This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, London, is a remnant of a bygone era when people used to stand on irl soapboxes and shout their opinions indiscriminately to passersby. Today, most soapboxes have been replaced with 140-character proselytizing, but in Speakers' Corner's heyday, political radicals preaching revolution stood next to religious fundamentalists screaming about the end times to anyone who would listen. Now, the Corner is one of the last remaining places in the UK where you can still yell at strangers about your political beliefs without the risk of being sectioned or hassled by the police.
Philip Wolmuth is a photographer who has been taking photos of the scenes there for 35 years. His new book, Speakers' Corner: Debate, Democracy, and Disturbing the Peace, came out in early May. I chatted to him about how the world of standing in a park shouting at strangers has changed in the last three and a half decades.
VICE: You started taking photographs at Speakers' Corner 35 years ago. What was it like back then and what do you think the biggest changes have been over the years?
Philip Wolmuth: The crowds were much bigger, that's one of the biggest changes I think. There were more political platforms, they weren't mainstream by any means, but they were things like the London Anarchist Forum and there were things that were not religious. The proportion has shifted and there are now more preachers of both Christian and Muslim faiths than I think there were back then. There were some preachers who used to go there and rant and rave and other people used to go there and heckle them. In one instance that I saw in one of the newspapers, they even chased them away.
George Orwell wrote a little essay about Speakers' Corner in 1945 talking about Indian nationalist's speaking. I know that quite a few of the people becoming first leaders of newly independent African countries used to frequent Speakers' Corner and there was quite a lot of anti-colonial campaigning talk. I guess that was quite directly relevant to the politics of the day in a way that the politics there now is less so—it's more fringe.
What was it you enjoyed most about your time at Speakers' Corner?
The things I like the most are when there's an intelligent discussion going on. I also really like some of the humor, the heckling. There's some very funny heckles you get that are sometimes said quite quietly. There's an elderly Irish guy who's been around for some time and he seems to stand at the edge of crowds and just mutter while people are talking. There's some born again Christian preacher really ranting and raving and he just says things like, "I don't want to be born again, look what happened to me the first time." Really funny lines and he just comes out with them; really quick-thinking people.
Has Speakers' Corner been pushed out of mainstream political discourse over the years?
Completely. It's certainly not part of mainstream political discourse. Speakers' Corner is the last one surviving of the public debating places in London. Up till about the Second World War there were about 100 outdoor meetings a week in different places around the capital: Victoria Park, Blackheath, there used be a spot outside Foyles just on Charing Cross Road in a side street, Tower Hill, and quite a lot of other places. They've all gone.
The reason is not that they've been pushed out deliberately, but radio and television. I'm sure that's the main driving force, so they've become irrelevant. Politics, which doesn't happen anywhere now except in the corridors of power, used to happen on the street. It doesn't really happen in Speakers' Corner now. There are political speakers there and they're very interesting but they're not mainstream and they don't impact on mainstream politics in any way. I think it's what's really missing.
Related: Watch our doc 'The New Wave: London's Black Revolutionaries':It was very interesting in the middle of the election campaign—people keep talking about "the British people want this or British working families want that." But nobody actually gives them a voice, they never get a chance. Even when there's the leaders debate on television, you're not left to listen to the leaders speaking and make up your own mind. Within seconds of it finishing, the pundits are on there telling you what the result was and what it meant. You can't answer back, you can't participate in any way. You're just subjected to other people's opinions and that's not the case at Speakers' Corner—you can always answer back.
At Speakers' Corner if someone challenges you you've got to come up with an argument. You can't get away with things. That's what is fascinating about the place. Even online these days it's very different. People shout at each other at Speakers' Corner but there's not the sort of vile abuse that you get on social media. It's a different type of interaction, although social media is probably the closest present day equivalent.
Is Speakers' Corner a symbol of free speech or is it just people shouting into a void?
Well historically it is a symbol of free speech and, more than that, really—freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. It became Speakers' Corner because of massive riots in the 1860s that were the result of the Reform League campaign to get the vote for the majority of the population, which didn't have it at the time. There was very violent rioting there with thousands and thousands of police and soldiers. All the railings of Park Lane along the length of the park were ripped out by the demonstrators when the police denied them entry. It's played an important role in people getting the vote. Even when Lord Soper first started speaking there in 1926, women under 30 didn't have the vote. What we call democracy is quite a limited form of democracy in my opinion, in that people don't have much chance to have their voices heard.
Does Speakers' Corner have a future now that social media has basically replaced it?
Yes, the people who go there, quite a few people are really into the whole idea of making their voice heard. Not all for particularly edifying reasons—there's a lot of religious people. I'm not a religious person so it's all a bit alien to me. I don't think they're going to go away.
What have you learned from being around Speakers' Corner?
I think what I draw from it hasn't been anything somebody's said or told me directly, but more the intransigence of people who are fervently religious. It's a good illustration of that. In a way it does relate to the broader political scene at the moment because you can begin to understand how some of these conflicts run and run when there's a religious element to them. You see how people come back week after week to challenge people over the same minor point in the Bible or the Koran or something and it gives you an idea of how that might work in the wider world.
Speakers' Corner: Debate, Democracy and Disturbing the Peace is published by History Press
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