On the north-eastern edge of Hyde Park, a stone’s throw from Marble Arch, is Speakers’ Corner.
One of the best known locations for public speaking and debate in the world, the premise is simple: anybody can turn up and talk on any subject they like, as long as it is lawful. With Marble Arch tube station alone having an annual footfall of over 16 million passengers – orators can draw quite a crowd. Members of the public soon stop to listen, respond and, on occasion, enter into animated debate with speakers.
It’s a bastion of free speech. But how did it all begin? Speakers’ Corner comes with an impressive history. It is a symbol of democracy, born out of revolution.
In the mid nineteenth century, riots broke out in the north-eastern corner of Hyde Park in reaction to the Sunday Trading Bill, which forbade buying and selling on a Sunday – the only day working people had off.
The Chartists used the park to protest over workers’ rights, while the more radical Reform League stormed the area in 1866, questioning the control of public space in London. Now referred to as The Hyde Park Railings Affair, the protest lasted for several days, resulted in many arrests and involved Marble Arch itself being used as a temporary holding cell.
The Times described the people gathering in Hyde Park to exercise their right to speak out as a “motley crowd” who were interfering with “the enjoyments of those to whom the Park more particularly belongs”. Yet others rejoiced. Marble Arch was becoming an epicentre for the voice of the public. Reynolds Newspaper reported people had “vindicated their right to meet, speak, resolve, and exhort in Hyde Park”.
Pressure on the government meant that the Parks Regulation Act of 1972 granted Park Authorities the right to permit public meetings within its boundaries. And so a tradition was born, accompanied by legislation. This victory for the common man cemented Speakers’ Corner’s place in history.
Karl Marx, William Morris and Vladimir Lenin were all frequent orators at Speaker’s Corner, and George Orwell described it as “one of the minor wonders of the world”. Marches and protests have long convened or terminated their routes in Hyde Park, often at Speakers’ Corner itself, as they still do today.
Debates, dissent, protests, pontifications, vulgarities and victories have all been aired, and continue to do so. People still gather at Speakers’ Corner on Sunday mornings to hear enthusiasts expound their views. Open for the curious, the impassioned, the listeners and of course, the speakers – this corner of Marble Arch is steeped not just in history, but in words.
Find out more at the Royal Parks website.
This satirical film of the speakers at Hyde Park Corner including the hecklers may be dated – it was filmed in 1986 by Syd & Beryl Pearman – but it’s rather wonderful.