Nearly 3,000 years ago, Homer wrote in The Iliad that “to speak his thoughts is every freeman’s right.” But it is only in recent times that that right has been articulated in the declarations and conventions of the United Nations and European Union and in the statutes of modern states.
While Britain’s constitution remains famously unwritten (and it was only in 1998 that Parliament formally adopted its own Human Rights Act), this country has had a tradition of respect for freedom of speech and the right of assembly which has not only shaped its own democracy but has also inspired and continues to influence the development of others.
One of the most powerful symbols of that tradition is to be found on a parcel of land which lies roughly between the site of the old Tyburn gallows and the Reform Tree in London’s Hyde Park. There for over a century men and women, some famous (including Karl Marx, William Morris, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, Marcus Garvey and Lord Soper) but most not, have dissented and denounced, canvassed and converted, preached and proselytised, and in so doing given expression to the fundamental rights of citizens to gather together to hear and be heard.
It occupies a part of Hyde Park where, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Chartists held mass protests against the suppression of the rights of working people, including the right of assembly, and the Reform League organised huge rallies to demand the widening of the franchise.
The Times, reflecting the unease of the establishment of the day, declared after one such demonstration that “it is against all reason and all justice that motley crowds from all parts of the metropolis should take possession of Hyde Park, and interfere with the enjoyments of those to whom the Park more particularly belongs”.
But, reporting on the same event, the radical Reynolds’ Newspaper of 29 July 1866 declared exultantly that despite the attempts of the police and troops to prevent them, “the people have triumphed, in so far as they have vindicated their right to meet, speak, resolve, and exhort in Hyde Park.”
In the end the Government had to bow to popular pressure. In the Parks Regulation Act of 1872 Parliament granted the Park Authorities the right to permit public meetings and Speakers’ Corner, already heavy with history, was born. For over a century it has been a focus for protest and debate and the symbol of a free society and a mature democracy.
Speakers’ Corner: Debate, Democracy and Disturbing the Peace, published by the History Press, is a record of documentary photographer Philip Wohlmuth’s visits to Speakers’ Corner over almost forty years.
Philip plots the changes – in topics, speakers and audience – over that period but concludes in his introduction that “despite these changes, Speakers’ Corner retains the unique buzz generated by the intensity and eccentricity of face-to-face argument.”
The BBC World Service has made a short film based on Philip’s book which you can see here.
Sounds from the Park is a multi media project managed by the On the Record Community Interest Company in partnership with the Bishopsgate Institute which has drawn on a wealth of material including interviews with and video and audio recordings of speakers, hecklers and visitors to create a living picture of the Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner.
It also provides educational resources on Speakers’ Corners’ history and traditions and the role it has played in British social and political life, as well as creating a major archive based at Bishopsgate Library in London.
There is much more about this excellent project and the resources it has created at the Sounds from the Park website.
Director Gavin White has made an hour long documentary about Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner entitled Speakers Corner: You Have The Right To Remain Vocal which, he says, “serves as a modern commentary on the origins and fragility of freedoms of speech and assembly…and stands as a powerful metaphor for global democracy and our future”.
To view the multi award-winning film, please click here.