Hyde Park is one of the glorious Royal Parks in London.
Together with its neighbouring parks, Kensington Gardens and St. James’ Park, Hyde Park’s 350 acres provide greenery, sports facilities, plants, trees, flowers, birds and space for Londoners and visitors to London.
As well as tennis, golf putting, cycling and skating, there are also boats and rowing boats on the Serpentine.
Hyde Park is also a traditional site of free speech, political protests, and marches, and has been for centuries.
If a major political movement existed in the last 300 years, it held rallies or marches and made speeches in and around Hyde Park.
This post is about those marches and protests, and about “Speakers’ Corner”, at the edge of the park.
Speakers’ Corner is centred on the area at the far north-east of Hyde Park, near Marble Arch.
It is a place where anyone can stand up on his hind legs and talk about whatever he pleases, providing it does not incite violence, or encourage terrorism/
At any time on a weekend or public holiday, there are several speakers at Speakers’ Corner.
At pretty much any time when it is light, there is likely to be someone giving forth his (and it is usually men, rather than women) views on whatever it is he is exercised by.
Karl Marx, Lenin, George Orwell, and William Morris all spoke frequently at Speakers’ Corner.
People turn up and talk about all sorts of things, although there are also people who attend regularly to heckle.
The Chartists Movement and Hyde Park
The Chartist Movement did a lot of protesting in Hyde Park.
Chartism was a political movement between 1837 and 1850, and the six main aims of the movement as set out in 1838 were that:
- (all men over 21 should be able to vote;
- electoral districts should be the same size in terms of number of people;
- all voting should be by secret ballot;
- there should be no need for a person to own property in order to be elected to Parliament;
- Members of Parliament should be paid so that people other than the independently wealthy could become MPs;
- Parliament should hold annual elections.
Although derided and disliked by the powers at the time, the Chartist’s aims have all been achieved apart from annual elections.
The Chartist movement used Hyde Park as a point of assembly for many protests on behalf of their campaign.
Riot in Hyde Park, 1855
There was a riot in 1855 when Parliament introduced the Sunday Trading Bill.
This made it unlawful for most goods to be bought or sold on a Sunday, other than fresh food.
It tended to irritate people who worked the other six days of the week and wanted to do their necessary shopping on Sunday.
The Reform League and the Hyde Park Railing Affair
The Reform League was established in 1865, and wanted universal male suffrage and secret ballots for every vote.
There was a huge meeting of supporters of the Reform League in Hyde Park on 23 July 1866.
The Home Secretary declared it to be an illegal meeting and issued a Notice, but the Reform League pressed ahead regardless. The procession started from the Reform League’s headquarters in Adelphi Terrace, and went up Regent Street.
When the group arrived at Hyde Park, the Marble Arch entrance, 1,500 police constables guarded the Park’s gates. The gates were chained and entry to Hyde Park was refused.
Determined to enter the Park, several of the protesters pushed the railings around the gate, and the railings fell in. Protesters launched themselves into Hyde Park despite the efforts of the police to prevent them from doing so.
Two other parts of the demonstration broke into the Park at the same time, one from Knightsbridge, and one from Park Lane.
As well as the protesters themselves, a lot of people who had been standing and watching the protest decided that the closing of Hyde Park was unreasonable and attempted to join in the storming. An estimated 200,000 people managed to get into the Hyde Park.
The police called for army support, and the Horse Guard Blues arrived. The soldiers did not intervene despite the police being stoned by the group.
The meeting was held in Hyde Park as planned, and another meeting was planned for the next evening in Trafalgar Square. The meeting ended peacefully as did the following evening’s meeting in Trafalgar Square.
The “Hyde Park Railings Affair” was reported widely in the press and increased support for the Reform League immensely. Generally, the Reform League was a middle class movement, and violence was strongly discouraged.
The Reform League held another demonstration the following year, on 6th May 1867. The government banned the meeting once again, saying it was illegal, but backed down when the Reform League continued.
The Reform League’s effort culminated in the passing of the Reform Act 1867 which extended the franchise, but did not make voting universal even for the male population.
Under the Parks’ Regulation Act 1872, the granting or denying of permission to hold public protests or meetings was delegated to the Royal Parks Authority.
Speakers’ Corner is the traditional site for such speeches.
Modern protests and marches in Hyde Park
The Countryside Alliance held a big march through London on 1st March 1998, the Countryside March, in which 285,000 people passed through Hyde Park.
This was followed by a Countryside March, the “Liberty and Livelihood March“, on 22nd September 2002, when 408,000 people marched through London including Hyde Park, the largest civil liberties march in modern history.
There was a massive demonstration in 2003 against the war on Iraq, which the Park authorities tried to prevent. They backed down.
The Countryside Alliance, who organised the largest march and protest in modern British history, has a website which can be found here.