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SOAPBOXING CLEVER: Simon Wroe talks up the history of Speakers' Corner

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Orators at Speakers’ Corner in 1968  photos: Chris Kennett

Orators at Speakers’ Corner in 1968 photos: Chris Kennett

Published: 29 November, 2012
by SIMON WROE

EVERY Sunday for almost 150 years people have been congregating at the north-east corner of Hyde Park to express their opinions, proclaim the one true God, and rail generally at the injustices of the world.

Speakers’ Corner is sometimes unfairly dismissed as a haunt for the lunatic fringe and nothing more. But historically it has always been a bedrock for free speech and a voice for the voiceless, whether they are suffragettes, immigrants or political dissidents.

Now two oral historians, Laura Mitchison and Rosa Vilbr, are creating the first public archive devoted to Speakers’ Corner, and they are calling on people to help. Their cooperative, On The Record, launches the Sounds From the Park project with the Bishopsgate Institute in December.

“If you’re an orator or a heckler, if you have any memories of the place or you just went there to observe, we want to hear your memories and reminiscences,” says Ms Mitchison.

“Speakers’ Corner is a totally unique filter on 20th-century history. Every political movement you can think of has been there, all sorts of social and communist movements through the 1940s and 50s, also Black Power movements, women’s lib and all the anti-colonial movements... People would come here to argue for the freedom of their country from British shackles.”

Unlike London’s Royal Parks, Hyde Park was created as a space for “commoners”. The roots of Speakers’ Corner go back to the mid-1800s, when it became a focal point for workers’ protests. The Parks Regulation Act of 1872 permitted public meetings there and established a “right to speak”.
In a pre-internet age, says Ms Mitchison, it was the place to pick up news and exchange ideas with people who didn’t have a public position or a place in the media.

“People were getting something authentic, something unfiltered and real,” she explains. “They weren’t just a face on the television, they had to account for what they said or they could get a punch on the nose.”

It remains one of the few places in the city “where strangers of completely different political or religious stripes meet”.

“Those laws of London etiquette don’t seem to apply. It’s a small patch of the country where people are less uptight. At Speakers’ Corner there are different rules,” says Ms Mitchison.

These rules forbid speakers to collect money from speaking or from trading of any sort. Amplifiers are discouraged, though heckling is welcomed. Many orators have people who heckle them specifically. Often they will know their hecklers by name, and even give them their platforms to see if they can do better.

“Generally, it’s incredibly convivial,” says Ms Mitchison. “Occasionally you get extreme nationalist speakers who talk about England for the English, and weirdly enough they’re some of the most popular because they can be heckled by whole groups of people – English, Irish, migrants – who expose how ridicu­lous their arguments are.

“To have it out there and to shout against it and fight it, that’s very cathartic. But it feels sort of good-natured.”

Sounds from the Park will train volunteers in interviewing techniques and teach members of the public about the processes of archiving and historic preservation. Workshops with schools and comm­unity groups will follow next year, before an exhibition at the Bishops­gate Institute in Liverpool Street in October.

Ahead of this, Ms Mitchison wants to remind Londoners of the unique tradition on their doorsteps.

“If you’re interested in public life, of a kind that connects right back to Greek and Roman forums, then Speakers’ Corner is the place,” she says. “There is madness, but if you’re interested in language, in the art of oratory, there’s plenty of that too.”

• On The Record’s first reminiscence session is at the Bishopsgate Institute on December 8, 11am-1pm. For more informa­tion, or to RSVP, visit www.on-the-record.org.uk or call 07583 656 338.

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