Sounds from the Park Exhibition Part One

Page 1

An exhibition by:

Supported by:

Sounds from the Park was a one-year project to record the history of Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London from its origins in the late nineteenth century, right up to the present day. This exhibition explores the history of Speakers’ Corner in two parts. This part examines how Speakers’ Corner has changed within living memory, using oral histories and images from the new Speakers’ Corner archive. Further down the corridor towards the main entrance another display highlights the many meanings Speakers’ Corner holds for the people interviewed. It is accompanied by an artwork made by Annette Fry using photographs of Speakers’ Corner. During Sounds from the Park, almost 30 orators, hecklers and crowd members were interviewed and hundreds of images and documents were collected for the Speakers’ Corner archive, held at Bishopsgate Library. Throughout the project workshops were facilitated with different community groups. Thirty young people were trained in open air oratory, and went on to heckle and speak at Speakers’ Corner. Recordings of speeches and interviews made by participants are retained as part of the Speakers’ Corner archive. The project was managed by On the Record Community Interest Company in partnership with Bishopsgate Institute and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust. Visit to see and hear more from the archive and download the project’s radio documentary.

Artwork by: Annette Fry Design by: Edd Baldry

To listen to the audio soundtrack to this exhibition please borrow an MP3 player at the library desk or use the QR codes to stream the audio on your mobile device. The track number or QR code on the panels links to the relevant clip. Please pick up your free booklet from the library desk.

Above: Peter Bhalla speaking with red flag, Speakers’ Corner, 1994. ©Philip Wolmuth

“A mythical place” Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park is found close to the site of Tyburn gallows, where public hangings took place between 1196 and 1783. Legend has it the origins of Speakers’ Corner lie in the tradition of the last words made by those condemned to die. The right to speak in Hyde Park was enshrined in law in 1872, after Reform League demonstrations in 1866 and 1867 defied a government ban to meet in the park. By the 1930s “soapbox” orators were to be found in marketplaces, street corners and parks across the country. Of the estimated one hundred speaking places established in London between 1855 and 1939, Speakers’ Corner is the last to survive. Against all the odds, speakers, hecklers and crowds gather every Sunday for the free entertainment that the park offers. However, in recent years the crowds have seemed to decrease. Some express concern about the future of Speakers’ Corner:

“It’s a window into society. It’s very, very important that it gets as much oxygen as possible and expresses the plurality of opinions and ideas that exist. At the moment I don’t think that that’s happening because it needs new blood, it needs new energy. Where are the young people? Where are those people who have things to say, who are dissatisfied with society, that want to make changes, that want to hone their skills as speakers? I think Speakers’ Corner is the greatest platform for that.” Ishmahil Blagrove Speaker, 1980s to present

Above: A Palestinian and a Jewish man argue at Speakers’ Corner, 1993. ©Philip Wolmuth

“A fellowship of controversy” Speakers’ Corner’s unique characteristic is face to face discussion, argument and debate. Speakers may speak from high platforms or on the ground, but they are never immune from hecklers asking questions or acting as disruptive “snipers” from amongst the crowd. Audiences are a mixture of hecklers, regular observers and tourists. As Edna Mathieson remembers in the 1940s:

Track 1

“It was exciting having all these people milling around and listening and talking and arguing, debating. It wasn’t just listening. They were stimulated by the ideas. You got that feeling that the ideas were exciting. The debates were also amusing. I’m sure the other people learnt as I learnt. It widened what I already knew, and it probably did for them too.” Edna Mathieson Speakers’ Corner regular, 1940s to 1950s

Above: Doris the singing heckler at Speakers’ Corner in 1968. © Chris Kennett

“An old time variety show” Speakers’ Corner hosts “meetings” of various kinds. There has always been a mixture of religious, political and entertaining gatherings to choose from. Over time the balance has shifted and there are now fewer political and more religious meetings. Speakers’ Corner is created by whoever takes it upon themselves to turn up on a Sunday:

Track 2

“Speakers’ Corner is not a homogenous institution organised by a committee or by directors. It’s a multilayered event. Some people go there to enjoy the open-air entertainment as it were. Some people just go there to finish their walk through Hyde Park with a little bit of listening to ‘crazy’ people. So if one asks, ‘Who goes there as a speaker or as an audience?’ one would have to say a whole variety of people. And that’s part of the attraction of Speakers’ Corner.” Reinhard Wentz Speakers’ Corner regular, 1960s to present

Above: Steve Ross, a Socialist Party of Great Britain speaker at Speakers’ Corner, 1978. © Philip Wolmuth

“A marketplace of ideas” Many remember Speakers’ Corner as an “intensely political forum” whose changing platforms reflected the preoccupations of the day. The platforms of the 1940s, for instance, included the Connelly Association and United Irishmen, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Indian nationalists and African speakers. Anti-colonial platforms continued to feature during the 1950s and 1960s. During the 1980s and 1990s new platforms emerged that reflected the rise of minority politics in Britain, including the Hyde Park Gays and Sapphics, and young black speakers, inspired by those who had arrived from Commonwealth countries in the 1950s. While political speakers continue to expound their views at Speakers’ Corner to this day, the multitude of party political platforms are gone. Perhaps this was inevitable given that formal oratory is no longer such an important mode of political communication. As Kathleen Humphreys reflects, the nature of political engagement itself has changed:

Track 3

“If you were interested in politics you joined a party, you don’t now. We were a different age. It’s hard for youngsters today to imagine what it was like. We really were idealists but it all fell through. Now, you’ve got to belong to the Green Party or the environmentalists or be anti-GM food. We never thought of those things.” Kathleen Humphreys Speakers’ Corner regular, 1940s to 1990s

Above: The crowd at Speakers’ Corner, 1964. © Moyra and Rodger Peralta

“The greatest university” Speakers, hecklers and crowd members all learn by taking part in the dialogue at Speakers’ Corner. Adam Buick of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, for instance, said that by speaking in Hyde Park he learnt “what ordinary people think about socialism.” John Palmer first visited Speakers’ Corner in 1956 as an eighteen year old school leaver, joining in demonstrations about the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Suez crisis. During his visits in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the left debated the rights and wrongs of the Soviet Union, as new ideas emerged. He describes it as “a kind of university course in socialist politics”. He remembers:

Track 4

“There were quite large crowds on occasions in those days. And, it was a kind of political education, opening up ideas that I hadn’t encountered before, of the Marxist left, Trotskyist, anarchist. The Independent Labour Party used to be there, the Socialist Party of Great Britain ... Donald Soper, although he was a Methodist, also really had a political platform, he used to get very large crowds. But the most interesting thing to me were the political discussions that the speakers attracted, and after the speakers had left, often you’d get a crowd of 50, 60, 80 people, debating political issues, intense arguments and polemics. I was very much fascinated with that process.” John Palmer, speaker, 1950s to 1960s

Left: Jim Huggon, anarchist speaker, 1981. © Philip Wolmuth

“You get the bug” Speakers’ Corner does not automatically reflect changes in wider society. Heiko Khoo, a speaker from the 1980s to today says, “It’s not that suddenly something happens in the world and lots of people turn up at Speakers’ Corner. They don’t. It’s generally the same faces will last there for a few years. You have to get the bug to individually want to go there and speak.” Some of the best speakers and longstanding regulars have stumbled across Speakers’ Corner by accident and got hooked. Bob Rogers remembers missing a Green Line coach and ending up in Speakers’ Corner “fascinated by the babble of tongues”. Roy Sawh discovered Speakers’ Corner within weeks of arriving in Britain in 1959:

“I was working at this hotel, the Cumberland in Marble Arch. And one Sunday I had the afternoon off, I finished about two o’clock, and I came out and I looked across and I see all these people in what is called Hyde Park – I didn’t know that was Hyde Park, Speakers’ Corner, I knew nothing about it. I just stood there fascinated and then I went to one platform and I saw a black guy was speaking, and I just stood there and thought, ‘My god, this is fascinating.’ Then I went back the next Sunday and I went up to the black guy and I said, ‘I am from Guiana. Can I speak on your platform?’ He said, ‘Yes!’ So I went up, and I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am from British Guiana, and I’ve just arrived in England,’ and somebody shouted, ‘Go home, you bastard! Ghana is independent!’ Ghana?! I’m from British Guiana …” Roy Sawh, speaker, 1959 to 1989

Above: Religious meetings at Speakers’ Corner in 1964 including “Holy Bob” and “The New and Latter House of Israel”. © Moyra and Rodger Peralta

“It’s intended to run through the streets” Religion is both preached and discussed at Speakers’ Corner. While there have always been a variety of faiths represented, Christian platforms dominated until the numbers of Muslim meetings began to increase in the late 1980s. Debates amongst believers and nonbelievers have long been a prominent feature of Speakers’ Corner. Reverend Kendall, who chaired the Public Morality Council’s platform and visited Speakers’ Corner from the 1920s to the 1950s reflected in his memoirs: “I suppose that in all public places where there are crowds gathered to listen to speakers you will find the unhealthy, obscene-minded and blasphemous element. Small groups of disreputable, depraved men and lewd, leering women go from platform to platform and mingle with the more respectable people, poisoning the atmosphere, spoiling discussion and the healthy treatment of vital subjects. I found this element a sore trial. I always wore my clerical collar and to some this seemed like a red rag to a bull.” Christian platforms ranged from the highly organised like the Public Morality Council, the West London Mission and Catholic Evidence Guild to lone ranger evangelists. Chris Kennett remembers “Holy Bob’s” meeting:

Track 5

“He held up this placard and it read, ‘The End is at Hand.’ And on the back it said, ‘Flee from the Wrath to come.’ And he was surrounded by a group of singers and … he just kept saying to people, ‘Does anyone here want to go to heaven? Does anyone here want to go to heaven?’ And somebody in the crowd would shout out, ‘Yeah, what time’s the next train?’ And, I mean, I just wasn’t used to this because I thought, well this should be religious speakers and entertainers but this seemed to be a mixture of both.” Chris Kennett, Speakers’ Corner regular, 1960s to present

Above: A Christian and Muslim argue at Speakers’ Corner, 1995. © Philip Wolmuth

“Like a game of chess” Increasingly the loudest debates are between evangelical Christian and Muslim meetings. Leslie Griffiths remembers his Methodist platform being interrupted by two young men, one Muslim and one Christian, in the late 1980s to debate the divinity of Christ: “And so I said to the crowd, ‘Now isn’t it interesting, we’ve got these two questions, two young men, what would you have me do?’ I said to the crowd, ‘Don’t you think I should advise them to find a little corner and go and discuss this between themselves?’ And the crowd murmured their assent and I said, ‘Well there, you just find somewhere.’” Abdurraheem Green, a Muslim speaker who spoke in the 1990s says that sometimes the Christian and Muslim meetings can be very confrontational with each other. He describes developing a speaking style that used political themes as a way of connecting with his audience:

Track 6

“The hard thing is just catching the crowd. If I started talking about religion straight away, even if it’s Islam which has a sort of controversial element, still people were not really interested. So, you need a sort of political discussion sometimes or what’s in the news that week as a springboard … For me it was mostly getting people to think about how they’ve been programmed to think and try and think differently, and then connecting that with something that is so unfamiliar to them these days and that’s God and revelation and what’s the purpose of life.” Abdurraheem Green, speaker, 1990s

“The sheer humour of the situation” Alongside the serious political and religious platforms, Speakers’ Corner has always provided a place for laughter. Bob Rogers remembers one especially entertaining performer, Norman Schlund:

“Essentially, Norman was talking about nothing. Now, to talk about nothing for an entire Sunday afternoon, or even with interludes, is not something which is lightly undertaken and Norman put a lot of effort into speaking about nothing. I believe he probably spoke about nothing for about 30 years and he entertained generations of people, because Norman not only spoke, he acted. And, in a way, it was a form of street theatre. Norman used his feet and his legs, his whole body, to speak and he moved about when he was speaking and he made a play of moving about with the words. So, for example, standing in one position with one leg in the air he would say, ‘A man in my position has got to be very careful.’ And he would pause. And then he would move his position and he would say, ‘Let me correct that. A man in my position has got to be very careful.’ But he would take quite some time to get all that out, possibly with some interruption. But, seeing was believing and when you see some of the photographs of Norman with his arms outstretched and a leg in the air you do get a very good impression of what it was all about.” Bob Rogers, Speakers’ Corner regular, 1960s to present Above: Pictures of Norman Schlund, gesticulating and speaking, 1978. © Philip Wolmuth

Track 7

Above: A heckler interrupts a meeting at Speakers’ Corner, 1978. © Philip Wolmuth

“The great difference is – you can’t answer back to the television!” Now that anyone can debate with strangers on Twitter or self-publish on blogs, do we still need Speakers’ Corner? While those interviewed disagreed about what the future may hold, most thought that the need for face to face debate remains as strong today as ever. Patrick Mc Evoy began to speak in 2011 and says he finds Speakers’ Corner more useful than the Internet:

Track 8

“To ask, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I’m worked to the bone, I’m tired all the time, yet I’m living in one of the most developed prosperous nations in the world. I should be happy by all accounts but I’m not. I’m asking these questions, and Speakers’ Corner is an enormously liberating tool in that regard. I am grateful that you have the option to go down and say, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, does anyone else?’ Just go down to the grassroots, ask people who are predominantly in the same position as yourself what their take on it is and know that they will answer the question. On a personal level it has improved me as a human being. By trying to understand other human beings, the position we’re in and my place in the world.” Patrick Mc Evoy, speaker, 2011 to present

Visit to see and hear more from the archive. The exhibition continues towards the main entrance.