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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:
Pelican.

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