Speakers’ Corner is found close to the site of Tyburn
gallows, where public hangings took place between 1196 and 1783. Legend has it the origins of Speakers’ Corner lie in the tradition of granting last words to those condemned to die.
Speakers here may talk on any subject, as long as the police consider their speeches lawful. Contrary to popular belief, there is no immunity from the law, nor are any subjects proscribed, but in practice the police tend to be tolerant and therefore intervene only when they receive a complaint. On some occasions in the past, they have intervened on grounds of profanity. Historically there were a number of other areas designated as Speakers’ Corners in other parks in London (e.g., Lincoln’s Inn Fields Finsbury Park, Clapham Common, Kennington Park, and Victoria Park).
Though Hyde Park
Speakers’ Corner is considered the paved area closest to Marble Arch
, legally the public speaking area extends beyond the Reform Tree and covers a large area from Marble Arch
to Victoria Gate, then along the Serpentine to Hyde Park
Corner and the Broad Walk running from Hyde Park
Corner to Marble Arch
Public riots broke out in the park in 1855, in protest over the Sunday Trading Bill, which forbade buying and selling on a Sunday, the only day working people had off. The riots were described by Karl Marx as the beginning of the English revolution.
The Chartist movement used Hyde Park
as a point of assembly for workers’ protests, but no permanent speaking location was established. The Reform League organised a massive demonstration in 1866 and then again in 1867, which compelled the government to extend the franchise to include most working-class men.
The riots and agitation for democratic reform encouraged some to force the issue of the "right to speak" in Hyde Park
. The Parks Regulation Act 1872 delegated the issue of permitting public meetings to the park authorities (rather than central government). Contrary to popular belief, it does not confer a statutory basis for the right to speak at Speakers’ Corner. Parliamentary debates on the Act illustrate that a general principle of being able to meet and speak was not the intention, but that some areas would be permitted to be used for that purpose.
Since that time, it has become a traditional site for public speeches and debate, as well as a major site of protest and assembly in Britain. There are some who contend that the tradition has a connection with the Tyburn
gallows, where the condemned man was allowed to speak before being hanged.
Although many of its regular speakers are non-mainstream, Speakers’ Corner was frequented by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, C. L. R. James, Walter Rodney, Ben Tillett, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah and William Morris. Its existence is frequently upheld as a demonstration of free speech, as anyone can turn up unannounced and talk on almost any subject, although always at the risk of being heckled by regulars.