Heritage and Landscape

Speaker’s Corner: An International Symbol of Free Speech, by Harry Reid

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens – The Story of a Great London Park looks at the parks’ history dating back to Henry VIII, what happens in the parks today, and looks to the future of these great parks. We’re sharing a series of blog posts from author Harry Reid in the lead up to the book’s publication in 2021, and running a pre-publication offer to purchase the book for just £15, plus £4.50 p&p. Find out more about the book and the series of six articles we have planned in the run up to its publication in our previous blog post. The first in the series is devoted to Speaker’s Corner located in Hyde Park, possibly the most respected international symbol of free speech.


A busy Sunday afternoon at Speaker’s Corner. Image credit: Harry Reid

Close to Speaker’s Corner, in the north east corner of Hyde Park, is the area known as Tyburn which was for 600 years the principle place for executions of London’s convicted criminals and traitors, and also many religious martyrs.

The first executions took place in 1196 and the last hanging in 1783, and between these dates well over 50,000 men and women were “turned off” (as they delightfully called it then!) at this location.

One of the traditions at Tyburn was that each prisoner had the opportunity to make a last statement on their crime or simply shout a farewell to their family. The large crowds of sometimes over 20,000 people attracted there to see the executions particularly enjoyed a last desperate rant from the prisoners on their innocence or guilt! The concept of free speech in this area of the park started out in a way with the tradition of allowing some final words from every Tyburn prisoner.


Leading the debate on Britain’s new global relationships! Image credit: Harry Reid

Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park was formally set up in 1872 and quickly came to represent the symbolic home of free speech across the world.  Queen Victoria’s British Government had little choice but to allow “the right to speak” as numerous worker protests had taken place over the previous 20 years, which had led to major crowd disturbances in London, with considerable serious violence.

Many of the major protests prior to the Government allowing free speech seem very straightforward to us today, but in Victorian times they could be surprisingly contentious – for example, whether brass bands could play in the park on Sundays or should the park refreshment kiosks open on a daily basis, and literally thousands would come to Hyde Park to aggressively push their view.

The ground rules for Speaker’s Corner haven’t really changed for the past almost 150 years – literally any subject can be discussed and debated, and in practice the Police will only intervene if they feel any of the speakers are trying to whip up a possible disturbance or are resorting to excessive profanities. The Police presence is almost always very low key but in reality they’re never that far away in the event of any debates provoking minor skirmishes, which does happen very occasionally.


Double act at Speaker’s Corner in debate on the relevance of different religions. Image credit: Harry Reid

“I shall never forget my first visit to London in the Spring of 1990, very soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and quite a few months before Germany’s reunification….we walked through Hyde Park looking for Speaker’s Corner, which – especially for us in East Germany – was legendary, the very symbol of free speech.”
Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking to the British Parliament (27/2/2014)

In the first half of the 20th Century there were some pretty well-known speakers at the Corner on occasions including Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Winston Churchill, George Orwell, Vaclav Havel, George Bernard Shaw and Tony Benn. There were also some very passionate speeches in the early 1900s from leading suffragette campaigners including Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, and their battle to win voting rights for women certainly provoked considerable debate which was generally good natured, at least at Speaker’s Corner! In fact, a huge demonstration involving over 250,000 women was held in Hyde Park, close to Speaker’s Corner, on 21st June 1908 with Mrs Pankhurst and some 20 other speakers. Despite the impressive turnout at Hyde Park in 1908 and other London demonstrations, it took another 20 years until 1928 before Westminster legislation was passed to give the vote to women on a totally equal franchise.


Mrs Pankhurst and other speakers at the major Hyde Park demonstration. Image courtesy of the Hearsum Collection.


A cool, calm and collected Islamic view being expressed to a small group. Image credit: Harry Reid

Speaker’s Corner in London has inspired similar “the right to speak” locations in other countries like the USA and Australia. It was in fact originally called “The Orator’s Corner” but appears to have changed its name to Speaker’s Corner after 1945, adopting perhaps a more colloquial term.

Today the bigger Sunday debates tend to involve Middle Eastern issues – and usually more religious than political. The regular and more experienced hecklers often stay away from the religious debates, focusing more on softer targets, particularly speakers new to the Corner who can be easily distracted and sent up!

I understand efforts are being made now behind the scenes to encourage debate of alternative mainstream subjects other than religion to bring some variety to the mix, which sounds like a good idea to me!

Royal Park management has recently erected three well produced information boards at the Speaker’s Corner site to explain the story of how freedom of speech was achieved in the park almost 150 years ago and then became a symbol of democracy around the world, together with traditions that continue today.  This is a very welcome addition, especially for the benefit of international visitors.

Find out more about Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens in Harry Reid’s new book, available at the pre-publication price of £15, normally priced at £25. Pre-order at the discount price on our website.

The next article in our series on Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens will publish in August. Author Harry Reid will delve into how Hyde Park became “The People’s Park” over the past 100 years after previously being used mainly by monarchs for their own political purposes. Read the rest of the posts in this series.

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