I wonder if the men of God who owned the manor of Hyde got a chance to speak freely when Henry VIII decided to acquire their home and livelihood.
I think, on reflection, not.
I’m sure, if someone had given them a soapbox and assured them that their lives were safe, that they would have had plenty to say on the subject of Bluff King Hal slipping the whole place under his vast doublet and making off with it, enclosing it as a private deer park for a very long time, and calling it ‘Hyde Park’. It had been the property of the Canons of Westminster for as long as anyone could remember. Not even William the Conqueror wrested it from them.
But Hal, he was a great blunderbuss of an acquirer.
It was not until some considerable time later – the first quarter of the seventeenth century – that James I decided that a trickle of gentlefolk would be good for the verdure.And then Charles I opened Hyde Park to all the hoi polloi in 1637.
Something nasty was happening at the park’s north-east corner., Since the 1100s, executions had been taking place at the gallows there, drawing huge crowds; and these only began to thin out towards end of the 18th century.
Meanwhile the business of great public gatherings and protests was becoming more and more of an issue in London. Riots broke out there in 1855 over the Sunday Trading Bill. The Reform League – campaigning for equal votes for all men – held massive demonstrations in 1866 and 1867. The appetite for speaking out was out there, and London politicians were on the hot plate.
They made a historic decision. Or rather, they made no decision at all: they delegated that pleasure to the park keepers. The Parks Regulation Act of 1872 said that the Parks should decide whether or not public meetings should be held.
And so it remains today.
This is how Speaker’s Corner began. Hyde Park was not the only one; there were others all over London. But this one endures. At 1:30pm on a Sunday, you can still stroll through the park and have a jolly good heckle.
Many are the speakers who have taken it upon themselves to sound off on a Sunday. But none fascinates me more than someone who may only ever have attempted to speak there once: the leader of a tiny revolutionary movement in exile in London.
His name was Vladimir Lenin.
In Memories of Lenin – written by his wife Nadya Krupskaya – she relates how the leader was fascinated by London, back at the dawn of the 20th century. “We started going to all kinds of meetings,” she relates. “We stood in the front row and carefully studied the orator’s mouth.
“We went fairly often to Hyde Park, where speakers harangued the passing crowds on diverse themes. An atheist, standing among a group of curious listeners, proved there was no God.”
She adds: “We were particularly keen on listening to one speaker of this kind. He spoke with an Irish accent, which was easier for us to understand. Nearby a Salvation Army officer uttered hysterical shouts in appeal to God Almighty, while a little farther on a shop-assistant was holding forth on the hours of servitude of assistants in the big stores…We learnt a great deal by listening to spoken English.”
All human life was there, and Lenin loved it. he was not alone: Karl Marx, William Morris, George Orwell and Christabel Pankhurst all spoke there too.
But Lenin lodged with an Irish family, and his English left much to be desired; a Russian speaking halting English with an Irish accent was rather difficult to understand.
There is no account of what happened if, or when, he stepped up to the soap box. But it is likely to have been a damp squib, and history left it until much later, and chose a far distant country, for his flame to ignite a great nation.