Free speech

The relation between free speech, and hanging, is an old and noble one, in England and thus throughout the English-speaking world. I rank Tyburn with the Magna Carta. In the 12th century, or before, the custom of hanging convicts from the Tyburn Tree, in what is now Hyde Park in London, was inaugurated. “Newgate,” by an old gate in the Roman wall (I suffer terribly from nostalgia), was itself erected in the reforming spirit, going back to when HM Henry II was endeavouring to nationalize the English judicial system; and the “Old Bailey” courts were set up in proximity, to increase the volume of processing.

I leave gentle reader to explore the history in detail. Prisoners were transported by cart from Newgate to Tyburn, their place of execution. “Progress” to many means bigger and better, and the efficient Elizabethans replaced the Tyburn Tree with an elaborate triangular platform. It had eight nooses mounted from each beam, allowing twenty-four prisoners to be despatched into Eternity, at the same time. This was a discouragement to civil insurrections. By raising the platform, and clearing the space around it, large crowds of spectators could be accommodated (to the advantage of pickpockets, and other petty thieves).

By the 18th century hangings were a very popular entertainment, attracting fans the way football matches did, before the Batflu. When the highwayman Jack Shepherd was hanged in 1724, the crowd was estimated at 200,000: more than the audience for a World Cup final.

Now, mediaeval executions were, by comparison, fine and private affairs. Decapitations were performed in, for instance, the Tower of London, and one really needed connexions to get in. The big crowds being a feature of modernity, methods of crowd control also advanced. But more of a show was needed, to regulate the crowd’s attention. Pioneering work had been done on the Catholics in 16th-century London, especially Jesuits. They would be not merely hanged, but drawn and quartered, and after detachment, their heads placed on spikes. Almost by way of concession, some were allowed a final speech; but it had to be kept short, and might be suddenly “cancelled,” the way they do on Twitter.

Jack Shepherd’s later, more “secular” speech, was, I am sure, a good one. Some of the condemned of the Enlightenment proved fine orators — given leave for a final rant against Church and State, or disliked acquaintances. It was, too, the last venue at which to plead their innocence, or alternatively, to confess their guilt. True, the crowds came for morbid titillations, but the spectators also functioned as drama and literary critics. Later, in the pubs, they could decide who had made a memorable speech, who a mediocre, and who had needed lessons in voice projection. The stars of magniloquence became posthumous heroes. Debates could be had on whether their crimes were as egregious as the magistrates made out.

From Tyburn, to Speaker’s Corner, is a short walk. For even after executions were “privatized” again (granted, I am misusing this Thatcherite term), the tradition of ranting continued. The Chartists, by persistence, established the right of mass assembly for the purpose of protest, in the early Victorian age. (Informally, it goes back to Jack Cade, Wat Tyler, &c.) By mid-century there were pioneering rants against high food prices, and the like. This was a relaxation from the gin riots, of the century before.

In the 20th century, George Orwell could applaud Speaker’s Corner as “one of the minor wonders of the world,” where he could listen to Indian nationalists, temperance crusaders, Communists, Trotskyists, other Marxists, freethinkers, vegetarians, Mormons, and members of the Catholic Evidence Society. (I have abridged his list.) Today we have the convenience of shout-outs on YouTube, so we may listen in our homes; while the censors gradually close in. But one can still find a selection of miscellaneous lunatics.

Yes, this is the heritage of free speech — from an indulgence granted before the gallows, to an entertainment for “the peeple,” in its own right. It was, in my view, an improvement on the more violent convulsions. I hope it revives.