Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park is known the world over. But other town and cities throught the UK (and elsewhere) boasted their own now largely forgotten Speakers’ Corners. Most were informal spaces, adopted as platforms by campaigners, political activists and evangelists in or near market places or other town centre sites. Once vibrant forums for proselytising, debate and exchange, most had fallen into disuse by the end of the 1960s, unable to compete with the mass media which progressively replaced the street corner and the public meeting as the place where ideas and opinions were discussed, influenced and formed.
Here is a little information of some of the UK’s historic Speakers’ Corners. But if you have knowledge or memories of other Speakers’ Corners in the UK or overseas, we would love to hear about them.
Please get in touch with SCT’s director Peter Bradley at [email protected].
We know from our work there that Nottingham had an informal Speakers’ Corner in its main Market Square at least until the early 1970s.
Liverpool also had its own Speakers’ Corner on the Pier Head. It was commissioned by the Transport & General Workers Union and designed in 1973 by the architect Jim Hunter and the sculptor Arthur Dooley. It won a RIBA design award in 1975 but disappeared when the City Council redeveloped the Pier Head in the 1990s.
And not far away, in the Wirrall, Merseyside boasts another Speakers’ Corner on the Egremont Ferry Quay in Wallasey (photographs courtesy of, below left, allertonOak and, below right, Mark McNulty Photography).
A block of granite marks the space and, alongside the Wallasey coat of arms, bears the inscription County Borough of Wallasey Speakers’ Corner. This area is set apart as a place for the delivery of public speeches.
It is thought that the granite was excavated during the construction of the Kingsway Tunnel under the Mersey between 1966 and 1971. As Wallasey lost its county borough status in the local government reorganisation of 1974, this suggests that the Speakers’ Corner was established some time in the preceding eight years. But why and by whom and who spoke there? Does anyone know what became of the Speakers’ Corner on the Pier Head or have any further information about the one in Wallasey?
More recently, in February 2005, Peter Rabbich, a former Torbay Councillor, inspired the creation of a Speakers’ Corner in Torquay on the promenade just behind the Pavilion. Is it in regular use?
Sheffield also had at least one Speakers’ Corner in the Attercliffe district of the city. According to the plaque on what is now the Gateway Business Centre on the junction of Attercliffe Road and Staniforth Road, the building was originally a public baths which was opened in 1879 to provide both swimming and washing facilities for local people. But it was also the site of a Speakers’ Corner which was in regular use particularly between 1900 and 1939.
At the rear of the baths, on Staniforth Road, stood Attercliffe Free Library, opened in 1894 and closed in 1986.
Bristol’s Speakers’ Corner was at Slackboy Hill on Clifton Downs. This photograph, taken in the 1960s, is reproduced courtesy of Paul Townsend whose Brizzle Born and Bred flickr page includes an account of the Speakers’ Corner in those days, including the reminiscences of a veteran City Councillor Peter Abraham who told a local newspaper:
“It was the practice for a lot of people to go for a stroll on the Downs on a Sunday evening after church. People would be there on their soapboxes venting their views. The far right and the far left all wanted to have their say and there were the religious people telling us that the end of the world was nigh. It was a very colourful sight and high entertainment, but it slowly died out with the advent of television. People weren’t out and about so much on a Sunday and the speakers stopped coming.”
Anne Tucker, Secretary of the Friends of Platt Fields Park in Manchester, writes that
“Speakers’ Corner had its very special place in the lives of Manchester people in the days before TV and mass media. Every Sunday for 60 years (since its opening in 1910) saw valliant thinkers, poets, ranters, philosophers and political activists get up on a soapbox in Platt Fields Park, to persuade willing listeners to accept their points of view.
“In its heyday, speakers attracted hundreds to listen to their sometimes persuasive, sometimes inflammatory, always intriguing contributions on politics, religion, women’s suffrage, vegetarianism, the evils of TV or music hall, the Empire.
“It was closed down by the authorities a couple of times in the decade following 1910 as those in power worried about the influence it was spreading amongst working people. Indeed, Platt Lane was known as ‘Kremlin Corner’ until after World War 2 as the area housed many radicals, Communists, religious non-conformists and an active Co-operative movement and building. Several local residents went to fight in the Spanish Civil War International Brigade.
“According to local people with long memories, the Israel-Arab War in 1967 was the last time that large crowds gathered there and within a few years the tradition had vanished completely, losing out to the all-pervasive influence of TV, by then in the majority of homes.
“Revived initially for the park’s centenary in 2010, the Platt Fields Speakers’ Corner was instantly popular and now takes place between 1.00 and 3.30 pm on the first Sunday of every month. It attracts people of all ages – including many who have never spoken in public before – and has begun to fill a gap in the complex web of priorities and decision-making in Manchester’s civic life.
“Anyone may take a 15 minute slot on a soapbox to say anything they like (though in the spirit of continued tolerance in our multi-cultural society, speakers are not permitted to make statements that incite racial or religious hatred). Groups, organisations, individuals, performers and thinkers are welcome to step up. There is a blackboard for people to book in their slot at a maximum of 15 minutes per speaker – and organisers provide refreshments and a barbeque.
One of London’s important speakers corner sites was situated on the corner of Brick Lane and Old Montague Street. It was used by Jewish communists to combat fascism in the 1930’s. Since 2009 This Is Not A Gateway, inspired by the Brick Lane site, established a speakers corner in their annual festival. Titled, Oh, That’s Interesting!it is a 21st Century re-interpretation of the soapbox and speakers corner tradition. This Is Not A Gateway Festival brings together 2000 ‘critical’ individuals from across the world for three days in order to debate 21st Century cities.
Derby’s Speakers’ Corner was the brainchild of Councillor Ranjit Banwait, Cabinet Member for Streetpride and Neighbourhoods, who won cross party support for his proposal when he first broached it in 2009.
Though SCT was not directly involved in its development, Peter Bradley was invited to speak at the launch of the new space beside the waterfall on Market Place when it was launched on 20 October 2012.
The launch included poems, songs and performances as well as speeches and now aims to give Derby residents and visitors a platform from which to air their views and opinions and provoke debate and discussion.
Councillor Banwait, said, “we want to encourage people to come along and take part in public speaking in Derby. Speaker’s Corner should be a place where people can feel comfortable expressing their views and to gather and listen to others.
“Speaker’s Corner will be a great tool for people to experience the benefits of living in a democracy and the freedom of expression whilst respecting the need to observe the laws around public speaking.”
To see the Derby Telegraph’s video of the launch, click here.
Longstanding Guildford resident Paul Myerson recalls a Reformers’ or Speakers’ Tree which grew opposite the old fire station on North Street and was surrounded by a circular paved platform about eighteen inches above the road and supported by a low stone wall.
He writes: “I remember this well, especially when attending a large meeting there in 1958 when the speaker stood on the stone paved platform around the tree…It was explained to me from an early age that whilst standing in this place it was permitted to speak freely on any lawful matter…as (at) Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London.”
The tree has disappeared and the land on which it stood now provides car parking behind a new library building but Mr Myerson would like to see the site restored to provide a platform for today’s Guildfordians as well as a link with the city’s heritage and traditions.