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Following the success of its pilot in the major industrial city of Nottingham, SCT was particularly keen to test its model in a smaller town with a rural hinterland. In July 2008, on the advice of the National Association of Local Councils and with the support of Lichfield City Council, SCT launched a major consultation in the historic cathedral city of Lichfield – home of, among many other notables, Samuel Johnson, Erasmus Darwin and David Garrick.
The response to SCT’s consultation with civic and community leaders, including representatives of the city, district and county councils, the police, local schools, the churches, political parties and amenity and interest groups, was universally positive.
The initiative won the support of all tiers of local government. Lichfield District Council Leader Cllr David S. Smith has called the project “an exciting initiative which will give local people a unique platform to express their views” while Peter Young, Clerk of Lichfield City Council, welcomed what he called “an imaginative project which can only do good for Lichfield. Creating new opportunities for people to come together and exchange views on the issues which matter to them not only makes for better local government but also stronger communities.”
But there are key differences. While Nottingham’s tradition has been radical and occasionally rebellious, Lichfield is an altogether more sedate and conservative city. While Nottingham is a major industrial conurbation made up of a wide range of ethnic communities and social and economic backgrounds, Lichfield is essentially a medium-sized, middle England market town.
It is precisely those contrasts which attracted Speakers’ Corner Trust to Lichfield for the second of its UK pilot projects. If the Speakers’ Corner model is to succeed it must be able to flourish in Lichfield as well as in Nottingham.
A Potted History
Lichfield derives its name from the nearby Romano-British village of Letocetum which grew up around a Roman fort close to Watling Street. In 669 St Chad established ‘Licidfelth’ as a major regional centre for the church and its importance grew with the burial of Mercian kings in the early cathedral. Indeed, it briefly enjoyed the status of an archbishopric.
Lichfield’s magnificent cathedral – the only one in the country with three spires – was rebuilt in its present form in mediaeval times, though it has been modified, damaged (notably during the civil war) and repaired at regular intervals throughout its history.
The city enjoyed an unwelcome prominence during the civil war because of its strategic location on major supply routes. It was captured by the Parliamentarians, retaken by the Royalists under Prince Rupert and then surrendered once more.
But perhaps Lichfield is best known as an eighteenth century “city of philosophers” as its most famous son, Samuel Johnson, described it. It also became a prosperous coaching stop in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and today remains an affluent, culturally lively and very beautiful city.
Lichfield and the Age of Enlightenment
Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is undoubtedly Lichfield’s most famous son – and one of this country’s greatest men of letters of any age. He was a man of prodigious talents and achievements as a poet, essayist, novelist, critic, commentator, biographer, editor, wit and author of the extraordinary Dictionary of the English Language which took him nine years to compile. included only one of the men and women of Lichfield of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who achieved lasting prominence. They
But Johnson was only one of the men and women of Lichfield of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who achieved lasting prominence. They included
The Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson was a man with an almost unique breadth of knowledge and an equally impressive range of opinions. He remains today one of the most quotable and quoted man of English letters. But set out below are just some of the views he expressed on issues relevant to the Speakers’ Corner initiative.
“Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it. Martyrdom is the test.” James Boswell: Life of Johnson
“Everything that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that shows man he can do what he thought he could not do, is valuable.” James Boswell: Life of Johnson
“It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentionally lying that there is so much falsehood in the world.” James Boswell: Life of Johnson
“There is no crime more infamous than the violation of truth. It is apparent that men can be social beings no longer than they believe each other. When speech is employed only as the vehicle of falsehood, every man must disunite himself from others, inhabit his own cave, and seek prey only for himself.” Idler No 20 (August 26, 1758)
“There are occasions on which it is noble to dare to stand alone. To be pious among infidels, to be disinterested in a time of general venality, to lead a life of virtue and reason in the midst of sensualists, is a proof of a mind intent on nobler things than the praise or blame of men, of a soul fixed in the contemplation of the highest good, and superior to the tyranny of custom and example.” Adventurer No 131 (February 5, 1754)
“Life cannot subsist in society but by reciprocal concessions.” Letter to Boswell 1766
“Words are but the signs of ideas.” Preface, Dictionary
“Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.” Rasselas
The Garrick Trains Lichfield’s Public Speakers
In October 2008, Lichfield’s Garrick Theatre ran a special workshop to help members of the public take advantage of the new opportunities for self expression and debate which the Speakers’ Corner project is bringing to the city.
Led by actors Tom Roberts and Paolo Allan, the workshop schooled a group, which included students from the Friary School and members of the University of the Third Age (U3A), on how to conquer stage fright and speak – and listen – confidently in public.
Before the two-hour programme got under way, SCT’s director Peter Bradley summed up the workshop’s aim: “Lots of people have strong and often really interesting opinions. But though they may also have the urge to speak out, they may not have the skills or the confidence to do so in public. We want to make sure that no-one in Lichfield is hiding their talent and their ideas under a bushel.”
Then Tracy Childs, the distinguished actress co-starring in the Garrick’s much-praised production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? let the group into a few trade secrets about how she and professional colleagues control their nerves and prepare for their performances: “People would be surprised to know just how nervous even world-famous actors and public speakers get before they perform. But there are some basic techniques which can help most people master their butterflies and give of their best. With a little bit of practice and following a couple of golden rules, just about everyone can do it.”
At the end of the workshop, Tom Roberts said, “it was great to see how in the course of the afternoon people were visibly growing in confidence. Expressing yourself is a natural instinct in almost all of us and having the confidence to do so and to listen while others do it too just makes life so much more fulfilling as well as enjoyable.”
The workshop was filmed by Lucy Macnab of the Southbank Centre in London which has worked with SCT to produce a downloadable ‘master class’ on the art of speaking in public.
Lichfield Speakers’ Corner Committee Takes Shape
Representatives of Lichfield’s public, private and voluntary sectors came together at the city’s Guildall on 21 October to pledge their support for the Lichfield Speakers’ Corner project and a month later, on 26 November, set up the Lichfield Speakers’ Corner Founding Committee to ‘own’ and manage the initiative over the long term.
Canon Pete Wilcox, who was elected the Committee’s first Chair, said “this is a very significant new venture and all those already involved are excited about the fact that Lichfield is setting the pace for the rest of the country. The Committee has an important job to do in seeking to represent the city as a whole and in helping to create a new forum for public debate and a new focus for civic pride. It’s a great challenge but the range of talent, experience and commitment available to the Committee will help us meet it.”
Alison Churchill, Head of Lichfield School of Art, was elected the Committee’s vice-chair.
Planning the Launch
The Committee’s first task was to consider and consult on options for the site of Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner and prepare for the project’s launch which it scheduled for May 2009. A number of potential sites were assessed by Lichfield District Council, the police and other public bodies and the Speakers’ Corner Committee settled unanimously on a space at Minster Pool, fittingly halfway between the cathedral and Lichfield’s Market Square. Meanwhile Central St Martins College, linking withstudents at Lichfield College, began work on design proposals for the Speakers Corner prototype.
Speakers’ Corner Website Goes Live
Lichfield Speakers’ Corner Committee has now launched its own website to provide news of its activities, including plans for the project’s launch, as well as a point of contact for volunteers and a forum for people to add their ideas about the initiative. The site is the brainchild of Will Tisdeall, 18, who represents the local Youth Forum on the Committee. He says, “this project is all about people meeting and discussing their and other people’s ideas and opinions face to face. But the internet is the best way to get the word out and for many, particularly younger people, the website is going to be the project’s front door. So as well as informing them about what’s going on, we want to encourage people to contribute to it from the start. These are early days, but we hope the site will grow as the project picks up momentum and awareness of it increases.” Will can be contacted at [email protected].
Speakers’ Corner Site Gets Thumbs Up…
Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner Committee’s consultation among residents and businesses around the proposed site for Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner was a resounding success. The site, at Dam Street close to Minster Pool, was one of eight sites around the city centre which the Speakers’ Corner Committee considered before agreeing unanimously that it was the best option. Following appraisal by the City, District and County Councils and the police, the choice was approved for the consultation which ran throughout February 2009.
Committee Chair Pete Wilcox said: “We all thought that this was the ideal site. It’s a natural meeting place for people but it’s also a link between the city and the cathedral. It has the space for events and with the right design and the support of the public and Councils, it could provide the ideal setting for Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner. We’re delighted that the consultation went so well but there’s a lot more work and consultation to go before anything could actually be created as a permanent feature here.”
…As Designs Take Shape
Central St Martins College and students from Lichfield College of Art developed a design for the Speakers’ Corner which was well received by the Speakers’ Corner Committee.
The design is of an interlocking or interrelated honeycomb of platforms and seating, some of which could be permanently installed while some can be stored and used when needed.
On 16 March students from both Colleges ‘road-tested’ a cardboard protoype close to the site, drawing a great deal of generally positive interest from passers-by.
Central St Martin College students prepared a narrative Storyboard which illustrates the development of their designs from brief to prototype.
Prototype Designs on Exhibition
In the run-up to the project’s launch on 2 May, Lichfield College staged an exhibition of the prototype at its new Wedge Gallery between 20 April and 1 May.
A well attended preview at the Gallery heard Creative Arts lecturer Richard Pickup introduce the project and the part local students played in the design process.
Afterwards, guests not only had a chance to explore the model and study the display which illustrated its development, but were also encouraged to record their comments on the wall!
In response to the question “Would you use Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner”, one contributor responded: “Of course – it’s better than ranting at the television!”
The Lichfield Launch
The launch of the Lichfield project on 2 May was a spectacular success, bringing hundreds of local people out in the sunshine to enjoy a day of speaking, performance and celebration at the site of the city’s new Speakers’ Corner.
The plaque marking the spot was unveiled at midday by BBC presenter Jo Malin, summoned by the Town Crier and supported by a pack of Brownies as well as civic leaders including the Sheriff of Lichfield and the Leader and Chair of Lichfield District Council.
But even before the official launch, the Speakers’ Corner had provided the platform for a host of local speakers, including six graduates of the Garrick Theatre’s public speaking workshops who tackled subjects ranging from the attractions of Lichfield – a theme taken up later in the day by the City Forum – the merits of May and the virtues of love to the Iraq war and the message of Mahatma Gandhi. Simon Heath of the Whittington & Fisherwick Environmental Group then spoke passionately about the challenge of climate change and he was followed by a wonderful performance of circus skills by the young members of Fusezirque!
In the course of the day, almost 50 people spoke and a majority of them were young people. Representatives of three local secondary schools – Netherstowe, King Edward VI and Friary – took up topics as diverse as the image of young people, the evil of litter and the merits of chocolate.
Others performed poetry and music and the headteacher of the Friary John Brough, a member of the Speakers’ Corner Committee, unexpectedly joined in with a powerful unaccompanied rendition of Bob Dylan’s With God on Our Side. He was matched by the spontaneous performance of Mikey McCheyne, a local rapper who spoke frankly about how he was putting his troubled past to positive use in helping young people overcome the challenges they face. He then held the crowd spellbound with his own special form of self-expression.
Another spontaneous but very fitting contribution was made by a group of young people who had only learned of the event the day before and came to lobby for the provision of a skate park in the city. Later they joined Council Leader David Smith who promised that the Council would do its best to respond positively to their campaign.
The afternoon was rounded off by TV star Chris Walker, late of Coronation Street, who enthusiastically welcomed the creation of Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner as “a new platform for the common man and woman”.
When the day was over, the plaudits began to flow. Here are just a few:
- “a beginning to be proud of
- “the most fabulous, fantastic, inspiring, wonderful, life-affirming stuff”
- “a brilliant, historic day”
- “brought the whole community together…and that’s just brilliant”
- “a huge success and…a marvellous warm atmosphere there too”.
Lichfield Plans Ahead
Soon after the launch, Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner Committee organised a series of events starting with the screening of the Age of Stupid followed by a debate on climate change and quickly followed by four more. On Saturday 11 July, the Lichfield Festival, in association with Speakers’ Corner, hosted a debate led by Countdown’s Susie Dent who asked Has the Golden Age of English passed? while on the following day. as part of its Fuse Festival, Lichfield Arts organised Sound Off, a Speakers’ Corner panel discussion on Arts & Community.
On 19 September Speakers’ Corner joined in the celebration of Samuel Johnson’s tercentenary with events at the Speakers’ Corner and on 26 September the North Lichfield Initiative organised Drumming Up Fairtrade, a series of events promoting fair trade and social justice and involving young people, some of which took place at the Speakers’ Corner.
Lichfield Blog Goes Live
The Committee has started a Lichfield Blog with information about forthcoming events and opportunities for comment and debate. Speakers’ Corner will be celebrating Fairtrade Week in March followed by a series of debates in the Spring.
Speakers’ Corner to Showcase Lent Lectures
A series of lectures organised by Lichfield Cathedral is to be previewed at the Speakers’ Corner as a means of attracting interest in and stimulating debate about a wide range of issues from Do Bankers Deserve Bonuses? to The Challenge of Climate Change and what it means to be British. The ‘tasters’ at Speakers’ Corner will be followed by fuller debates in the Cathedral.
The Revd Peter Holiday, Chief Executive of St Giles Hospice, will introduce the first, on Assisted Dying, at the Speakers’ Corner at 12.30 pm on Thursday 18 February. For further information about the Lent Lectures, please visit the Lichfield Speakers’ Corner website.
Lichfield Prepares for Anniversary
Lichfield Speakers’ Corner Committee is planning a series of events to mark the first anniversary of the project’s launch. The Garrick Theatre is organising a series of four public speaking workshops on successive Sundays in March and April and a programme of events, including one during the anticipated general election campaign, will take place at the Speakers’ Corner in April and May. Watch this space…
Lichfield’s Election Hustings
On Saturday 24 April, Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner provided the venue for a highly successful open air hustings at which a large crowd listened to the candidates of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and UK Independence parties as they responded to a range of questions put to them by members of the audience.
In a lunchtime event in glorious Spring sunshine, the candidates tackled questions on defence, education, health, the environment, prisons policy and the local economy in an informative and good humoured exchange chaired by the Committee’s chair Canon Pete Wilcox. Many of those who were there at the beginning of the event stayed to the end an hour later and several were still talking about what they’d heard as they left.
SCT director Peter Bradley, who attended the Hustings, said afterwards, “this was an inspiring event with politicians and public alike entering in to it in exactly the right spirit. Everyone had the chance to speak as well as listen and the debate was thoughtful and enlightening throughout. It really was an exercise in democracy – and enjoyable too! All credit to the Speakers’ Corner Committee for organisingsuch a great event.”
Speakers’ Corner’s First Birthday Party
Lichfield Speakers’ Corner celebrated its first anniversary with a special event which brought together some of those who had spoken at its launch along with civic leaders and members of the public who seized their opportunity to have their say.
It also featured the unveiling of a sound sculpture created especially to mark the anniversary and to cap it all, the appreciative crowd was served with birthday cake while it listened to speeches about subjects as diverse as the campaign for the rights of Ethiopian women, a reappraisal of Neville Chamberlain’s reputation, the merits of ducks, the threat of climate change, the folly of nuclear armaments and the importance of our democracy!
Buskathon Returns to Lichfield
Dave Simcox and Chris Newcombe are, by popular demand, reprising their highly successful 2010 Buskathon by organising two ten hour sponsored “relays” of non-stop busking to take place at Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner from 9.00 am to 7.00 pm on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 May.
Son of Buskathon aims to raise £3,000 in support of Lichfield’s Fuse arts festival which takes place in July, topping the £2,000 raised through sponsorship last year.
On the Saturday, buskers from all genres will be scheduled to play 10-30 minute slots throughout the day while on Sunday Dave Simcox (aka Bruford Low) and Chris Newcombe (aka George from The Born Again Beatles) will busk for 10 hours in relay.
A New Setting for Speakers’ Corner
Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner has a wonderful new setting thanks to funding secured by Lichfield District Council through Section 106 planning agreements, other contributions from both the District and City Councils and from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund as part of their Parks for People programme.
The refurbished Speakers’ Corner features a new set of ornate railings and a paving stone engraved with an appropriate quote from Samuel Johnson: “In order that all men may be taught to speak the truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it.”
Get It Off Your Chest!
In the autumn of 2011, the Speakers’ Corner Committee started a new initiative, inviting the people of Lichfield to ‘get it off their chests’ from noon every Saturday morning in the run-up to Christmas. The sessions have been a great success and are being filmed by students at South Staffs College who are making a documentary about Speakers’ Corner.
A dozen speakers responded to the challenge “if you’ve got something to say, say it at Speakers’ Corner” on 12 November, calling for a new arts centre for Lichfield, promoting the Fair Trade cause and, on the eve of Armistice Sunday, arguing against injustice and the tragedy of war.
An appreciative crowd stayed throughout the ninety minute event and were entertained not just by thoughtful and eleoquent speeches but also by the music of a talented local group of young folk musicians.
Speakers’ Corner at the Heart of Local Democracy
Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner provided the platform for an important exercise in local democracy when candidates attended a Saturday morning hustings in the run-up to the election on 15 November 2012 of Staffordshire’s first Police & Crime Commissioner.
It was considered one of the best of the many events which have taken place at the Speakers’ Corner with a good crowd in attendance and a lively debate between candidates and the public.
To his credit, the winning candidate, Conservative Matthew Ellis (pictured right) has attended regularly since to submit his record in office to public examination.
Democracy In Action at Lichfield People’s Hustings
Not even the drizzle could dampen enthusiasm at the People’s Hustings at Lichfield’s Speakers’ Corner which took place exactly five years and a day after the first event during the 2010 general election.
The 2015 version was no less successful with a large, good-humoured and fully engaged crowd, a wide range of local voluntary groups members of the community to make their points and ask their questions and all the candidates on parade other than the Conservative Michael Fabricant (who sadly also failed to put in an appearance in 2010).
The event was kicked off by two first-time voters, an environmentalist, a representative of a local credit union and a community campaigner who set out their agendas for the next government.
The candidates were invited to respond and the debate then raged back and forth over the course of two hours with members of the audience making their own contributions either in comments or questions, or by good-natured heckles.
Many of those who attended staying for the duration – a sure sign of the event’s success!
After the event, the Lichfield Live comments section was bursting with approval for “a good natured and enjoyable event”, ” local democracy at its best” and a “really good event…never thought politics could be so entertaining”.
The BBC carried a feature on its website election pages about the three People’s Hustings events which took place on the same day in Croydon and Nottingham as well as Lichfield. You can read it here.
All the events were great successes with large, appreciative crowds and lively debates.