The idea of promoting a Speakers’ Corner project in Lincoln came from the local Lincolnshire Take Part Pathfinder, a programme supported by the Department for Communities and Local Government as part of its local community empowerment agenda and designed “to provide programmes of active learning that enable people to gain the skills, knowledge and confidence…to make an active contribution to their communities and influence public policies and services”.
With the support of Lincoln City Council, SCT launched a stakeholder consultation in August 2009.
Lincoln – A City of History, Heritage and Industry
Lincoln dates back to a first century BC settlement on the River Witham, around what is now Brayford Pool. When the Romans arrived in 48AD, they built a fortress on the hill above the pool. Later the fort was expanded and converted to a settlement for army veterans.
Lindum Colonia thrived not least because of its links to the sea through the navigable rivers Witham and Trent but it fell into decline when the Romans abandoned Britain in the fifth century. Some 600 years later, in 1068, the Nomans began work on a castle on the hill and the first of Lincoln’s great cathedrals was completed in 1092. The diocese became a seat of great power and the twelfth century Bishop’s Palace was one of the most impressive buildings of the age.
By the middle of that century, the wool trade had made Lincoln one of the most prosperous cities in England. But this was also the darkest period in Lincoln’s history. In 1190 anti-Semitic riots occurred in the city and in 1255 Jewish community leaders were falsely accused of the ritual murder of a local christian boy and 18 were executed.
From the fourteenth century a combination of flooding, plague and then Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries led to another steep decline in Lincoln’s fortunes which did not revive much until first the canals and then the railways brought modern industry, and in particular heavy engineering. The army’s first tanks were designed and built in Lincoln during the First World War and the production of turbines remains the city’s principal source of employment today.
The City of Tennyson
Lincoln can boast many famous sons and daughters, perhaps the greatest of whom are Willian Byrd (1540-1623), England’s greatest Renaissance composer and sometime choirmaster and organist at Lincoln Cathedral, and Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) the great Victorian poet who was born in nearby Somersby.
Tennyson succeeded William Wordsworth as Poet Laureate in 1850 and held the post until his death over forty years later. Much loved by both the public and Queen Victoria, Tennyson was the first writer to be raised to the peerage, a distinction which he accepted reluctantly at the third time of asking.
Extracts from Tennyson’s poetry occupy several pages in many dictionaries of quotations. Here are just a very few which may be relevant to the Speakers’ Corner project:
Tennyson, who was much interested in the Italian and other independence movements, published the poem Of Old Sat Freedom in 1842 though it is thought to have been written in 1834, two years after the passage of the first great Reform Act, when the poet was a young man of 25.
Of old sat Freedom on the heights,
There in her place she did rejoice,
Then stept she down thro’ town and field
Grave mother of majestic works,
Her open eyes desire the truth.
That her fair form may stand and shine
Identifying the Speakers’ Corner Site
SCT’s consultation led to the first meeting of the Lincoln Speakers’ Corner Founding Committee on 16 November which decided to meet again in December to discuss in more depth theproject’s focus, to draw up a shortlist of potential Speakers’ Corner sites and to begin planning a launch. Several meetings then took place at which the Committee reduced an initial short list of eleven potential sites to two which with the help of drama students form the University of Lincoln it ‘road tested’ on 20 February.
The students, along with members of the Speakers’ Corner Committee, auditioned two sites at Lincoln’s historic Cornhill to see which would work best for a Speakers’ Corner. They asked themselves: where can a speaker be best seen and heard; where can a crowd most conveniently gather; where are most people passing by; which site works best with other nearby uses? They concluded that while the cobbled square behind the old Tourism Information Centre, which a hundred years ago been the scene of a famous Suffragette rally, would lend itself to larger scale events, the spot on the High Street in front of the TIC was the best place to attract passers-by.
The exercise was a great success with coverage from the Lincolnshire Echo and both BBC radio and TV and speeches on topics ranging from the dangers of dictatorships to the case for compulsory voting and from the importance of being nice to a speculation as to where Jesus might have shopped! The speakers thoroughly enjoyed themselves and so did the crowds which gathered. One of the speakers, student Pete Byrne, who performed a speech from Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator, told The Echo: “it seemed like a good choice to highlight why free speech is important and where we could be without it.” One of those who stopped to listen, bricklayer MickHague, told the paper: “it’s great that people are standing up in the centre of Lincoln and speaking withdifferent points of view.” His wife Sue agreed, saying, “it’s quite refreshing to hear different views andit really does make you think.”
Now the Speakers’ Corner Committee is considering how to mark the spot and drawing up plans for events in the coming months and a launch in the summer.
People’s Hustings at Lincoln’s Speaker’ Corner
The Speakers’ Corner Committee organised a People’s Hustings at the proposed site of the city’s new Speakers’ Corner at lunchtime on 29 April, just a week before polling day. The event was not only designed to revive the tradition of open air election meetings and provide a platform for politicians but also to give the public the opportunity to to set out their priorities and their expectations of the next government.
Local voluntary groups took centre stage, speaking about a range of issues including debt, environmental protection, homelessness, overseas aid, addiction and gay and lesbian rights. The Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates responded to each in turn and addressed comments and questions from the crowd which came so thick and fast that an event scheduled to last an hour went on for ninety minutes.
Hundreds of local people of all ages and backgrounds attended the hustings with many remaining throughout the good-humoured and thoughtful debate and at the end, the consensus was that it had been a great success.
Speaking afterwards, Committee Chair Richard Dale said, ” we didn’t really know what to expect: would anyone turn up; would anyone be interested? But we needn’t have worried, there were never fewer than 100 people gathered around the speakers and everyone seemed to be genuinely interested and engaged and enjoying it. Certainly from the comments I heard, people really got a lot out of it and that makes all worthwhile. Even the rain held off until we’d finished!”
Lincoln’s Speakers’ Corner is Official!
Tony Benn Launches Speakers’ Corner
Tony Benn was the guest speaker when the Deputy Mayor of Lincoln cut the ribbon on the new Speakers’ Corner at Cornhill. In an event on Thursday 16 September, the veteran politician reprised his days at Britain’s oldest Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park by being the first speaker at the country’s newest. He reminded the large crowd that throughout history progress and reformed had been secured by people who spoke out against injustice and demanded their rights: “How have changes come about? They have come about because people thought what was going on was wrong. They organised and complained to get them put right and that’s how progress is always made. Never believe those who say it cannot be done.”
He welcomed Lincoln’s Speakers’ Corner and urged that similar initiatives be undertaken around the country and but stressed that while it is important that people speak out, the policy makers in particular must be prepared to listen and respond.
Mr Benn was then joined by Dom McAndrew and Joseph Hayat, students from Lincoln University, who took up the baton with their own contributions from the platform and were followed by members of the public who spoke spontaneously on subjects as diverse as support for carers and the war in Afghanistan.
To see a brief film of the event, courtsey of Lava PR, please click here.