Lost London – The Reformers’ Tree…

A mosaic commemorating the former Reformers’ Tree in Hyde Park. PICTURE: Courtesy of Royal Parks.

This large oak tree, planted in Hyde Park, was a focal point for protests in 1866 by the Reform League, a group which campaigned for all men to have the right to vote.

The tree was set alight during one protest (on what date and whether it was as an act of protest or simply an act of mischief by some boys during an otherwise orderly rally apparently remains a matter of debate).

The blackened stump was subsequently used a site for people to post notices, as a podium at meetings (including by the Reform League) and, more broadly, as a symbol of the right for people to assemble.

The tree was something of a precursor to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. That owes its formal establishment to an Act of Parliament, passed in 1872, that designated the north-east corner of Hyde Park as a site for public speaking and is now known – and emulated across the world – as Speaker’s Corner.

A circular mosaic depicting the blackened tree – the work of sculptor Harry Gray – now stands at the junction of numerous pathways close to the eastern end of Hyde Park. It was unveiled in the year 2000 by politician Tony Benn.

Whether it stands on the actual site of the original tree is also a matter of debate. The inscription on the memorial mentions that on 7th November, 1977, then Prime Minister James Callaghan planted a new oak tree on the spot where the Reformers’ Tree was thought to have stood. But there’s obviously no oak now where the mosaic is laid.

Treasures of London – Speakers’ Corner…

An iconic location in one London’s most well-known Royal Parks, the history of Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner as a site of public oratory dates back to at least the mid 1800s (although thanks to the site being located close to where Tyburn Tree once stood, its arguable that the tradition goes further back, to when condemned prisoners were able to have a final word on the gallows – but for more on the Tyburn Tree, see our previous post here).

Located near Marble Arch on the north-east corner of Hyde Park, the area was the scene of massive protests by the Reform League in the mid 1800s which were aimed at extending the voting franchise to the working class. In 1866, protestors tore up the railings and rioted for three days after they approached the area and found themselves locked out of Hyde Park. They returned en masse the following year in defiance of a government ban but were allowed to protest without intervention.

While there was some opposition to the idea of public protests in the area, in 1872, the passing of the Parks Regulation Act meant the park’s authorities could issue permits for speakers (while it didn’t enshrine the right to speak in law, it did establish the general principle of speaking in parts of the park). The area covered by the act is much larger than Speakers’ Corner but tradition has established that as the site where people gather to speak (and listen).

Anyone can now turn up to address the public at Speakers’ Corner whenever the park is open but tradition has meant most of the speaking happens on a Sunday morning (when you’ll certainly encounter some very regular speakers). The only condition is that the speech be considered “lawful”.

Among the more notable speakers who have attended are Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw and William Morris. The suffragettes also held meetings there in the early 1900s and, in 2003, it was the scene of a massive rally against the taking of military action in Iraq.

Numerous other countries have since adopted the idea and created their own version of a “speakers’ corner” including Australia, Singapore, Canada and the US.

London’s Speakers’ Corner has undergone a makeover in recent months (somewhat controversial to some) and was last month reopened by the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid who described Speakers’ Corner as a “deeply symbolic space that celebrates freedom of speech”.

The refurbishment included new trees and plantings, resurfacing and the installation of railings, designed by Royal Parks landscape architect Ruth Holmes and landscape architects Burns + Nice and carried out by award-winners Bowls and Wyer.

For more, see www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/hyde-park-attractions/speakers-corner.