london-1967-1971-396577/

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