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.

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Originally installed as a grand entrance to Buckingham Palace, John Nash’s arch was moved to its current location, what is now effectively a traffic island not far from Speaker’s Corner in nearby Hyde Park, in 1851.

The story goes that this took place after it was discovered that the arch was too narrow for the widest of the new-fangled coaches but there are some doubts over this, particularly as the gold state coach passed under it during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952. Another story says that it was moved after extensions to Buckingham Palace left insufficient space for it.

Work on the arch had started at Buckingham Palace in the mid 1820s and it was completed by 1833. It was originally moved to replace Cumberland Gate as the new entrance to Hyde Park and to complement Decimus Burton’s arch at Hyde Park Corner. Successive roadworks in the 20th century, however, left it in its current position.

Clad in Carrara marble, the design of the arch was inspired by Rome’s Arch of Constantine and the Arc do Carrousel in Paris. The sculptural ornamentation, which includes works by Sir Richard Westmacott and Edward Hodges Baily, however, was apparently never completed and an equestrian statue of King George IV, originally destined for the top of the arch, instead now stands in Trafalgar Square. The bronze gates – which bear the lion of England, cypher of King George IV and image of St George and the Dragon – were designed by Samuel Parker.

Only senior members of the Royal family and the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery are permitted to pass under the central arch of the monumental structure.

The arch stands close to where the Tyburn Tree once stood (for more on this, see our earlier post). It contains three small rooms which, up until the 1950s housed what has been described as “one of the smallest police stations in the world”.

There was some talk in 2005 that the arch would be moved to Speaker’s Corner but this obviously hasn’t eventuated.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of the transfer of the care of the Royal Parks to the government (meaning the public was freely able to enjoy access for the first time). To celebrate, over the next weeks we’ll be taking a look at the history of each of them. First up is the 142 hectare Hyde Park, perhaps the most famous of all eight Royal Parks.

Formerly owned by Westminster Abbey, King Henry VIII seized the land in 1536 for use as a private hunting ground. He had it enclosed with fences and the Westbourne Stream, which ran through the park – it now runs underground – dammed.

It remained the king and queen’s private domain (Queen Elizabeth I is known to have reviewed troops there) until King James I appointed a ranger to look after the park and permitted limited access to certain members of the nobility in the early 17th century.

The park’s landscaping remained largely unaltered until the accession of King Charles I – he created what is known as the ‘ring’ – a circular track where members of the royal court could drive their carriages. In 1637, he also opened the park to the public (less than 30 years later, in 1665, it proved a popular place for campers fleeing the Great Plague in London).

During the ensuring Civil War, the Parliamentarians created forts in the park to help defend the city against the Royalists – some evidence of their work still remains in the raised bank next to Park Lane.

After King William III and Queen Mary II moved their court to Kensington Palace (formerly Nottingham House) in the late 1600s, they had 300 oil lamps installed along what we know as “Rotten Row’ – the first artificially lit road in the country – to enable them and their court to travel safely between the palace and Westminster.

The natural looking Serpentine – the great, 11.34 hectare, lake in the middle of Hyde Park (pictured) – was created in the 1730s on the orders of Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, as part of extensive work she had carried out there. It was Queen Caroline who also divided off what we now know as Kensington Gardens from Hyde Park, separating the two with a ha-ha (a ditch).

The next major changes occurred in the 1820s when King George IV employed architect and garden designer Decimus Burton to create the monumental park entrance at Hyde Park Corner – the screen still remains in its original position while Wellington Arch was moved from a parallel position to where it now stands (see our previous posts for more on that). Burton also designed a new railing fence and several lodges and gates for the park. A bridge across the Serpentine, meanwhile, was built at about the same time along with a new road, West Carriage Drive, formally separating Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

While the basic layout of the park has been largely unchanged since, there have been some additions – among them, the establishment in 1872 of Speaker’s Corner as a place to speak your mind in the north-east corner of the park (near Marble Arch), the creation in 1930 of the Lido for bathing in warm weather, and, more recently, the building of the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Fountain (unveiled in 2004), and the 7 July Memorial (unveiled in July 2009).

Other sculptures in the park include Isis (designed by Simon Gudgeon, located on the south side of the Serpentine), the Boy and Dolphin Fountain (designed by Alexander Munro, it stands in the Rose Garden), and a monumental statue of Achilles, a memorial to the Duke of Wellington designed by Richard Westmacott, near Park Lane. There are also memorials to the Holocaust, Queen Caroline, and the Cavalry as well as a Norwegian War Memorial and a mosaic marking the site of the Reformer’s Tree (the tree was burnt down during the Reform League Riots of 1866).

The park has been integral part of any national celebrations for centuries – in 1814 a fireworks display there marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Exhibition – with the vast Crystal Palace – was held there in 1851 and in 1977 a Silver Jubilee Exhibition was held marking Queen Elizabeth II’s 25 year reign. Cannons are fire there on June 2nd to mark the Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and on 10th June for the Duke of Edinburgh’s birthday.

Facilities these days include rowing and pedal boats, tennis courts, deck chairs, a restaurant and cafe (the latter based in the Lido) and, of course, some Boris bikes. There is a heritage walk through the park which can be downloaded from the Royal Parks website.

WHERE: Hyde Park (nearest tube stations are that of Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner, Lancaster Gate, Knightsbridge and South Kensington); WHEN: 5am to midnight; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.royalparks.gov.uk/Hyde-Park.aspx?page=main

PICTURE: Courtesy of Royal Parks. © Indusfoto Ltd