Soapbox Speakers

From where did Speakers’ Corner first begin?

Freedom of expression as we know it today followed the Protestant reformation and the Enlightenment that followed. In England the economic conditions of 1648-50 were especially harsh for the poor. Radical non-conformists began to preach in the market place. Two movements from the diggers and levellers uprooted the existing order and brought about civil war and revolution. A new order was established by Cromwell’s new model army. Large outdoor meetings were held where real issues were debated, cumulating in the great Putney Debates. It was from those meetings that a new right of the Common Man to have opinions began.

In 1689 a Bill of Rights granted ‘freedom of speech in Parliament’ after James II was overthrown and protestants William and Mary became co-rulers. But it was still dangerous for the commoner to utter opinions.

Speakers’ Corners took many forms in the 16th-and 17th century: wandering radical preachers, fairground story tellers, the Hustings (election booths), and the most popular were the public hanging grounds where the condemned gave their last speech. In fact, many execution areas later become Speakers’ Corners. The Boston Common and Hyde Park are two good examples.

Steve Maxwell. plnsteve@gmail.com

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