Speakers’ Corner remains a symbol of free speech and an important historic meeting place in London’s Hyde Park.
Even those who have found themselves in Serviced Apartments in London for just a short stay are likely to have heard of Speakers’ Corner. But while the term is familiar to many, few know what it is all about and why this area of Hyde Park is an important part of the culture of free speech in Britain today. If you fall into this category, then prepare to be enlightened.
Introducing Speakers’ Corner
Hyde Park is full of interesting landmarks, but if you head to the north-east edge, close to Marble Arch and Oxford Street, there is an important area particularly worth your attention. This is Speakers’ Corner and the likes of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell have all used it to exercise their right to free speech.
It has been enshrined in law as a space for public speaking since 1872 and has seen many historic orations and demonstrations take place within its vicinity. To this day, Speakers’ Corner remains a lively location for the key concerns of modern Britain to be explored.
The origins of an association with free speech and this corner of Hyde Park date back to 1196 when the Tyburn Gallows were erected close to the spot. As the place where some 50,000 people were to take their final breaths, it was the scene of many last words. Each of those condemned to die were allowed a final speech, which could vary between confessions, protestations of innocence and tirades against the authorities.
By 1783 the executions were relocated to Newgate Prison, but the seed of free speech had been planted in this area of the park and would be nurtured and flourish into Speakers’ Corner over the years.
Meetings, demonstrations and regulations
Meetings, marches and protests were often staged in Hyde Park, with demonstrations making it the starting or end point of their route. When the formidable force of the Reform League marched towards Hyde Park in 1866, only to find its way barred by lines of policemen and the park locked, rioting broke out. Fences were torn up to gain access to the park and the government’s attempts to break up the meeting were thwarted. A similar incident occurred the following year, with 150,000 people in attendance and no attempt was made by the authorities to enforce the ban.
By 1872 it was decided that as opposed to trying to stop people from using Hyde Park as an area to meet and speak freely, it could be encouraged and regulated to ensure that proper conduct was observed. This led to the Parks Regulation Act, which enshrined the freedom of speech in the park in law. While the legislation reaches beyond Speakers’ Corner, this is the focal point for such activities.
Notable speeches and rallies
Among the most notable groups to converge on Hyde Park over the years were the Suffragettes. Between 1906 and 1914 they would hold meetings, march to the park and listen to speakers talking about the rights of women. When they were banned by the police from going to the park en masse in 1913, they defied the order and continued to meet in the north-east corner.
Protests against war have also been held in Hyde Park, with demonstrators speaking out against the Franco-Austrian War in 1859. Highlighting how important the area is right up to modern times and upholding a strong tradition, Speakers’ Corner was the focus for the 2003 march against the invasion of Iraq. Somewhere between 750,000 and two million people turned out and the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Bianca Jagger made speeches.
Carrying on a legacy
Between 1855 and 1939, there were hundreds of places across London where people came to voice their opinions and soapbox oration had its heyday throughout the 1930s all around the British Isles. Today, Speakers’ Corner is the last vestige of this proud tradition and on any given Sunday you will find a small crowd listening to the speeches being given about politics, religion, poverty, nationality and race, to name but a few.