Anyone could get up and say their piece at Speakers’ Corner on a Sunday. Ron Cross and Michael Moore remember fondly the banter between speakers and audience, Peter Gould remembers the original Speakers’ Corner in decline but has also been involved in the founding of a new Speakers’ Corner on College Green, chaired by Stephen Perry.
Unknown speaker: …and my majority went down 90%, right, after 24 years of representing the ward. Why did it do that? It was because the electorate had had enough of politics of any colour…
Ron Cross: Speakers corner just after the war I would think, when I was about 10 or 11, people could go up there literally with a soapbox and stand on it on a Sunday morning and talk about whatever they wanted and they chappie I remember as a young lad, was a chap called Webster. Now Webster, always turned up on Sunday morning, always had the days News of the World in his hand, and always used to read out the most lurid bits and expound on them, about how we were going to the dogs and all the rest of it. And a lot of people used to get up there, there would have been about ten speakers, you know you could heckle them and you could boo and cheer and then go round to the next one and do whatever you liked, you know. And the fiery preacher who was a couple of doors down, he would be expounding about people who read the News of the World and what they were, all going to the devil. You know it was all good natured fun. I mean the speakers oved it, the people loved it, and so it went on.
Michael Moore: Go to Sunday evening church then you come up there and have a go at the speakers. And part of the sport as a young teenager is to heckle them, not to fight and be unpleasant but to heckle them, and to listen. They’d belong to any organisation, could have been the Labour Party, could have been the Conservative Party. There was one man, I’m trying to remember his name now, he was a very attractive speaker, but he was National Front and he couldn’t half give you a reply if you had a go at him. This is what it was about – it was democracy at its best because it never ended in violence. In my younger days I’ve spoken on the Downs, in the political context, only once or twice because its quite a daunting experience, particualry if you’re speaking and no-one’s listening to you.
Gerry Nichols: I can certainly remember going up on Sunday afternoon just to the corner between Stoke Road and Upper Belgrave Road. There were certainly very well known characters who got into trouble for promoting things which were not politically acceptable but generally speaking the Downs Committee attitude that that was an exercise of democratic rights, the only thing you weren’t allowed to do was to have any portable amplification. So you could say anything you like but you weren’t allowed to have a microphone and a loud speaker. On a good day you might have 50 to 100 people standing and watching as part of their afternoon walk. In an age when television was not readily available and there was only the BBC radio, there was no local radio, nearly all of the broadcast content was of national news, yes there were local newspapers at the time, there was the Evening Post and the Evening World, but they, being private newpapers would only want to promote their own views. So if you were a communist, for instance I think there was one well known speaker promoting strongly pro-communist views, which wouldn’t have had any other means of being expressed. It really petered out I think in the 1960s when there were a) fewer people who wanted to do it, and b) a lot fewer people walking on the Downs.
Unknown speaker: This demonstration tomorrow is against the cuts for disabled people, its 12 o’ clock its going to assemble on College Green, and then its going to move around the city centre….
Peter Gould: I remember the last days of the old speakers corner on the Downs, 1970s, early 70s. It was rather declining at the time, as I remember there were two regular speakers – a rather gentle white-bearded pacifist who wanted people to sign up to never supporting another war, and Hellfire Felix who liked to tell us we were all damned…
Unknown speaker:….does anyone else want to say something ‘cos I think we’re moving….
Peter Gould: I went to a regular annual general meeting of the Civic Society and I had a bright idea as I just remembered the old speakers corner, and said “wouldnt it be rather nice if we could revive the speakers corner on the Downs that was at the top of Blackboy Hill,” and someone from the Civic Society said “don’t you know there’s a speakers corner being set up, and that the Civic Society has been asked to send a representitive along, by the way that is now you,” and I think that in a way highlights the difference between the two speakers’ corners – that there was not an appointee of the great and the good of the Civic Society for the old one.
Unknown speaker:….It was because the electorate had had enough….
Stephen Perry: Bristol Speakers Corner was set up last year, in fact there’s a Speakers Corner Trust that was formed nationally , and they came down here and they encouraged the formation of a speakers corner here in College Green. I came along as a heckler to one of the first meetings, they had one round the time of the general election last year, and I was so excited by it, so I got involved as did a few other people and every second Friday of the month we come down to this spot. We set up our podium, with a little bit of amplification because of all the background noise, and because people these days don’t know how to project their voices very well which perhaps they did in the days of the old speakers corner on the Downs. Anybody who comes here to College Green can get up onto our platform and speak, there are no qualifications . Here the only control is when you actually have heckling.
Peter Gould: It is democracy as free from control as the law allows. You can go and stand in some recognised public space and have your say. It is the absolute corner stone of democracy.