wWw – To access the Medway Speakers’ Corner website, please click here.
Chatham, on the strategic Roman Watling Street, is mentioned in the Domesday Book but remained little more than a village until because of its strategic position on the Medway, it was established in the sixteenth century as a harbour for warships and in 1568 granted the status of a Royal Dockyard by Elizabeth I. Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was built in the dockyard as were many submarines after the First World War. Over the centuries, Chatham became a major and heavily fortified base for both the Royal Navy and the army with a population growing from 16,000 in 1831 when a young Charles Dickens lived there to around 70,000 today.
The dockyard closed in 1984 with the loss of 7,000 jobs and, while Chatham’s economy has revived, the Daily Mail has described it as the ‘loan shark capital of Britain’ with no fewer than 23 pay-day loan stores within two miles of the High Street.
The historic city of Rochester boasts England’s second oldest cathedral and the second oldest school in the world, King’s School, founded in 604 AD, as well as a Norman castle built by Gundulf of Rochester which was besieged in 1215 by King John’s forces when the barons captured it from the archbishop of Canterbury. More recently, Rochester featured in many of the works of Charles Dickens who lived nearby and is widely commemmorated in the city.
Rochester has a lively cultural life. In recent years, the Jack-in-the-Green May Day dancing chimney sweeps’ tradition has been revived on Mayday and Dickens Festivals takes place in June and December. The Medway Fuse Festival and a new Literature Festival have also become regular events.
Gillingham was a small settlement at the time of the Domesday book of 1086 and has the distinction of having been briefly occupied by the Dutch in 1667 in one of the lesser known conflicts in British history. It grew steadily with the development of Chatham as a major naval base. Though at the time of the census of 1851, its population was still no more than 9,000, the next 50 years saw it grow to over 40,000.
The closure of the dockyards hit Gillingham’s economy hard and though unemployment is still high, the creation of Gillingham Business Park has helped to diversify the town’s economic activity.
A Speakers’ Corner Committee for Medway
SCT launched its consultation among potential stakeholders in the autumn of 2013. The response was universally positive and in January 2014 a packed meeting of potential stakeholders at MidKent College agreed to establish a Founding Speakers’ Corner Committee to take the initiative forward. The Committee will be meeting again in February to decide how best to identify a site for a Speakers’ Corner and discuss plans for a launch and activities throughout the borough.
A Range of Speakers’ Corners
In its meeting in February 2014, the Committee decided to establish three permanent Speakers’ Corners in the centres of each of Medway’s three main towns, Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham and, perhaps in due course, in Strood and Rainham too. But the Committee is also keen to take the project out to residential neighbourhoods and, using a portable Speakers’ Corner, to major events in the borough.
At the end of April 2014, the Speakers’ Corner Committee set up a working group to plan the project’s launch will take place in the summer. Meanwhile, students of MidKent College are workingon designs for the project’s logo and website.
The working group had a very difficult choice to make between the excellent design approaches proposed by Bella and Chris, Jack, Liam and Liz, Luke, Omar, Sam and Shana and Tom, Tony and Zahra. But in the end, it chose Bella Morelli’s really bold and colourful design.
Medway’s Pre Launch Events
The portable Speakers’ Corner provided a platform for a series of poetry readings at the Love Music, Hate Racism festival at Fort Amherst on 7 June and a week later, members of the public were invited to join students and staff at MidKent College in addressing their fellow citizens for 60 seconds on subjects close to their hearts as part of the College’s Community Day.
A third event is planned for Adult Learners’ Week (16-20 June) in Rochester.
Roy Smith, chair of the Medway Speakers’ Corner Committee said that “now more than ever it’s vital that people get the chance to speak out and be heard and this project is designed literally to give local people a platform and an opportunity to share their opinions and ideas about the issues that matter to them whether it’s student fees, global warming, Boris Island or the World Cup.
Karen Baker, head of student support at the College, added that “we’re really enthusiastic supporters of the Speakers’ Corner project and are delighted that our students have already had the chance to contribute by designing its logo and developing its website. Now they’ll get a chance actually to use the platform.”
The launch of Medway’s Speakers’ Corner took place in the open space by the anchor on Military Road in Chatham town centre on Saturday 19 July. Though thunder storms had raged throughout the night and the forecast was gloomy, the rain kept away and the longer the event went on, the stronger and brighter the sunshine became!
Before the speeches and the speaking, two talented MidKent College students Taylor Paisley-French and Amy Walton, members of the indie pop-rock band Halcyon, played an acoustic set which was enthusiastically appreciated by the growing audience they attracted.
Speakers’ Corner Committee chair Roy Smith then opened proceedings, outlining the aims of the project and his hopes that it will become a feature of local life. He was followed by a number of the initiative’s key supporters, including Karen Baker of MidKent College and Jane Howard of Medway CVS, who explained what Speakers’ Corner means to them and the organisations they represent. Alex Matthews of the Medway Messenger emphasised the importance of creating new platforms for free expression at a time when many feel that press freedom is under threat.
The platform was then opened up to members of the public and such was the response that an event which was scheduled to last an hour only finished 90 minutes later. There were opinions about globalisation, mental health, the need to work for peace and about the principle of freedom of expression itself, ideas about the decision-making process, extracts from short stories, readings from inspirational literature and exuberant performance poetry.
Flushed with success, the Committee is now planning further events in Chatham and elswhere in Medway later in the summer.
High Praise for Medway Speakers’ Corner
Medway Speakers’ Corner held its second post launch event in Chatham on 20 September. To read all about a highly successful event, see Joanne Murray’s blog and photographs here.
Medway Speakers’ Corner on Film
Here’s a great introduction to – and advertisement for – Medway Speakers’ Corner! It was filmed in Chatham in November 2014.