Articles on Speakers' Corner

  • Freedom of the Park By George Orwell  A few weeks ago, five people who were selling papers outside Hyde Park were arrested by the police for obstruction. When taken before the magistartes, they were ...
    Posted 5 May 2010, 05:35 by heiko khoo
  • Hunger Marches and Hyde Park By Bob Edwards M.P. Foreword by Leslie Jones Bob Edwards went on an I.L.P. Guild of Youth Delegation to Russia and travelled extensively in the Soviet Union ...
    Posted 5 May 2010, 05:33 by heiko khoo
  • William Morris and Hyde Park by Leslie Jones  In the summer of 1884 William Morris was speaking regularly in Hyde Park, Regents Park, and Victoria Park in the East End, together with H.M. Hyndman ...
    Posted 4 May 2010, 14:59 by heiko khoo
  • Hyde Park and Free Speech A pamphlet by Leslie Jones, with a forward by F.A. Ridley.  Foreword  Visitors to London's world famous Hyde Park, and such visitors come from all over the globe ...
    Posted 4 May 2010, 14:56 by heiko khoo
  • Agitation against the Sunday Trading Bill Two articles by Karl Marx London, 25 June 1855 Obsolete social forces, nominally still in possession of all the attributes of power long after the basis of their existence has ...
    Posted 4 May 2010, 15:01 by heiko khoo
  • Lenin at Speakers Corner 1902-1903 We were astounded at the tremendous size of London. Although it was exceedingly dismal weather on the day of our arrival, Vladimir Ilyich's face immediately brightened up ...
    Posted 4 May 2010, 14:50 by heiko khoo
  • Tyburn Hanging Tree and the Origins of Speakers' Corner by John Roberts Speakers' Corner is one of Britain's most famous places for public debate and discussion. Often it is seen as a shining symbol of Britain's entry ...
    Posted 4 May 2010, 14:49 by heiko khoo
Showing posts 1 - 7 of 7. View more »

Freedom of the Park

posted 5 May 2010, 05:34 by heiko khoo

By George Orwell 

A few weeks ago, five people who were selling papers outside Hyde Park were arrested by the police for obstruction. When taken before the magistartes, they were all found guilty, four of them being bound over for six months and the other sentenced to forty shillings fine or a month's imprisonments. He preferred to serve his term.

The papers these people were selling were Peace News, Forward and Freedom, besides other kindred literature. Peace news is the organ of the Peace Pledge Union, Freedom (till recently called war Commentary) is that of the Anarchists; as for Forward, its politics defy definition, but at any rate it is violently Left. The magistrate, in passing sentence, stated that he was not influenced by the nature of the literature that was being sold; he was concerned merely with the fact of obstruction, and that this offence had technically been committed.

This raises several important points. To begin with, how does the law stand on the subject? As far as I can discover, selling newspapers in the street is technically an obstruction, at any rate if you fail to move when the police tell you to. So it would be legally possible for any policeman who felt like it to arrest any newsboy for selling the Evening News. Obviously this doesn't happen, so that the enforcement of the law depends on the discretion of the police.

And what makes the police decide to arrest one man rather than another? However it may be with the magistrate, I find it hard to believe that in this case the police were not influenced by political considerations. It is a bit too much of a coincidence that they should have picked on people selling just those papers.

If they had also arrested someone sellling Truth, or the Tablet, or the Spectator, or even the Church Times, their impartiality would be easier to believe in.

The British police are not like the continental gendarmerie or Gestapo, but I do not think (sic) one maligns them in saying that, in the past, they have been unfriendly to Left-wing activities. They have generally shown a tendency to side with those whom they regarded as the defenders of private property. Till quite recently "red" and "illegal" were almost synonymous, and it was always the seller of, say the Daily Worker, never the seller of say, the Daily Telegraph, who was moved on and generally harassed. Aparently it can be the same, at any rate at moments, under a Labour Government.

A thing I would like to know- it is a thing we hear very little about- is what changes are made in the administrative personnel when there has been a change of government.. Does a police officer who has a vague notion that "Socialism" means something against the law carry on just the same when the government itself is Socialist?

When a Labour government takes over, I wonder what happens to Scotland Yard Special Branch? To Military Intelligence? We are not told, but such symptoms as there are do not suggest that any very extensive shuffling is going on.

However, the main point of this episode is that the sellers of newspapers and pamphlets should be interfered with at all. Which particular minority is singled out- whether Pacifists, Communists, Anarchists, Jehovah's Witness of the Legion of Christian Reformers who recently declared Hitler to be Jesus Christ- is a secondary matter. It is of symptomatic importance that these people should have been arrested at that particular spot. You are not allowed to sell literature inside Hyde Park, but for many years past it has been usual for the paper-sellers to station themselves outside the gates and distribute literature connected with the open air meetings a hundred yards away. Every kind of publication has been sold there without interference.

The degree of freedom of the press existing in this country is often over-rated. Technically there is great freedom, but the fact that most of the press is owned by a few people operates in much the same way as State censorship. On the other hand, freedom of speech is real. On a platform, or in certain recognised open air spaces like Hyde Park, you can say almost anything, and, what is perhaps more significant, no one is frightened to utter his true opinions in pubs, on the tops of busses, and so forth.

The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them. The decline in the desire for individual liberty has not been so sharp as I would have predicted six years ago, when the war was starting, but still there has been a decline. The notion that certain opinions cannot safely be allowed a hearing is growing. It is given currency by intellectuals who confuse the issue by not distinguishing between democratic opposition and open rebellion, and it is reflected in our growing indifference to tyranny and injustice abroad. And even those who declare themselves to be in favour of freedom of opinion generally drop their claim when it is their own adversaries who are being prosecutued.

I am not suggesting that the arrest of five people for selling harmless newspapers is a major calamity. When you see what is happening in the world today, it hardly seems worth squeeling about such a tiny incident. All the same, it is not a good syptom that such things should happen when the war is well over, and I should feel happier if this and the long series of similar episodes that have preceded it, were capable of raising a genuine popular clamour, and not merely a mild flutter in sections of the minority press.

Hunger Marches and Hyde Park

posted 5 May 2010, 05:32 by heiko khoo

By Bob Edwards M.P.

Foreword by Leslie Jones

Bob Edwards went on an I.L.P. Guild of Youth Delegation to Russia and travelled extensively in the Soviet Union where he met Stalin, Molotov, Bela Kun and Leon Trotsky. He became an organiser and General Secretary of the Chemical Workers Union in Britain. Although employed himself he marched with and led the Lancashire Hunger Marchers to London in 1934. They followed much the same route that we took in the March for Jobs in 1981 from Liverpool to London, though of course then under much harder and more trying conditions. He later went to the U.S.A. and lectured there on World Labour Cooperation and during that time interviewed President Roosevelt, John L. Lewis and other leading figures, and took an active part in the campaign of the Congress of Industrial Organisations. For a time Bob was an elected member of the City of Liverpool Council. He was the leader of the I.L.P. Contingent that went to Spain in 1936 and served as a Captain in the International Militia and fought on the Republican side on the Aragon Front. He later became the National Chairman of the I.L.P. and Chairman of the United Socialist States of Europe Movement. Later he was elected Cooperative and Labour M.P. for Bilston, and now for many years has been the M.P. for S.E. Wolverhampton. He was Vice President of the Assembly of Europe in 1969-70. When the Chemical Workers Union amalgamated with the Transport and General Workers Union he became a National Officer of that Union from 1970-74.


Hunger Marches and Hyde Park

In 1934 the National Government, dominated by the right-wing Conservatives, proposed to introduce into Parliament a Bill that would deprive unemployed work people of social benefits unless they were willing to accept what we call 'task work'. This was resisted by the Parliamentary Labour Party which had been heavily defeated in the General Election, and was naturally opposed by the organised unemployed. The unemployed workers at that time were organised by the Unemployed Workers' Movement led by Wal Hannington and the Independent Labour Party's Unemployed Workers Rights Committees. At that time the I.L.P. was quite a force in the land and it had opened its many premises throughout the country to the unemployed workers and had formed a whole series of unemployed workers rights committees. The two organisations catering for the unemployed decided to organise a great national march on London.

In the town of Chorley where I resided at that time, we had formed a very strong unemployed workers rights committee with their headquarters at the I.L.P. Institute, and we decided to participate in the march on London as part of the Lancashire marchers. We arranged for five unemployed workers from Chorley to take part in the march. We provided them with haversacks and army boots, but at the last moment they renegaded, so although not unemployed myself, I decided to participate in the march on behalf of the Chorley unemployed. We set off from Manchester, 300 strong, and in Manchester I was elected, presumably because I was a good organiser, leader of the march. It took three weeks to march to London, and one of the marchers from Liverpool was a young Liverpool City Councillor named Jack Jones, who later became, as we all know, the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union.

When we arrived at Congleton where we were to sleep in the Town Hall, the Inspector of Police informed us that the Town Hall was unsafe and we were to be housed in a workhouse some sixteen miles from Congleton. As we had already marched fifteen miles that day we refused and sat down in the main road to London, blocking the whole road for many hours. The local inhabitants made common cause with us and eventually the police arranged for buses to transport us to the workhouse and back to Congleton the next morning. At the workhouse we were informed by the Governor that as a special treat we would not be given cheese sandwiches but corned beef sandwiches, a great luxury in those days.

We assembled 4,000 marchers on London, and our campaigns during the seven days stay had the effect of influencing the withdrawal of the Slave Bill, and I negotiated with the Minister of Transport, Oliver Stanley, that if we paid ten shillings for each marcher, free railway tickets would be granted to all the marchers. During this period I interrupted Ramsay MacDonald when he was speaking in the House of Commons and I was ejected by the police.

Some of our antics in London to draw attention to the problems of the unemployed and the iniquities of the proposed Slave Bill could form an interesting chapter in a book covering this period. We organised the marchers into groups of ten, and gave them sandwiches and two pence for a cup of tea or coffee and they descended on and occupied most of the restaurants and cafes in the centre of London, just ordering a cup of tea and opening their packets of sandwiches. Some of the cafe and restaurant managers were sympathetic to the unemployed workers and refused to take payment and supplied them with cooked meals. This was particularly true of Lyons, who supplied the Lancashire Marchers with cakes and sandwiches during the whole period.

The cover photograph shows the Lancashire Marchers marching through the High Street at Walsall. Those leading the march were members of the I.L.P. and representatives of the local Trades Council. (Bob Edwards is the young man under the banner.) In this short summary it does not begin to recall this historic march. It took place in February, but fortunately the weather was mild and we had very few casualties. In Manchester we purchased a lorry for five pounds, painted it red and when we left London we left it in a street near Euston Station. The police were so glad to be rid of us that they caused no trouble and took charge of our vehicle which had served us well during this long march on London.

Other Hunger Marches started from Glasgow and Edinburgh and were swollen all the way down Britain by contingents from other towns. When they reached London 2000 of them were met by tens of thousands of supporters and 160,000 strong they marched to Hyde Park, where the crowd grew to hundreds of thousands. Lord Trenchard, then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, mobilised 60,000 London and provincial police and 20,000 special constables against the marchers and their supporters. The leave of regiments of the Guards was stopped and they were held in readiness for action.

At Hyde Park in a scuffle a policeman's helmet was knocked off, batons were drawn, mounted police charged and many people were injured. Three times within a week hundreds of thousands of London workers massed on the streets in support of the Marchers and each time fierce clashes occurred with the police. There was a baton charge when marchers assembled in Trafalgar Square and a number of men tried to mount a red flag on the Cenotaph. A million-signature petition demanding the abolition of the means test never reached the House of Commons; it was confiscated by the police. The March frightened the Government and some small changes were made in the administration of the Means Test.

The unemployed marched again and demonstrated in Hyde Park. The Daily Herald reported: "Thousands of people had assembled in Hyde Park to see them arrive. Nobody jeered. Nobody challenged them. Nobody laughed. Because they brought with them an atmosphere of tragedy, for which the day with its grey skies and its drizzly rain, seemed made. Many of them were thin and haggard. And, when the march ended and the rain ceased they threw off their packs and rested on the wet grass munching the sandwiches sympathisers had given them. They tried to see their Members of Parliament at the House of Commons, but the police had been given instructions to turn away anyone who looked as though he were unemployed and to admit only the better dressed. Only after protests from Labour Members were the unemployed admitted to the palace of Westminster." They came from Jarrow, South Wales, Scotland, Northeast England, Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Coventry, Lowestoft, and elsewhere and rallied in Hyde Park in an icy downpour. Clement Attlee voiced their demand "Work or maintenance" - a cry that had first been voiced by James Keir Hardie forty years before. The Hunger Marchers paraded their dignity, gave the country a reminder which fashioned new ways and helped to ensure the end of Toryism and awakened Britain to Socialist Ideas.


Stanzas on Freedom

By James Russell Lowell

Men! whose boast it is that ye
Come of fathers brave and free,
If there breathe on earth a slave,
Are ye truly free and brave?
If ye do not feel the chain
When it works a brother's pain,
Are ye not base slaves indeed,
Slaves unworthy to be freed?

Is true Freedom but to break
Fetters, for our own dear sake,
And, with leathern hearts, forget
That we owe mankind a debt?
No! true Freedom is to share
All the chains our brothers wear,
And, with heart and hand, to be
Earnest to make others free!

They are slaves who fear to speak
For the fallen and the weak;
They are slaves who will not choose
Hatred, scoffing, and abuse,
Rather than in silence shrink
From the truth they needs must think;
They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three.

William Morris and Hyde Park

posted 4 May 2010, 14:58 by heiko khoo   [ updated 4 May 2010, 14:59 ]

by Leslie Jones 

In the summer of 1884 William Morris was speaking regularly in Hyde Park, Regents Park, and Victoria Park in the East End, together with H.M. Hyndman, John Burns, Tom Mann, Jack Williams, and others. He was one of a small knot of Socialists who spoke at the great Franchise meeting in Hyde Park, on July 21st, 1884. They provided themselves with a little cart with a red flag, from which they distributed their manifesto and tried to sell their newspaper. Little success was made in trying to convert the enthusiasm of the occasion to their own use. J.W. Mackail in 'The Life of William Morris, vol. 1 & 2' published by Longmans, Green and Co. 1889, notes that "In the main they were unnoticed and swallowed up in the vast crowd." Morris wrote next day "We found it easy work getting rid of the gratis literature but hard to sell anything." The attempts at speaking from the mound of the reservoir in the Park were little more successful. A contemptuous reference by one of the speakers (John Burns) to John Bright raised a storm of hooting in the audience; the crowd began to push and sway, and the ring of friends around the banner was broken up and dispersed. There was no actual violence, a suggestion that the unpopular speaker should be put in the Serpentine was not taken up: but the day was over as far as any attempt to influence the crowd was concerned. On Saturday June 12th 1886, William Morris spoke at Hyde Park near the Marble Arch. Writing to his daughter Jenny on June 15th he said "I was quite nervous about it, I don't know why: because when I was speaking at Stratford I was not nervous at all, though I expected the police to attack us. At Hyde Park we had a very quiet and rather good audience and sold 4 quires of 'Commonweal': and I spoke twice, the second time not at all nervously." On Sunday morning, July 18th 1886, in accordance with advertised arrangement, William Morris was addressing an outdoor meeting in Bell Street off the Edgware Road. An inspector of Police appeared on the scene, the crowd groaned, but made way for him. He came up 'mighty civil' and told Morris to stop speaking: Morris refused, his name and address were taken, and went away again. Morris was summoned two days afterwards at the Marylebone Police Court: the technical offence of obstructing the highway was of course indisputable, and he was fined a shilling and costs. This was his last encounter with authority in the cause of freedom of speech.

In October 1887 Morris's interlude 'The Tables Turned, or Nupkins Awakened' was produced at the Farringdon Road office of the Socialist League for the benefit of 'The Commonweal'. It was performed there on October 15th. Morris himself acting in it, and was so successful that it was repeated three times. Shaw says he had never been present at such an overwhelmingly successful first night. The scene is 'A Court of Justice', and the case is heard by Mr. Justice Nupkins. Morris himself took the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury, called as a witness for the defence in a police prosecution of a member of the Socialist League on a charge of obstruction and riot. The Archbishop had gone to see for himself what a socialist meeting was really like. But he was disappointed by the 'extreme paucity of the audience' and disgusted by 'the rude and coarse words' of the prisoner, who had complained that it was 'damned hard lines to have to speak to a lamp-post, a kid, and an old buffer', by the latter vulgarity indicating myself as I understand. Philip Henderson in 'William Morris: his life, work and friends' published by Thames and Hudson in 1967 says "Morris drew upon his own experiences of open-air meetings and attendances at police courts." The trial of the comrade is interrupted by the singing of the 'Marseillaise' and the outbreak of the revolution offstage. The play ends at Kelmscott in the world of 'News from Nowhere' a socialist commonwealth and Nupkins, in a world without lawyers, ie condemned to dig potatoes as a temporary penance.

Hyde Park and Free Speech

posted 4 May 2010, 14:56 by heiko khoo

A pamphlet by Leslie Jones, with a forward by F.A. Ridley. 


Visitors to London's world famous Hyde Park, and such visitors come from all over the globe, will notice an elderly man with a patriarchal beard selling radical literature in the Edgware Road subway entrance to the also world famous "Speakers Corner", adjacent to the Marble Arch, where an often strangely assorted collection of speakers nightly demonstrate the merits of free speech and discussion. 

However, Mr. Leslie Jones is not only an experienced campaigner for Socialism over half a century and an indefatigable salesman of radical political literature, but is also himself an author and an authority on Hyde Park. Anyone who wishes to learn how this originally medieval deer park in which Henry VIII hunted and where Oliver Cromwell reviewed his "Ironsides" developed into the modern "Areopagus of Free Speech" which "Speakers Corner" has represented for the past Century, will find the essential facts lucidly demonstrated in Leslie Jones' new pamphlet "Hyde Park and Free Speech". Most appropriately the pamphlet is dedicated to the memory of Bonar Thompson (1888-1962) who for many years nightly demonstrated his remarkable wit, oratorical talent, and unique personality upon the platform at "Speakers Corner". At this present time when human freedom is so often crushed beneath the coercive sway of bureaucracy and of standardised technology, freedom of speech and of thought were never more essential. Hyde Park has now become a veritable "Peoples University". How this came about is clearly and forcibly indicated in this excellent pamphlet which itself constitutes a most valuable addition to current radical literature.



Hyde Park and Free Speech

The manor or Hyde came into the possession of Henry VIII then covering about 620 acres and he had it fenced around. Both he and later Queen Elizabeth entertained visitors there and hunted the deer, as did James I in turn. It was still an enclosed private Royal park in Charles I's reign when what were left of the deer were sold. From 1645 to 1949 Hyde park and Spring Gardens were ordered to be shut and no person allowed to go into them on the Lord's day, fast and thanksgiving days. In 1652 together with other London parks and grounds it was sold. The lessee's exacted tolls on carriages and horses entering the Park. Cromwell attended a hurling match there in 1654 and another time was thrown whilst driving his coach there and later there was a plot to assassinate him in the Park.

Soon after the restoration Hyde Park was given back to the crown. A brick wall was built around it and an enclosure in the north west corner called Buckdean Hill was restocked with deer. The last Royal shooting of deer took place on September 9th 1768 and the two Princes of Saxe Gotha were among those present. Foot and horse racing, prize fighting and even duelling took place in the Park which was opened to the Public in 1662. Swimming and boating and when frozen skating took place on the ponds. Much later the Serpentine was formed out of these ponds at the request of Queen Caroline. Driving especially at a small enclosure called the "Ring" was very popular particularly on May Days.

After the accession of William III and his purchase of Kensington Palace, his route to the palace "The King's New Road" through Hyde Park, became known as "Rotton Row" a corruption of "Route du Roi". It came to be used as a place of exercise and social intercourse. The Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia were among those present at a review of regular troops and volunteers on June 20th 1814.

A mock sea-fight with reproduction miniature ships of the fleets taking part in the Battle of the Nile took place on the Serpentine. The ships were built out of old ships timbers at Greenwich and each was manned by a crew of three sailors who navigated and fired blank ammunition, and was fought out on August 1st 1814.

A great fair was held in the Park at the same time which ended in scenes of drunkenness and dissipation. Another jollification took place on July 19th 1821 at the time of the Coronation of George III. There was boat racing on the Serpentine and illuminations and fireworks in the Park. Oxen and sheep were roasted whole and hundreds of hogsheads of ale and porter were consumed. Other jollifications were held for the Coronation of William IV in September 1831 and of Queen Victoria on June 28th 1838 and a "Peace Rejoicing" on May 29th 1856. The "Great Exhibition of Industry of All Nations" was staged in the Park from May 1st to October 11th 1851 and 6,063,986 people attended.

On Sunday July 1st 1855 a demonstration against the "Sunday Trading Bill" was held in Hyde Park. The Chief Commissioner of Police had placards posted in the Metropolis announcing that this meeting would not be allowed to take place. By half past two nearly 150,000 men, women and children had assembled. Proceedings began with stump oratory for some time but were brought to termination by the cry of "the police" and 30 or 40 policemen appeared and were hissed and hooted at, when they attempted to arrest a man. The crowd knocked some of the policemen's hats off and the police used their truncheons. Arrests were made and the crowd laid hold of the officers and endeavoured to rescue the prisoners. 104 rioters were arrested. The Bill was withdrawn next day, but a further meeting was held in the Park on the following Sunday July 8th. Other meetings on the high price of food were held on Sundays October 14th, 21st, and 28th, the latter finishing up in the West End where the crowd smashed windows. Further meetings were held on Sunday November 4th, and 11th, and at the latter some arrests were made. One man got a months imprisonment for obstructing the police, another two months for assaulting two policemen, a boy was given fourteen days for disorderly conduct, and a man was fined £3.1s [3 pounds 1 shilling], for distributing handbills.

On Sunday November 18th there was another meeting followed by trouble with the police, and a demonstration outside the residence of the "French Ambassador". On May 8th 1859 a meeting was held to propose an address to the Emperor Napoleon, sympathising with the Emperor in the course he had taken with respect to the war in Italy. On Sunday September 28th 1862 a meeting was held to express sympathy with General Garibaldi, and to protest against the French Occupation of Rome. This was followed by a serious riot, after which there was much rain, several arrests were made, and a number of people were fined. On Sunday October 5th 80-90,000 people assembled, and there were only about 400 police present. A fearful conflict took place between the supporters of Garibaldi and those of the Pope, for possession of a mound, used for speaking from, called the "Redan". A dozen or so soldiers of the Coldstream and Grenadiers got involved. During the following week the mound was levelled by the Authorities. The Guards were forbidden to enter the Park on the following Sunday. Notices were posted by the Commissioner of Police stating that no meetings or assemblies could be held. The appearance of 800 policemen and pitiless rain put paid to a further meeting on October 12th.

The Reform League advertised a meeting for July 23rd 1866 in Hyde Park and the police issued a ban on any such demonstrations or meetings on that day. Vast crowds collected, and a force of foot and mounted police numbered 16 or 18,000. At five o'clock the Park Gates were closed, leaving many people inside. Outside there were even more people and masses assembled at the approaches. The Marble Arch was the main centre of attraction, and traffic was seriously impeded. Shortly after 7 p.m. Mr. Edward Beales, Lieut. Colonel Dickson, and other leaders of the Reform League, in a line of cabs heading the Clerkenwell, Islington, and other processions advanced to the Marble Arch. The crowd tried to rush the gates, but the police used their staves freely to defeat the attempt. Mr. Beales and Col. Dickson were said to have been struck in the scuffle. Having been refused admission, and having raised the question of by what statute, or law or principle of law, the Commissioner was acting in declaring the meeting illegal, they proceeded to Trafalgar Square to hold a meeting there.

A large portion of the demonstrators, however, stayed at Hyde Park, and managed to force a breech in the railings along the Bayswater Road and later in Park Lane. Both the railings and the masonry were overturned. A number of people were roughly handled, a mechanic named Field received serious head injuries, and another man named Tyler received blows to the head. They and others had to be taken to hospital. About forty or fifty persons were taken into custody by the police. At about 8 p.m. a company of the Grenadier Guards and a troop of the Life Guards entered the Park, but by then too late to prevent the influx of people. Speeches were made at various spots, one of the orators being a Miss Harriet Laws, who delivered a very fervid address on the political and social, rights of the people.

On July 25th the Reform League held another meeting and gathered in force. Mr. Beales informed the people present that his visit to Mr. Walpole had resulted in that gentleman promising that the right of public meeting in the Park should be legally tested at as early a moment as possible. Posters to this effect were then set upon the Park Gates. On April 19th 1867 a meeting was convened by the "Working Men's Rights Association" in Hyde Park, for the purpose of denouncing the Government Reform Bill, and to express their opinion "That the Parks are the Peoples' and we hereby claim the right to the use of them for the purpose of discussing our political wrongs." They had a red flag, surmounted by a Cap of Liberty, but as they were quiet the police did not interfere with the proceedings.

On Monday May 6th 30,000 people answered a call to a meeting in Hyde Park, despite a proclamation by Mr. Walpole warning them to abstain from attending, aiding, or taking part in such a meeting, and there was an official warning that over 5,000 mounted and foot police would be in the Park, and in addition that troops would be confined to barracks in order to be in readiness if necessary. The meeting went off orderly, and without the slightest disturbance, with little more than a dozen policemen to be seen at any one time. A great victory for free speech in Hyde Park which we have enjoyed ever since.


Editor's Note

"Hyde Park and Free Speech" was first published in the Hyde Park Socialist (No. 34, Winter 1976-77). It is dedicated to Bonar Thompson. Leslie Jones is the author of other publications, including A Workers Notebook, and A Guide to Socialism.

Agitation against the Sunday Trading Bill

posted 4 May 2010, 14:52 by heiko khoo   [ updated 4 May 2010, 15:01 ]

Two articles by Karl Marx

London, 25 June 1855

Obsolete social forces, nominally still in possession of all the attributes of power long after the basis of their existence has rotted away under their feet, continue to vegetate as their heirs begin to quarrel over their claims to the inheritance - even before the obituary notice has been printed and the testament unsealed; and it is an old maxim, borne out by history, that before their final death agony these social forces summon up their strength once more and move from the defensive to the offensive, issuing challenges instead of giving ground, and attempting to draw the most extreme conclusions from premises which have not only been called into question but have already been condemned. Such is the case today with the English oligarchy; and such is the case with its twin sister, the Church. There have been innumerable attempts at reorganisation within the Established Church, both High and Low, and attempts to come to terms with the dissenters so that the profane masses can be confronted with a compact force. Measures of religious coercion have followed each other in rapid succession - in the House of Lords the pious Lord Ashley bewailed the fact that in England alone five million people had become estranged not only from the Church but from Christianity. The Established Church replies, 'Compelle intrare'. [From the biblical phrase, 'Compel them to come in, that my house may he filled.'] It leaves it to Lord Ashley and similar dissenting, sectarian and hysterical pietists to pull out of the fire the chestnuts which it intends to eat itself.

The Beer Bill, which closed all places of public amusement on Sundays except between 6 and 10 p.m., was the first example of religious coercion. It was smuggled through a sparsely attended House at the end of a sitting, after the pietists had bought the support of the larger London publicans by guaranteeing them the continuation of the licensing system - the continued monopoly of big capital. Then came the Sunday Trading Bill, which has now passed its third reading in the Commons and which has just been debated clause by clause by the Committee of the Whole House. In this new coercive measure, too, the interest of big capital has been heeded, as only small shopkeepers do business on Sundays and the big shops are quite willing to eliminate the Sunday competition of the small traders by parliamentary means. In both cases we find a conspiracy between the Church and the capitalist monopolies, and in both religious penal laws aimed at the lower classes to set at rest the conscience of the privileged classes. The aristocratic clubs were no more hit by the Beer Bill than the Sunday occupations of fashionable society are by the Sunday Trading Bill. The working class receives its wages late on Saturdays; Sunday trading, therefore, exists solely for them. They are the only section of the population forced to make their small purchases on Sundays, and the new bill is directed against them alone. In the eighteenth century the French aristocracy, said, 'For us, Voltaire; for the people, mass and tithes.' In the nineteenth century the English aristocracy says, 'For us, pious phrases; for the people, Christian practice.' The classical saints of Christianity mortified their bodies to save the souls of the masses; the modern, educated saints mortify the bodies of the masses to save their own souls.

This alliance between a degenerate, dissipated and pleasure-seeking aristocracy and the Church - built on a foundation of filthy and calculated profiteering on the part of the beer magnates and monopolistic wholesalers gave rise to a mass demonstration in Hyde Park yesterday, such as London has not seen since the death of George IV, the 'first gentleman of Europe'. We witnessed the event from beginning to end and believe we can state without exaggeration that yesterday in Hyde Park the English revolution began. The latest news from the Crimea acted as an important ferment in this 'unparliamentary', 'extra-parliamentary', and 'anti-parliamentary' demonstration.

The instigator of the Sunday Trading Bill, Lord Robert Grosvenor, had answered the objection that his bill was directed only against the poor and not against the rich classes by saying that the aristocracy was largely refraining from employing its servants and horses on Sundays. At the end of last week the following poster issued by the Chartists could be seen on all the walls in London announcing in large print:

"New Sunday Bill prohibiting newspapers, shaving, smoking, eating and drinking and all other kinds of recreation and nourishment both corporal and spiritual, which the poor people still enjoy at the present time. An open-air meeting of artisans, workers and 'the lower orders' generally of the capital will take place in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon to see how religiously the aristocracy is observing the Sabbath and how anxious it is not to employ its servants and horses on that day, as Lord Robert Grosvenor said in his speech. The meeting is called for three o'clock on the right bank of the Serpentine, on the side towards Kensington Gardens. Come and bring your wives and children in order that they may profit by the example their 'betters' set them!"

It should be realised that what Longchamps [a hippodrome in the outskirts of Paris] means to the Parisians, the road along the Serpentine means to English high society; it is the place where in the afternoons, particularly on Sundays, they parade their magnificent carriages with all their trappings and exercise their horses followed by swarms of lackeys. It will be evident from the poster quoted above that the struggle against clericalism, like every serious struggle in England, is assuming the character of a class struggle waged by the poor against the rich, by the people against the aristocracy, by the 'lower orders' against their 'betters'.

At 3 o'clock about 50,000 people had gathered at the appointed spot on the right bank of the Serpentine in the huge meadows of Hyde Park. Gradually the numbers swelled to at least 200,000 as people came from the left bank too. Small knots of people could be seen being jostled from one spot to another. A large contingent of police was evidently attempting to deprive the organisers of the meeting of what Archimedes had demanded in order to move the earth: a fixed place to stand on. Finally, a large crowd made a firm stand and the Chartist [James] Bligh constituted himself chairman on a small rise in the middle of the crowd. No sooner had he begun his harangue than Police Inspector Banks at the head of forty truncheon-swinging constables explained to him that the Park was the private property of the Crown and that they were not allowed to hold a meeting in it. After some preliminary exchanges, in the course of which Bligh tried to demonstrate that the Park was public property and Banks replied he had strict orders to arrest him if he persisted in his intention, Bligh shouted amidst the tremendous roar of the masses around him: 'Her Majesty's police declare that Hyde Park is the private property of the Crown and that Her Majesty is not inclined to lend her land to the people for their meetings. So let us adjourn to Oxford Market.'

With the ironic cry of 'God save the Queen!' the throng dispersed in the direction of Oxford Market. But meanwhile [James] Finlen, a member of the Chartist leadership, had rushed to a tree some distance away. A crowd followed him and surrounded him instantly in such a tight and compact circle that the police abandoned their attempts to force their way through to him. 'We are enslaved for six days a week,' he said, 'and Parliament wants to rob us of our bit of freedom on the seventh. These oligarchs and capitalists and their allies, the sanctimonious clerics, want to do penance - not by mortifying themselves but by mortifying us - for the unconscionable murder committed against the sons of the people sacrificed in the Crimea.'

We left this group to approach another where a speaker, stretched out on the ground, was haranguing his audience from this horizontal position. Suddenly from all sides came the cry: 'Let's go to the road. Let's go to the carriages.' Meanwhile people had already begun heaping insults on the carriages and riders. The constables, who were steadily receiving reinforcements, drove the pedestrians back from the road. They thus helped to form a dense avenue of people on either side which extended for more than a quarter of an hour's walk from Aspley House, up Rotten Row, and along the Serpentine as far as Kensington Gardens. The public gathering consisted of about two thirds workers and one third members of the middle class, all with their wives and children. The reluctant actors - elegant gentlemen and ladies, 'commoners and lords' in high coaches-and-four with livened servants in front and behind, elderly gentlemen alone on horseback, a little flushed from their port wine - this time did not pass by in review. They ran the gauntlet. A babel of jeering, taunting and discordant noises - in which no language is so rich as the English - soon closed in upon them from all sides. As the concert was improvised there was a lack of instrumental accompaniment. The chorus, therefore, had to make use of its own organs and to confine itself to vocal music. And what a diabolical concert it was: a cacophony of grunting, hissing, whistling, squawking, snarling, growling, croaking, yelling, groaning, rattling, shrieking, gnashing sounds. Music to drive a man out of his mind, music to move a stone. Added to this came outbursts of genuine Old English humour strangely mixed with boiling and long-constrained anger. 'Go to church!' was the only recognisable articulate sound. In a conciliatory fashion one lady stretched out an orthodoxly bound prayerbook from the coach. 'Give it to your horses to read!' the thunder of a thousand voices echoed back. When the horses shied, reared, bucked and bolted, endangering the lives of their elegant burdens, the mocking cries became louder, more menacing, more implacable. Noble lords and ladies, among them Lady Granville, wife of the President of the Privy Council, were forced to alight and make use of their feet. When elderly gentlemen rode by whose dress - in particular the broad-brimmed hat - envinced a special claim to purity of faith, all the sounds of fury were extinguished, as at a command - by inextinguishable laughter. One of these gentlemen lost his patience. Like Mephistopheles he made an indecent gesture: he stuck his tongue out at the enemy. 'He is a wordcatcher! a parliamentary man! He fights with his own weapons!' someone called out from one side of the road. 'He is a saint! he is psalm singing!' came the antistrophe from the other side. Meanwhile the metropolitan electric telegraph had announced to all police stations that a riot was imminent in Hyde Park and ordered the police to the theatre of war. So at short intervals one police detachment after another marched between the two rows of people from Aspley House to Kensington Garden, each being met with the popular ditty:

"Where are the geese? Ask the police!"

This refers to a notorious theft of geese which a constable recently committed in Clerkenwell.

The spectacle lasted for three hours. Only English lungs are capable of such a feat. During the performance opinions such as 'This is only the beginning!' 'This is the first step!' 'We hate them!' etc. could be heard from various groups. While hatred could be read in the faces of the workers we have never seen such smug, self-satisfied smiles as those that covered the faces of the middle classes. Just before the end the demonstration increased in violence. Sticks were shaken at the carriages, and through the endless discordant din the cry could be heard: 'You rascals!' Zealous Chartist men and women battled their way through the crowds throughout these three hours, distributing leaflets which declared in large type:

"Reorganisation of Chartism! A big public meeting will take place next Tuesday, 26 June, in the Literary and Scientific Institute in Friar Street, Doctor's Commons, to elect delegates to a conference for the reorganisation of Chartism in the capital. Admission free."

Today's London papers carry on average only a short account of the events in Hyde Park. There have been no leading articles yet with the exception of Lord Palmerston's Morning Post. This paper writes:

"A scene, in the highest degree disgraceful and dangerous, was enacted yesterday in Hyde Park...[an] outrage on law and decency...It was distinctly illegal to interfere, by physical force, in the free action of the legislature...We must have no repetition of violence on Sunday next, as has been threatened."

But at the same time it declares that the 'fanatical' Lord Grosvenor is solely 'responsible' for the trouble and that he has provoked the 'just indignation of the people'! As if Parliament has not given Lord Grosvenor's Bill its three readings! Has he perhaps also exerted pressure 'by physical force in the free action of the legislature'?

(From the Neue Oder-Zeitung, 28 June 1855)


London, 2 July 1855

The demonstration against the Sunday Bill was repeated in Hyde Park yesterday on a larger scale, under a more ominous sign and with more serious consequences, as is witnessed by the sombre but agitated mood in London today.

The posters calling for the repetition of the meeting also contained an invitation to assemble on Sunday at 10 a.m. before the house of the pious Lord Grosvenor and to accompany him to church. The pious gentleman, however, had left London on Saturday in a private carriage - in order to travel incognito. That he is by nature destined to make martyrs of others rather than to be a martyr himself had been demonstrated by his circular in all the London newspapers, in which he on the one hand upheld his Bill and on the other took pains to show that it is without meaning, function or significance. On Sunday his house was occupied all day not by psalm singers but by constables, 200 in number. Such was the case, too, at the house of his brother, the Marquess of Westminster, a man famous for his wealth.

On Saturday the head of the London police, Sir Richard Mayne, had posters stuck on all the walls in London in which he 'prohibited' not only a meeting in Hyde Park but also the gathering of any 'large numbers' and the manifestation of any signs of approval or disapproval. The result of these decrees was that as early as 3 o'clock - even according to the report of the Police Gazette - 150,000 people of every age and social position were milling about. Gradually the crowds swelled to gigantic proportions unbelievable even by London standards. Not only did London appear en masse; an avenue of spectators formed again on both sides of the road along the Serpentine; only this time the crowd was denser and deeper than last Sunday. High society, however, stayed away. Altogether perhaps twenty vehicles put in an appearance, most of them gigs and phaetons, which drove by without hindrance. Their more stately and better upholstered brethren, who displayed larger paunches and more livery, were greeted with the old shouts and with the old babel of noise; and this time the sound waves made the air vibrate for at least a mile around. The police decrees were given a rebuttal by the mass gathering and by the chorus of noise from a thousand throats. High society had avoided the field of battle and by its absence it had acknowledged the sovereignty of the vox populi.

It was 4 o'clock. The demonstration seemed to be fizzling out into a harmless Sunday outing for want of any combustible elements. But the police had other plans. Were they to withdraw to the accompaniment of general laughter, casting wistful parting glances at their own posters, which could be read in large print at the entrance to the park? Besides, their high dignitaries were present: Sir Richard Mayne and Superintendents Gibbs and Walker on horseback, Inspectors Banks, Darkin and Brennan on foot. 800 constables had been strategically deployed, for the most part hidden in buildings and concealed in ambush. Stronger detachments had been stationed in neighbouring districts as reinforcements. At a point of intersection where the road along the Serpentine crosses a path leading towards Kensington Gardens, the Ranger's Lodge, the Magazine and the premises of the Royal Humane Society had been transformed into improvised blockhouses manned by a strong police contingent; each building had been prepared to accommodate prisoners and wounded. Cabs stood at the ready at the police station in Vine Street, Piccadilly, waiting to drive to the scene of battle and to take away the defeated demonstrators under safe escort. In short, the police had drawn up a plan of campaign 'more vigorous', as The Times said, 'than any of which we have yet had notice in the Crimea'. The police needed bloody heads and arrests so as not to stumble straight from the sublime into the ridiculous. So, as soon as the avenue of spectators had cleared somewhat, and the masses had dispersed away from the road into different groups on the huge expanse of the park, their senior officers took up positions in the middle of the road, between the rows of people, and from their horses they issued pompous orders right and left, supposedly for the protection of the carriages and horsemen passing by. As there were no carriages or horsemen, however, and therefore nothing to protect, they began to pick out individuals from the crowd 'on false pretexts' and to have them arrested on the pretext that they were pickpockets. As these experiments increased in number and the pretext lost its credibility the crowds raised a general cry, and the contingents of police broke out from their hiding places. Drawing their truncheons from their pockets they beat heads bloody, tore people out of the crowd here and there - altogether there were 104 such arrests - and dragged them to the improvised blockhouses. The left side of the road is separated only by a narrow piece of ground from the Serpentine. By manoeuvring his gang of constables a police officer managed to drive the spectators close to the edge of the water, where he threatened them with a cold bath. In order to escape the police truncheons one man swam across the Serpentine to the other bank; a policeman gave chase in a boat, caught him and brought him back in triumph.

How the scene had changed since the previous Sunday! Instead of elegant coaches-and-four, dirty cabs, which drove back and forth between the police station at Vine Street and the improvised jails in Hyde Park. Instead of lackeys on the boxes of carriages, constables sitting next to drunken cab drivers. Inside the vehicles, instead of elegant gentlemen and ladies, prisoners with bloody heads, dishevelled hair, half undressed and with torn clothes, guarded by dubious conscripts from the Irish lumpenproletariat who had been pressed into the London police. Instead of the wafting of fans, a hail of truncheons. Last Sunday the ruling classes had shown their fashionable face; this time the face they displayed was that of the state. In the background - behind the affably grinning old gentlemen, the fashionable dandies, the elegantly infirm widows and the perfumed beauties in their cashmeres, ostrich feathers, and garlands of flowers and diamonds - stood the constable with his waterproof coat, greasy oilskin hat and truncheon - the reverse side of the coin. Last Sunday the ruling classes had confronted the masses as individuals. This time they assumed the form of state power, law and truncheon. This time resistance amounted to insurrection, and the Englishman must be subjected to long, slow provocation before he is moved to insurrection. Thus, the counter-demonstration was limited, on the whole, to hissing, grunting and whistling at the police vehicles, to isolated attempts to free the prisoners but, above all, to passive resistance, as the crowds phlegmatically stood their ground on the field of battle.

Soldiers - partly from the Guard, partly from the 66th Regiment - assumed a characteristic role in this spectacle. They had appeared in force. Twelve of them, some decorated with medals from the Crimea, stood among a group of men, women and children on whom the police truncheons were descending. An old man fell to the ground, struck by a blow. 'The London stiffstaffs' (a term of abuse for the police) 'are worse than the Russians at Inkerman,' called out one of the Crimean heroes. The police seized him. He was immediately freed to the accompaniment of shouts from the crowd: 'Three cheers for the army!' The police deemed it advisable to move off. Meanwhile, a number of Grenadiers had arrived; the soldiers fell into line and with the crowd milling about them shouting, 'Hurrah for the army, down with the police, down with the Sunday Bill,' they paraded up and down in the park. The police stood about irresolutely, when a sergeant of the Guard appeared and loudly called them to account for their brutality, calmed the soldiers and persuaded some of them to follow him to the barracks to avoid more serious collisions. But the majority of the soldiers remained behind, and from among the people they gave vent to their anger at the police in no uncertain terms. In England the opposition between the police and the army is an old one. The present moment, when the army is the 'pet child' of the masses, is certainly not likely to reduce this opposition.

An old man named Russell is said to have died today as a result of the wounds he suffered yesterday; half a dozen people are in St George's Hospital suffering from injuries. During the demonstration different attempts were again made to hold smaller meetings. In one of them, near the Albert Gate outside the section of the park originally occupied by the police, an anonymous speaker harangued his public something like this:

"Men of Old England! Awake, rise up from your slumber or fall for ever; resist the government every Sunday! Observe the Sunday Bill as you have done today. Do not he afraid to demand those rights to which you are entitled. Cast off the fetters of oligarchical oppression and tyranny. If you do not, you will he hopelessly crushed. Is it not outrageous that the inhabitants of this great metropolis, the greatest in the civilised world, must surrender their freedom into the hands of a Lord Grosvenor or a man like Lord Ebrington? His Lordship feels obliged to drive us to Church and to make us religious by means of an act of Parliament. His attempts are in vain. Who are we, and who are they? Look at the war which is being fought. Is it not being waged at the expense and with the blood of the productive classes? And what about the unproductive classes? They have bungled it from start to finish."

Speaker and meeting were, of course, interrupted by the police.

In Greenwich, near the Observatory, Londoners also held a meeting of ten to fifteen thousand people, which was likewise broken up by the police.

(From the Neue Oder-Zeitung, 5 July 1855)

Lenin at Speakers Corner

posted 4 May 2010, 14:50 by heiko khoo


leninani.gif (32676 bytes)

We were astounded at the tremendous size of London. Although it was exceedingly dismal weather on the day of our arrival, Vladimir Ilyich's face immediately brightened up, and he began casting curious glances at this stronghold of Capitalisrn, forgetting for the while Plekhanov and the editorial conflicts.

We were met at the station by Nikolai Alexandrovich Alexeyev, a comrade living in London in emigration and who had a fine knowledge of English. At first he acted as our guide, as we were in a rather hopeless position ourselves. We thought we knew the English language, having even translated a whole book (the Webbs') from English into Russian, when we were in Siberia. I learnt English in prison from a self-instructor, but had never heard a single live English word spoken. When we started translating Webb at Shushenskoye, Vladimir llyich was appalled at my pronunciation. "My sister used to have an English teacher," he said, "but it didn't sound like that." I did not argue, but started learning again. When we arrived in London we found we could not understand a single word and nobody understood us. At first this was very comical but although Vladimir Ilyich joked about it, he soon got down to the business of learning the language. We started going to all kinds of meetings. We stood in the front row and carefully studied the orator's mouth. We went fairly often to Hyde Park, where speakers harangued the passing crowds on diverse themes. An atheist, standing among a group of curious listeners, proved there was no God. We were particularly keen on listening to one speaker of this kind. He spoke with an Irish accent, which was easier for us to understand. Nearby a Salvation Anny officer uttered hysterical shouts in appeal to God Almighty, while a little farther on a shop-assistant was holding forth on the hours of servitude of assistants in the big stores...We learnt a great deal by listening to spoken English. Afterwards, by means of an advertisement, Vladimir Ilyich found two Englishmen desirous of exchanging lessons, and began studying assiduously with them. He got to know the language fairly well.

Vladimir Ilyich also studied London. He did not, however, explore the London museums, except the British Museum, where he spent half his time. But there he was attracted, not by the museum, but by the richest library in the world, and the conveniences it afforded for scientific study. Ordinary museums bored Vladimir Ilyich. In the Ancient History Museum he showed signs of unusual fatigue after the first ten minutes. We generally passed very quickly through the rooms hung with medieval armour and the endless wings filled with Egyptian and other ancient vases. But I remember one little museum from which Vladimir Ilyich could not tear himself away. This was the Museum of the 1848 Revolution in Paris in the Rue des Cordeliers, where he examined each little item, every single drawing, with profound interest. For him it was a fragment of the living struggle. When I have visited our own Museum of the Revolution, in Moscow, I have imagined Ilyich standing there, drinking in every detail.

Ilyich studied living London. He loved going on long rides about the town on top of an omnibus. He liked the movement of this huge commercial city. The quiet squares, the detached houses, with their separate entrances and shining windows, adorned with greenery, the drives frequented only by highly polished broughams were much in evidence - but tucked away nearby the mean little streets, inhabited by the London working people where lines with washing hung across the street, and pale children played in the gutter - these sights could not be seen from the bus-top. In such districts we went on foot, and observing these howling contrasts in richness and poverty, Ilyich would mutter through clenched teeth, and in English "two nations!"

But even from the top of an omnibus it was possible to view many characteristic scenes from the life of the people. Standing outside public-houses were groups of bloated and bedraggled lumpen-proletarians, in whose midst might be observed some drunken woman with a black eye and a torn and trailing velvet dress of the same colour...We once saw from the top of a bus a powerful 'bobby' - typical in his helmet and chin-strap - holding before him in an iron grasp a little urchin who had evidently been caught pilfering, and a whole crowd following with shouts and whistles in his wake. Some of the people on the bus also stood up and shouted things at the little thief. Vladimir Ilyich just murmured "humph!" Once or twice we went for a bus ride in a working-class district on pay-day evening. Ranged along the pavement of a wide street was an endless row of stalls, each illuminated by a flare. The pavements were thronged with crowds of working men and women, who were noisily purchasing all kinds of things and assuaging their hunger on the spot. Vladimir Ilyich was always attracted by working-class crowds. He went wherever they were to be found. He went on outings, where tired workers, glad to be away from the city, lounged for hours on the grass. He also visited public-houses and reading-rooms. In London there were reading-rooms with direct entry from the street, which were without even sitting accommodation, merely having stands to which were attached current files of the newspapers. At a later period, Ilyich remarked that he would like to see such reading-rooms established all over Soviet Russia. We also went to a little public restaurant and to church. In the English churches the service is generally followed by a sermon, or in socialistic churches by a lecture and discussion. Vladimir Ilyich was very fond of listening to these discussions, as rank-and-file workers took part in them. He searched the papers for advertisements of working-class meetings in out-of-the-way districts, where there was no ostentation, no leaders, but merely workers from the bench - as we now term them. The meetings were usually devoted to the discussion of some such question as a garden-city scheme. Ilyich would listen attentively and afterwards joyfully exclaim: "Socialism is simply oozing from them. The speaker talks rot, and a worker gets up and immediately, taking the bull by the horns, himself lays bare the essence of Capitalist Society." Ilyich always placed his hope on the rank-and-file British workman who, in spite of everything, preserved his class instinct. People travelling to England generally notice merely the labour aristocracy who have been corrupted by the bourgeoisie and themselves become petty-bourgeois. Ilyich, of course, studied also this upper stratum and the concrete forms which this bourgeois influence assumed. But while not forgetting for one moment the significance of this fact, he also endeavoured to feel the pulse of the motive forces of England's future Revolution.


(From Memories of Lenin by Krupskaya, pages 65-67)

Tyburn Hanging Tree and the Origins of Speakers' Corner

posted 4 May 2010, 14:46 by heiko khoo   [ updated 4 May 2010, 14:49 ]

by John Roberts

Speakers' Corner is one of Britain's most famous places for public 
debate and discussion. Often it is seen as a shining symbol of
Britain's entry into liberal democracy. The official story of the
origins of Speakers' Corner is by now a familar one. An act of
Parliament passed in 1872 (The Royal Parks and Gardens Regulation Act)
allowed a space in the north-eastern corner of Hyde Park to be given
over for public speaking. A considerable debt for the eventual passing
of the 1872 act is owed to the activities of the Reform League. The
Reform League had pushed the question of the right to speak freely in
Hyde Park. This was part of their campaign for a reform of the
franchise, in particular their hostlity to the Liberal government's
proposed Second Reform Bill which they believed offered too little.
Thousands turned up to one such meeting on 23 July 1866. When they
found their access to the Park blocked by 1 700 police, they broke
through police ranks and managed to debate and discuss political
issues. Following this major disturbance deliberations followed in
Parliament over Hyde Park and the right to free speech there. Without
going into any more details it can be said that the Reform League was
a major impetus into the formal recognition of Speakers' Corner.

Nonetheless a problem remains if an analysis into the origins of
Speakers' Corner begins and ends with the 1872 act. The reason why
is plain to see. The space which the Reform League appropriated for
free speech in Hyde Park had already been demarcated as a public
place to meet and discuss at least a century and a half before.
This much older space was, in many respects, vastly differently to
that campaigned for by the Reform League. In order to understand
this difference, and in order to understand the real origins and
thereby the specific social characteristics of Speakers' Corner, it
is necessary to see how Speakers' Corner was historically
structured as a place to meet, discuss and debate. As such it is
necessary to go back to the eighteenth-century.

Why the eighteenth-century? The answer is clear. The
eighteenth-century witnessed the growing strength of capital.
Increasingly, capital was penetrating the very foundations of
production by turning more and more people into wage-labour, albeit
within the sphere of domestic production. By 1750 between 40 and 50
per cent of English families worked for wages. Within the new
discipline of political economy Adam Smith attacked mercantile
principles in the 1770s. According to Smith, exchange of goods
through production had to become the chief weapon for the wealth of
nations because it facilitated specialisation and an advanced
division of labour. Underlying Smith's theory was the notion of
free, rational individuals able to enter into free competition with
one another.

Just over half a century before Smith first expounded
his thoughts, a novel discourse about the role of the state had
come into being. John Locke, that famous ideologue for the English
bourgeois revolution, wrote that the main purpose of government was
the maintenance of civil peace along with the security of property
and the person. Locke's ideas were quite in keeping with a liberal
state form which urged the unfettered rule of money and law.

According to Peter Linebaugh in his splendid book, The London
Hanged (1991), Locke is indicative of a change in opinion among
elite thinking in the late seventeenth- and eighteenth century
concerning property rights, crime and punishment. Locke signified a
belief among bourgois thinking that a realignment of sovereignty to
punishment together with a close association with money was
required. In essence Locke presented to the `new world' a theory of
money quite in keeping with an emerging capitalist economy. He laid
the foundations for classical political economy by, among other
things, his theory of commodity money. This was Locke's `gift' to
the bourgeois class and it signalled a rallying cry against the
increase in crime by people subject to wage labour. E.P. Thompson
suggests that Locke provided "the propertied classes with a
sanction for the most bloody code penalising offenders against
property; but it provided no sanction for arbitrary authority,
intruding upon personal or property rights, and uncontrolled by the
rule of law" (Thompson, The Making of the English Working-Class,
1980: 87). Penal law began to assume the form of rationality,
individuality the protection of property, and the public good.
Penal law was slowly transformed into bourgeois law.

We can see therefore that a redefinition of crime integrally
related to a changing class composition was coming into being in
England with the advent of capitalism. Indeed, social crime
actually began to alter its meaning with the rise of agrarian
capitalism. Gathering firewood, a precious commodity for the rural
poor, was, for example, redefined as a crime when it began to
conflict with the aims of local agrarian landlords. Moreover, the
changing attitude to crime and punishment was most strongly felt
in London as the dynamism of capitalism was set in motion in that
region. It would not be an over-hasty remark to say that crime was
an overwhelming London phenomenon, for only in London did there
exist a distinct criminal sub-class.

Defining crime on individual terms and as a means to protect civil
society rather than as a means for revenge was part and parcel of
an emerging capitalist ideology which had to placate alternative
and radical meanings of `individualism'. At the same time the
modern meaning of law was part of the general consolidation of
capital as it sought to establish a framework for accumulation.
Underlying these moves was the discipline of wage-labour.

How specifically did the changing perception and control of crime
manifest itself? Many examples can be given, but I wish to
concentrate upon the dramatic surge in public executions during
this period. My reason for doing so is that the formation of the
place known today as Speakers' Corner began life as a place for
public execution. In particular Speakers' Corner was home of the
notorious Tyburn hanging tree. Established as a site for execution
with any probability in 1108, the first actual record of an
execution at Tyburn was in 1196. Situated in the north-east corner
of Hyde Park, this place for state execution derived its name from
a then brook beneath Brook Street: Tye Bourne. The junction of
Tyburn Road (now Oxford Street) and Tyburn Lane (now Park Lane)
provides its precise location. After 1571 a triangular-shaped
gallows was used reaching eighteen feet. The triangular-shape
reflected the need to hang more than a single person. Each beam
could take eight people at once so that twenty-four could sway in
one go. As many as eight hanging days would occur each year.

The real importance of Tyburn as far as Speakers' Corner is concerned
can be related to the dramatic increase in people hanged during the
eighteenth-century, the majority of whom belonged to the
propertyless and the oppressed. Perhaps this statement seems less
surprising once hanging offences of the period are examined.
Linebaugh suggests that a clear relationship can be discerned
between property and punishment when we reflect on its quantitative
relationship to money. An association between large sums of money
stolen and a hanging is readily detectable, claims Linebaugh, and
this can be seen in both the prosecutor's monetary evaluation of
goods stolen along with that of the jury's. For example goods
stolen which had a monetary evaluative worth of 10d. meant a
whipping. Those of 4s. 10d. merited a branded hand while those stlg10 or
over signalled a hanging for the offender (Linebaugh: 80-82).
More significantly, Linebaugh argues that the social composition
of the condemned during this period cannot be passed off as a
collection of `riff-raff'. Rather the occupational structure of the
criminal class had far more in common with the lower orders than
with `slum dwellers' and `lay abouts'. In other words, those damned
to swing on the `fatal tree' were more likely be small shopkeepers,
agricultural labourers, craftsmen and unskilled workers in more or
less regular employment as well as the destitute.

But as Tyburn excelled as the place for public execution, so an
exceptional scaffold culture grew in importance. Specifically the
scaffold culture of the eighteenth-century was linked to popular
ideas concerning death, particularly death and the body. Whilst an
increasing section of the population which included the likes of
anatomists, artists, physicians, surgeons, articulators and
dentists depended for their economical survival upon human corpses
in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many from other
social classes fought to preserve the dignity of their bodies after
they had vacated this world. Thus while the body was being viewed
more and more as a commodity to be bought and sold for dissection,
and while the majority of bodies bought under such circumstances
came from the poor and from the criminal class, resistance to this
practice by those potentially on the receiving end, often with
assistance from families and friends, was also, in many respects,
equally forbidding (Richardson 1989: 52 ff.).

At Tyburn these emotions frequently erupted in ways which
counterpoised the `abstract' and `objectified' appraisal of the
body. Watchingith genuine sympathy, the Tyburn crowd would on
many occasions seek to disrupt proceedings. The threat of being
carved up on a surgeon's table was enough to prompt support and
co-operation from the crowd toward the condemned. Indeed,
dissection was considered by the authorities as a necessary form of
aggravating capital punishment. As such the true horror of
mutilation by the medical profession was enough to elicit all kinds
of protest by the crowd before, during and after the hanging.
Different kinds of solidarities would exist between the condemned
and the crowd. Family, personal friends, fellow workers, the Irish
and sailors would all, for various reasons and in various degrees,
attempt to protect the ostracised body (Linebaugh 1975: 79).

The actual hanging day itself would cause much excitement on many
levels. The ceremony would begin in the morning when the prisoners
were lead into the Press Yard at Newgate and handed over to the
Under Sheriff. Outside the prison gates the crowds would already be
arriving and the general arousing atmosphere was intensified by the
booming toll of the great bell of St. Sepulchre heard only on
execution days. The condemned were taken to Tyburn on a cart and
had to ride with the hangman and the Ordinary (prison chaplin).
Peace-officers lead the procession while immediately behind the cart
marched a troop of soldiers and immediately behind them a posse of
constables on horseback (Hibbert 1957: 137-138). The procession
passed through Holborn, St Giles and Tyburn Road (Oxford Street).
Stops made at inns on the way allowed prisoners to be offered wine.
This being the case the prisoners arrived at the scaffold drunk and
disorderly. Many prisoners also played to the crowd and conducted
parodic dialogue with it so that the solemnity of the occasion was
turned around (Gatrell 1994: 32-33).

When finally at the gallows, felons might speak to the crowd. As a
forerunner to the Platform in practice, these speeches struck right
at the heart of the state because they opened up a gap which exposed
the limitations of state power. Indeed, evidence suggests that as
early as the sixteenth century those committed to hang subverted the
judicial process which had declared their fate. Catholics, for
example, took advantage of the blurred division between treason and
religion in their dying speech by embracing the authority of the
monarchy but retaining open opposition to the Church of England. As
such these martyrs opened up a public theological debate that
normally was subject to state surveillance. Many who observed these
last speeches actually became convinced of their authenticity and
converted to the Catholic cause.

Hanging days were declared a public holiday for the labouring classes
and, as Hibbert claims, they were determined to make the most of it
(Hibbert op cit.: 140). A social commentator from the
eighteenth-century, Bernard Mandeville, notes that 'All the Way,
from Newgate to Tyburn, is one continued Fair, for Whores and
Rogues of the meaner sort...Where the Crowd is the least, which,
among the Itinerants, is no where very thin, the Mob is the rudest;
and here, jostling one another, and kicking Dirt about, are the
most innocent Pastimes'. In many respects, therefore, is it correct
to observe that the hangings constituted a moment in which a
society fragmented by class and urban space could be united in
carnivalesque harmony such that plebs and patricians could
negotiate particular rights against a prevailing order. As Michel
Foucault put it: "In these executions, which ought to show only the
terrorising power of the prince, there was a whole aspect of the
carnival, in which rules were inverted, authority mocked and
criminals transformed into heroes" (Foucault 1991: 61).

Even so, it would be very unwise to propose a hard and fast
distinction between resistance and punishment. Certainly hangings
were a moment for the underclass to protest, but they were also a
moment for the state to enforce its own legality and potency. Dying
speeches instigated `a theatre of punishment' which, in many ways,
helped to strengthen dominant values. Confessions of guilt
extracted at the scaffold did not merely display the harsh nature
of the state. Rather, dying speeches in the form of confession
sought to reassert ideological authority through an
`internalisation of obedience' by legitimising structures of
secular and religious command. The whole ritual associated with the
scaffold therefore delineated a testimony to government rather than
a confirmation of lowly delight and ecstasy. "(F)or every one such
act of defiance", declares Gatrell, "many more felons died in
terror or stupefied by drink" (Gatrell op cit.: 96).

What can this account tell us about the main social
characteristics of Speakers' Corner? It would seem to suggest that
the historically structured place allowed a certain inversion of
social heirarchies, codes and conventions to occur. Speakers'
Corner sprang to life from capitalist dynamics. More precisely, it
sprang to life from real structural changes and from discourses
attempting to explain, justify and give meaning to those changes.
However because Tyburn was constituted through a number of
contradictory belief systems (state belief systems, legal belief
systems, criminal belief systems, etc.), the space for the hangings
was never going to be one of utter obedience. Indeed, all of these
belief systems coalesced around a new set of beliefs and practices
associated with Tyburn. These new beliefs and practices may have
had real effects, but they were themselves affected by a real
process; the process of capital accumulation. All of these
processes enabled Tyburn to develop into a political arena for
public debate and discussion. However, this proletarian sphere was
not a sphere marked particularly by people speaking in a `rational'
manner. Rather it was marked more by `scaffold culture'. This was a
culture of the criminal class which, at the same time, was the
culture of the proletariat. Theirs was an inclusive democracy which
refused to separate law from exploitation. Issues could be debated,
strategies pursued and social powers invoked which usually never
saw the light of day in more conventional political outlets. The
hanged body became the symbolic recognition of the class struggle
and as it dangled on the rope it unleashed defiance and disrespect
for the law and scorn for justice (Hay 1975: 55). That is, the
defining principles of Speakers' Corner rooted within the culture
of the Tyburn hanged contravene bourgeois ideology because they
attack illusions peculiar to capitalism.

The importance of recognising the real origins of Speakers' Corner
cannot be overstated enough. It is only by understanding how that
space was historically structured by capital can we then come to
appreciate the social practices, ideas, codes, conventions, etc.
which are specific to Speakers' Corner. At the same time we can try
and grasp how a gap opened up in the social fabric which enabled an
alternative agenda to be articulated that, in turn, refused to
submit to the abstract dominance of capital.

Select References and Further Reading

Foucault, Michel (1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the
Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin

Gatrell, V.A.C.(1994) The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English
People 1770-1868, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hay, Douglas (1975) Property, Authority and the Criminal Law in
Douglas Hay et al. - Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in
Eighteenth-Century England, London: Allen Lane.

Hibbert, Christopher (1957) The Road to Tyburn: The Story of Jack
Sheppard and the Eighteenth-Century Underworld, London: Longmans,
Green and Co.

Linebaugh, Peter (1991) The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in
the Eighteenth Century, London: Penguin.

Linebaugh, Peter (1975) The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons in Hay,
Douglas et al. (op cit.).

Richardson, Ruth (1989) Death Dissection and the Destitute, London:

Thompson, E.P. (1980) The Making of the English Working Class,
London: Penguin.

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