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 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.