Hyde Park and Free Speech

Post date: May 4, 2010 9:56:19 PM

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.