wWw – To access the Reading Speakers’ Corner website, please click here.
Some 40 miles to the west of London at the confluence of the River Thames and River Kennet, Reading became a town of growing importance afer the Norman Conquest. The founding of Reading Abbey by Henry I in 1121, largely destroyed in 1538 during the dissolution of the monastries under Henry VIII, established strong connections with the monarchy and made Reading one of the largest towns in medieval England. It was besieged during the Civil War and was the scene of the only significant battle of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which the forces of William of Orange defeated those of James II. Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis while imprisoned in Reading Gaol between 1895 and 1897.
The 19th century saw the coming of the Kennet & Avon canal and the Great Western Railway which supported the development of the town’s three main industries, the Three Bs of brewing, bulbs and biscuits, with Suttons Seeds and Huntley & Palmers among its leading businesses.
Today, with a population of over 150,000, Reading is home to a number of major IT, banking and insurance usinesses, and, despite its proximity to the capital, has a net inward commuter flow.
First Step Towards Reading Speakers’ Corner
SCT’s consultation with potential stakeholders in Reading over the summer of 2013 met with an enthusiastic response – so much so that every organisation involved was represented at the meeting at Jelly Studios on 30 October which unanimously established the Reading Speakers’ Corner Committee. Members include representatives of the Council, the University, Reading College, Reading Voluntary Action, Reading Faith Forum, the Reading Evening Post and the RSA.
The Committee met again in late November and in the new year to draw up a shortlist of potential sites for a town centre Speakers’ Corner and consider how best to launch the inititiative in 2014.
Trialling the Sites
The trialling of two potential town centres sites for Reading’s permanent Speakers’ Corner took place on Saturday 1 March, the only sunny, rainfree day for several weeks. The project’s new portable Speakers’ Corner was set up first in Market Place and then moved to the paved area outside the Town Hall. Some twenty speakers of all ages and backgrounds, including a number of students from St Joseph’s College, entertained, occasionally provoked, always stimulated and often amused a large crowd of wellwishers and passers by for more than 90 minutes.
Topics ranged from the challenges faced by parents with disabilities to the folly and pitfalls of shopping, from the problems of sexism and racism to the culture of the selfie, from the difficulties teenagers have in coping with their parents’ and teachers’ expectations to the place of camels in the Old Testament. Seven year-old Shulamit Solomons delighted her audience by illustrating with a joke she made up herself how Maths, her favourite subject, can be fun.
Both sites worked well, offering good footfall and providing comfortable, pedestrianised space not too close to other uses or to traffic.
Launching Reading Speakers’ Corner
The Reading Speakers’ Corner Committee agreed unanimously that the Speakers’ Corner should be established at Market Place and, following a meeting with the Leader of the Council and senior colleagues, it was agreed to plan a launch in June. The project already has its own website and twitter account. Now plans for an exciting programme of events are being drawn up.
The launch took place on Saturday 14 June, preceded by an event in Palmer Park where the portable Speakers’ Corner was set up outside the Play Cafe and several people, including young mothers using the cafe, took the opportunity to say their piece.
The launch event itself, in Market Place, was sadly interrupted and then truncated by heavy rain showers, but not before the Council’s Deputy Leader Tony Page had given Speakers’ Corner his blessing and a number of speakers braved the elements to express their views, notably about the blight of estate agents and the future of phone boxes.
Speakers’ Corner events will now take place in Market Place, according to Speakers’ Corner Committee chair Tony Hoskins, “come rain or shine” every first Saturday in the month.
The portable Speakers’ Corner will also be used elsewhere around the town and taken out to Reading’s neighbourhoods to provide local people with a platform or to support community events.
People’s Hustings at Speakers’ Corner
Reading East candidates were put through their paces at Speakers’ Corner on 2 May when a range of local voluntary groups, including Reading Neighbourhood Network, Reading Equality Group and Disabled People Against Cuts, came together to set out their agenda for the next Government.
A large crowd gathered to listen to them and to the responses of Labour’s Matt Rodda and the Green candidate Rob White as well as to join in the debate themselves.
Unfortunately the UKIP candidate Christine Forrester and the representative of the Reading Business Improvement District who was to have spoken came down with the same bug and were unable to attend but the debate was lively as well as good humoured and went on long beyond its allotted hour with a particularly welcome contribution from engaged and eloquent young people.