Imagine standing on the exact spot where Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell once stood and addressed people on important social issues – and, if you so wished, doing so yourself too? Well, if you visit Speaker’s Corner, located in the north-eastern corner of Hyde Park, yes, you can do just that. It’s a small space right in the heart of London’s West End that for nearly 150 years now has been embraced by people from all backgrounds and demographics as an important example of and active practice place for free speech.
The foundation of free speech
Believe it or not, but on very close to the spot where Speaker’s Corner can now be found, around 250 years ago the infamous Tyburn Gallows once stood; it was here that, from the Middle Ages right up to the late 18th Century, 50,000 people sentenced to death were executed from the Middle Ages were hanged. Ironically enough, like at Speaker’s Corner, people would deliver public speeches; yet in this instance it was to protest their innocence, to criticise the authorities or to confess the crimes they’d committed before their execution.
This was enabled – and, indeed, became part of the hangings being attended by hundreds of onlookers and treated as major social events. As the centuries progressed, however, the London authorities came to the conclusion that these major public hangings had become too rowdy affairs and so they were all transferred instead to Newgate Prison, where many of the condemned were already being held.
The foundation of Speaker’s Corner
In an indirect way then, you might say that the beginnings of Speaker’s Corner lay in the Tyburn Gallows hangings. However, many trace the origins of this important space for public expression (so easy to get to for a visit should you be staying at a boutique hotel in West End London like the Piccadilly London West End hotel) to the mid-19th Century, when protestors seeking Parliamentary reforms completed marches in Hyde Park, very near the space in question. In fact, although they were denied access to the park, they tore down its railings and entered anyway, leading to three days of rioting. A year later, around 150,000 protestors defied a Government ban and marched to the park over the same issue, leading to army troops being called on but who refused to interfere.
Together, the events had two consequences – the then Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, resigned over the failure of the Government to (appear to) keep order and the Parks Regulation Act was passed in 1872, which enabled people to meet and speak freely in Hyde Park. As such, Speaker’s Corner was eventually established, while so too was the use of the wider park as a site for public demonstrations and rallies for subjects of social importance.
For instance, in the early years of the 20th Century up to the First World War, the park was a favourite place for small and large meetings held by women seeking suffrage (the right to vote in UK elections). So much so, in fact, that in the summer of 1908, a total 250,000 woman marched to Hyde Park and, once there, gathered to hear speakers at 20 different spots. Moreover, although banned by police-backed legislation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (the Suffragettes), held their usual meeting the park as their momentum for securing the vote reached its zenith – 8.4 million women were finally granted the right to vote in British elections in 1918.
Speaker’s Corner today
Indeed, as recently as 2003 Hyde Park saw an extraordinary congregation of not just politicians, famous names and recognised ‘opinion formers’ coming together to speak out on a cause – but members of the public too, between 750,000 and 2 million of them; they marched through Central London and afterwards retired to Hyde Park to express their opinions in opposition to military action in Iraq – the US-led intervention that became the Iraq War.
But what of Speaker’s Corner and such small-scale public speaking spaces? Well, this tradition for ‘soapbox’ spots where people come to hear someone opine their opinion on important social, religious or political topics continued throughout the early 20th Century up to the Second World War – around 100 were recognised throughout the UK in this period. Since the war, however, increased communication and the power and influence of mass media (especially TV and radio and now, of course, the Internet) has meant they’re fairly redundant. In many ways then, Speaker’s Corner is arguably the last of their kind – and something of a curious, fascinating relic of the past, yet one that’s used to express points of view on important modern, topical subjects. Which therefore makes it extremely relevant in today’s world.