The sad history of London’s Speakers’ Corner
Free speech laws in United Kingdom include some notorious exceptions: Saying anything to incite religious and racial hatred, threaten the monarchy, or endorse terrorism may be considered unlawful. But there is one place in all of London where, informally, these restrictive speech laws don’t apply.
Political monologues, religious oration and fiery debates can be found here every Sunday morning of the year, although there are sharp peaks in attendance surrounding political events such as the recent Brexit vote.
On this day, October 14, 1855, a carpenter mounted his soapbox complaining about high food prices.
He became the first recorded amateur orator to address a crowd at what was to become Speakers’ Corner in the northeastern edge of London’s Hyde Park.
Writer George Orwell later described the place as one of the minor wonders of the world, where he had listened to Indian nationalists, temperance reformers, Communists, Trotskyists, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the Catholic Evidence Society, freethinkers, vegetarians, Mormons, the Salvation Army, the Church Army, and a large variety of plain lunatics.
In any case, the freedom of speech that they all enjoyed was won formally in the mid-18th Century when the Chartists held mass protests in this area of Hyde Park to press for the rights of working people, including the right of assembly.
At the same the Reform League, which fought for the right to vote for every adult male, organised rallies nearby.
Eventually, the Government passed a law granting the fundamental right of citizens to gather together to hear and be heard, and as a result the so called Speakers’ Corner was born.
In 1855, the corner was the site of massive riots in opposition to the Sunday Trading Bill, a law which forbid vendors from making sales on Sundays. According to Karl Marx, this protest was responsible for sparking the English Revolution. Two centuries later, in 2003, Iraq War rallies at the corner drew in nearly two million British protestors.
Curious case, its origins go back centuries, when here stood the notorious Tyburn Hanging Tree which had been used for public executions as early as 1108.
Hanging days were declared a public holiday and caused much excitement: the condemned were taken from Newgate Prison to Tyburn on a cart and had to ride with the hangman and the prison chaplin.
Crowds gathered along the three-hour route and windows overlooking it were crowded. Cheering, jeering, preaching and shouting that accompanied the procession.
Apparently, the execution of 22-year-old highwayman Jack Sheppard in 1724 attracted a crowd of 200,000 and it seems that Londoners had always considered it “quite an outing” to see a “good hanging”!
To cope with demand, a six-metre high triangular-shaped gallows had replaced the Hanging Tree in 1571: each beam could accommodate eight people, and so, in front of an enthusiastic crowd, twenty-four victims could swing together to their deaths.
Each one of the 50,000 prisoners sentenced to death at the gallows was allowed to make one speech before being hung, be it a confession, an apology, or a plea of innocence. So the principle of free speech and public debate, even if it was watched over by officers of the law, was established.
It continues in similar fashion to this day at the same spot: Speakers’ Corner.
Images from web – Google Research