Free speech laws in the United Kingdom include some notorious exceptions: Saying anything to incite religious and racial hatred, threaten the monarchy, or endorse terrorism may be considered unlawful. But there is one place in all of London where, informally, these restrictive speech laws don’t apply. Indeed publicly espousing radical ideas is the norm here.
Speakers’ Corner, located at the northeastern edge of London’s Hyde Park near the Marble Arch, gained unofficial status as a “right to speak” area in 1872 and has since been considered a special free speech zone. Political monologues, religious oration and fiery debates can be found here every Sunday morning of the year, although there are sharp peaks in attendance surrounding political events such as the recent Brexit vote.
While the speech laws are the same in Speakers’ Corner as they are anywhere else in the city, the site has been a hotspot for open-air debates and political commentary for decades, starting in the mid-19th century.
At the time Hyde Park was a popular site for protests and demonstrations. The Chartists gathered here to protest for the rights of the working people including the right to assembly. In 1872 the government gave into public pressure and passed the Parks and Gardens Act which, among other things, established the right to meet and speak freely in Hyde Park.
Over the years Speakers’ Corner has seen elocution from the likes of Vladmir Lenin, Karl Marx, and George Orwell, who once described the place as “one of the minor wonders of the world.” Orwell wrote that at Speakers’ Corner he’d listened to “Indian nationalists, temperance reformers, Communists, Trotskyists, the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), the Catholic Evidence Society, freethinkers, vegetarians, Mormons, the Salvation Army, the Church Army, and a large variety of plain lunatics”.
In 1855, the corner was the site of massive riots in opposition to the Sunday Trading Bill, a law which forbid vendors from making sales on Sundays. According to Karl Marx, this protest was responsible for sparking the English Revolution. Two centuries later, in 2003, Iraq War rallies at the corner drew in nearly two million British protestors.
The story of Speakers’ Corner may actually start over 800 years ago, in 1196, when the Tyburn Gallows were installed in Hyde Park near today’s location of Speakers’ Corner. Each one of the 50,000 prisoners sentenced to death at the gallows was allowed to make one speech before being hung, be it a confession, an apology, or a plea of innocence. Although the gallows were taken down in 1783, the legacy of speechmaking at the site has lived on. Speakers’ Corner is the last of over 100 soapbox orator areas in London to survive to this day, and remains a key part of Britain’s political culture.
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