The Grim History Of Hyde Park's Speakers Corner


October 14, 1855 — A carpenter mounted his soapbox on this day complaining about high food prices – and became the first recorded amateur orator to address a crowd at what was to become Speakers’ Corner in 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". 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. Finally, the Government bowed to popular pressure and passed a law granting the fundamental right of citizens to gather together to hear and be heard – and Speakers’ Corner was born. Its origins, though, go back centuries. 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. Raucous crowds gathered along the two-mile route and windows overlooking it were crowded. Cheering, jeering, preaching and shouting accompanied the procession on its three-hour journey. It was said that the execution of 22-year-old highwayman Jack Sheppard in 1724 attracted a crowd of 200,000. Londoners, it seems, 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 – before an enthusiastic crowd – twenty-four victims could swing to their deaths in one go. Before departing, however, they were allowed to speak to the crowd and often argued with onlookers as they denounced the State, or the Church, or simply protested their innocence.

From 1906 to 1914 the suffragettes held large and small meetings in Hyde Park as part of their campaign for votes for women. In the summer of 1906 they had a meeting every week near to the Reformer's tree. During the Women's Day of 21 June 1908 250,000 women marched to Hyde Park to hear 20 different speaking platforms. In 1913 the Police banned the Women's Social and Political Union from meeting in the park, but the suffragettes defiantly continued to do so.


By the 1930s "soapbox" orators were to be found in marketplaces, street corners and parks across the country. Of the estimated one hundred speaking places found weekly in London between 1855 and 1939, Speakers' Corner is the last to survive.


Speaking out against war

Speakers' Corner was the focus of a huge rally in February 2003 against military action in Iraq. The number of people who attended was estimated at between 750,000 and two million. The speakers and supporters included the actress Vanessa Redgrave, human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger, former MP Tony Benn, playwright Harold Pinter and the Hollywood actor, Tim Robbins.

The rally was one of the most recent in Hyde Park about war. In 1859, there were demonstrations about the Franco-Austrian War. Since an act of parliament in 1872, Speakers' Corner has provided a focus for people to express their views about a range of topics from voting rights to Sunday trading.