Two Centuries of Sundays in the Park: Control, Subversion, and Performative Spectacle in Speaker’s Corner22 minute read

This paper dives into the cacophony of Speaker’s Corner (henceforth, SC or the Corner) to trace histories of performative control and subversion. Each Sunday afternoon, speakers cluster in the North-Eastern corner of Hyde Park, an area designated for public address, to woo audiences for their speeches, songs, protests, and mockery. The Corner, today, echoes a long- gone history of protest and public executions. It invokes its past, calling attention to persistent questions. Long before it was SC, Hyde Park’s corner was the site of the Tyburn public gallows. While early industrial capitalism reshaped London, public hangings served as carnivals of death, simultaneously disciplinary and raucously subversive. Eventually hangings moved to Newgate Prison, out of the riotous public’s gaze, and SC became a site of bourgeois decency and indecent mass-protest. In 1866, the Reform League levelled the fences around the park and began a three-day riot, demanding the right to public assembly. Not long after, the Parks Regulation Act (1872) created SC, ostensibly conceding to public demand. Yet, SC is still a contested site, emerging out of a dialectic of performative subversion and control.

This paper uses palimpsests as a heuristic to explore the history of SC, unearthing how it has been constituted by a dialogue/dialectic of control and subversion, articulated through performative spectacle. It uses Bakhtin’s (1981) notion of heteroglossia to account for the way the Corner’s spectacles create chaotic visual-aural landscapes, which are embedded with simultaneous meanings of control and subversion. To understand SC as a site of tension and performance, we will first review the paper’s theoretical frameworks and methods. Then, we will turn to a reading of the Corner’s history, told through the dialectic of control and subversion. Investigating SC’s past highlights the role of visual-aural spectacle in performing punishment, politics, and free speech.

Theoretical Frameworks

Taken literally, palimpsests are parchments where previous inscription has been imperfectly rubbed away, leaving visible traces in later writings. Thomas De Quincy used the palimpsest to describe the “ghostly trace” (Dillon 2005, p.244) of memory’s invocation of the past in the present, where histories “are involved and entangled, intricately interwoven, interrupting and inhabiting each other” (Dillon 2005, p.245). This paper employs the concept of the palimpsest to “trace the incestuous and encrypted texts that constitute” SC’s discursive and topographical fabric (Dillon 2005, p.254). It traces resonances across history and questions power’s operation in and through space’s representation. Palimpsests remind us that space is not produced linearly; it is “unsettled and contingent[,]…continuously re-coded,” as its histories are dredged up (into visibility in the present) or wiped away (into imperfect erasure) (Cherry 2006, p.665). Palimpsests, thus, centre power expressed through representation. It is through the lens of contestation, embeddedness, and relationality that this paper traces a history of SC, not only because this history is invoked in the Corner today (SFTP 2014, min.2:40), but also because the questions it raises are relevant to its present.

This paper uses the language of dialects and dialogues to describe the generative inter- relationship between control and subversion in SC. Hegel, Marx, and Lefebvre build an understanding of dialectics as contradictions within political-economic systems that beget resistance and, in turn, generate new social-economic space/systems of production (Harvey & Marx 2010; Marx & McLellan 1999; Hegel 1976; Lefebvre 1991). In SC, a site of control (Tyburn) created a site of subversion (riots/carnival). It was reimagined as a space of decency and then overtaken by indecent protesters. This history generated a space of subversive free speech that is constantly regulated. It is out of the tense, dialectical opposition between forces of control and subversion that SC is formed.

At the same time, these developments are mutually-responsive. They are dialogical in that they combat and converse through performed signs and symbols, such as ritual death and raucous protests. Bakhtin’s (1981) concept, heteroglossia, reckons with control and subversion as dialogical acts that can be ‘read’ differently across the chaotic discursive landscape (Roberts 2004). Bakhtin argues that all languages consist of multiple coinciding, conflicting, and divergent speeches. This is best displayed in novels, composed of the voices of narrators and characters. Similarly, the monoglossic discourse of the state, which is authoritarian, singular, and sanitised, must contend with the heterglossic murmurings of the political margins, which are many and messy. Heteroglossia offers a view of the discursive landscape of SC as simultaneously controlled and subverted through performances, literal and metaphorical speech-acts.


This project began with a secondary literature review, which provided frameworks to consider the Corner. Next, the researcher sought visual and social histories of SC. She used the London Metropolitan Archives’ Collage Visual Archives to visualise the park’s history. The “Sounds From the Park” oral history radio program and the zine, “The Battle for Hyde Park,” brought often-invisible texture and subaltern views of the park into the analysis (SFTP 2014; past tense 2014).

Finally, this project employed personal observation, with videos, photographs, and audio recordings taken for later analysis. Researchers are always constitutive to their research (see Harding 2004; Reynolds 2002; Hill Collins 2008), but the veneer of objective distance was impossible in SC, since the researcher was frequently directly called into conversation. These experiences exemplified the way that the Corner engulfs participants. At the same time, she was largely unfamiliar with SC before embarking on this project, neither a speaker nor regular visitor. Not fitting the profile – male and British (Cooper 2006) – of most of the people conversing, heckling, or speaking at the Corner meant that she still gazed at the space. Rather than conducting ethnography, the researcher was situated as an outsider to the Corner. With more time, it would have been possible to conduct interviews with people at SC and become more fully involved in the community.

Tyburn Tree: Punished Bodies and Carnival

In the 18th century, the corner of Hyde Park hosted the infamous Tyburn Tree, where those sentenced to death made their last dying speeches and were publicly hung. In a moment when London’s landscape was dramatically changing – with influxes of rural migrants, the rise of factories, and the sprawl of the city – Tyburn emerged as a site of state regulation. It is folded into SC’s present iteration, so much so that some speakers refer to themselves as Tyburnites (SFTP 2014, min.4:42). This section will briefly outline Tyburn as a site of state control articulated through ritual performance and subverted through carnival.

Figure 1 - The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn. Hogarth 1747. City of London.
Figure 1 – The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn. Hogarth 1747. City of London: London Metropolitan Archives, No. 25261.


Tyburn was a space of state control of the unregulated proletarian body through punishment. Because the Victorian state operated in the interests of emergent capitalism, it was also a site of capitalist regulation (Roberts 2008). Those killed at Tyburn were largely poor, industrial workers, whose deaths were meant to deter others from theft, idleness, and crime (past tense 2014, p.3). Their executions were, in other words, spectacular displays that punished  unregulated,  difficult proletarian bodies. “The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn” a piece in the pedagogic engraving series, Industry and Idleness, illustrates Tyburn as a mechanism of the capitalist state (above). In it, a lazy worker (named Idle) is executed while, “a Methodist preacher urges him to repent,” publicly, for his indolence (Hogarth 1747). In this way, Tyburn functioned to exhibit the power of the (capitalist) state (Foucault 1995) and teach spectators not to be idle or indecent.

Figure 2 - "Marble Arch," 1760. City of London.
Figure 2 – “Marble Arch,” 1760. City of London: London Metropolitan Archives, No. 304173.


Public hangings were fundamentally visual and aural spectacles, meant to perform the power of the state on offenders’ bodies. As Foucault (1995) argues, the punishment of early capitalism was erratic, differential, and spectacular. Hangings were a public holiday and a carnival-like event. For a new class of industrial workers, executions were “time away from work and time for the possible reassertion of plebeian culture” (Roberts 2004, p.897). The eight-day hanging period, thus, drew large, raucous crowds. In widely- circulated pamphlets and drawings of these   events,   like   the   engraving pictured (above) they were shown with a clear audience (the people) and performer (the offender). This audience was integral to the pedagogic role of the punishment ritual: “The purpose…was to make death a shameful event…[in] an open-air extravaganza that seduced hundreds and thousands” (Roberts 2004, p.885). Last dying speeches, where offenders were meant to “castigate their recklessness,” needed audiences in order to be pedagogic (Roberts 2004, p.892).

Crowds at Tyburn tree, however, would subvert the state’s goals through riots and rowdiness. In their dying speeches, felons would sometimes “use the performative spectacle surrounding public execution as an opportunity to speak out against the government and authorities of the day” (Roberts 2004, p.892). These speeches created murmurs of anger that erupted into riots and protests. Such protest was, similarly, aural and visual. Roberts (2004, pt.896) argues that “the ‘sound’ and speech performances of Tyburn… transformed… [it] into a heteroglossic public sphere that enabled populist radical utterances to be heard.” Even when onlookers did not protest, elites worried about the raucous, celebratory nature of such performative punishments. People were noisy and drunk, rather than serious and reflexive (Cooper 2006; Roberts 2004). Indeed, while the dying speech was meant to take central focus, the chaotic soundscape of the audience created alternative meanings (Roberts 2004, pt.896); deaths became represented as plebeian holidays (Hall 1997). Whether in protest or celebration, the crowds at Tyburn responded to state control (as articulated through spectacle) with spectacular subversion. Fielding, a magistrate, “recognized the opportunities that this theatre of opposition represented,” and, in 1783, public hangings were moved to Newgate prison, away from the public gaze (Roberts 2004, p.885). No longer public gallows, it evolved into a site of bourgeois leisure. Yet, the explosive visual-aural forms generated within the Tyburn dialectic of control and subversion had become integral to the collective memory of the Corner.

The Reform League’s Hyde Park: Leisure and Protest

Figure 3 - "Hyde Park" ‘in season,’ showing people, coaches and well to do families.
Figure 3 – “Hyde Park” ‘in season,’ showing people and coaches. Unknown, 1866 (left) and “Hyde Park, Westminster” showing the decency of well-to-do families. Unknown, 1828. City of London: London Metropolitan Archives, No. 309285 & No. 21981.


 Always a leisure ground for the wealthy – first as a royal property and then as a royal park – the moving of executions reinforced Hyde Park as a bourgeois space, policed by perceptions of decency. The writers of The Battle for Hyde Park (past tense 2014, p.3) explain that the Park “was to become a favourite playground for the wealthy who came there to parade in their coaches.” On afternoons, “particularly on Sunday, [the wealthy would] parade their magnificent horses and carriages with all their trappings” down Serpentine road (past tense 2014, p.4). These rituals were performative, rooted in a visual show of respectability. They emerged from a (by then) developed bourgeois class, defined through notions of decency. Paranoia about decency was intimately linked with fears around public health and sanitation; to be decent was to be unoffending and wealthy, but also clean and safe (Roberts 2008). Both the police and park-goers would patrol and expel ‘vulgar’ park users, often under the guise of suspicions of indecent public affection (past tense 2014, p.16). The history of the park as a playground for wealthy Victorian families resonates with it as a stage for state power through punishment. The visual emphasis of carriage displays and the focus on presentation (as clean and decent) in renderings of Hyde Park sent a clear message about who the park was for; indecent bodies were policed away.

Figure four. The Reform League's Hyde Park of 1867.
Figure 4 – “The Reform League’s Hyde Park.” Unknown, 1867. City of London: London Metropolitan Archives, No. 20468


 Hyde Park, throughout its regulation as a ‘decent’ leisure space, was also a subversive site of mass demonstration. It was central to movements of Chartists, radical workers and other “groups who capitalized upon the identity,” incubated at Tyburn, “of Hyde Park as a public sphere for radical utterances” (Roberts 2008, p.107). In 1866 and 1867, the Reform League organised a protest to advocate for universal male suffrage. The movement quickly became about the right to public assembly, as the League was consistently denied permits to gather in the park. Instead of obeying permitting regulation, thousands of people gathered at the park on the day of the protest (past tense 2014). They found the gates locked and guarded by the police. The protests proceeded to tear down the fences and flood the park. They claimed it as People’s Park (above) (Mitchell 2003). In the words of Reynolds’ (past tense 2014, p.8), a radical newspaper, “’breach after breach was made’” until “’Hyde-park all round was one vast, wide, gaping gate’” (July 29, 1866). These protests explicitly challenged the rule of decency; those storming the park were not the ‘decent’ elite, they were poor workers, angry radicals, and loud women. A Times article, for example, reported that “‘it is against all reason and all justice that motley crowds from all parts of the metropolis should take possession of Hyde Park, and interfere with the enjoyments of those to whom the Park more particularly belongs’” (past tense 2014, p.7). Reform League protests recast the park from a space of decency into a “politically pronounced public sphere,” where indecent bodies challenged the power of the state and bourgeois class (Roberts 2004, p.904).

To subvert the space of Hyde Park, protestors called upon visual and aural spectacle. Protests are fundamentally embodied, constituted through the congregation of bodies in space. As Butler (2015, p.2) writes, “For politics to take place, the body must appear…our voices must be registered, and so we must be heard.” Protests politicise and publicise bodies in place(s), such that “movements become public through the political spectacle of protest” (D’Arcus 2006, p.5) wherein “the body ‘speaks’ politically” (Butler 2015, p.4). In other words, public protest is inherently performative, about bodies creating something to see and hear, in turn, creating political space(s). Those bodies, in turn, become political ‘speech acts,’ imbued with political meaning. Protests in Hyde Park, thus, were visual in their presentation of (political) bodies in the politicised park-space. Further, after claiming Hyde Park with their bodies, protesters celebrated. In the words of the Times, following the storming of the gates, “’[the protestors] lay about in great groups all over the grass, either fast asleep, playing pitch and toss, or laughing and singing. There were acrobats, cardsharpers, ballad singers without number’” (past tense 2014, p.8). The use of imagery from circuses – the acrobats and the singers – brings a radical silliness to those sleeping in the grass, playing, and enjoying their People’s Park. Indeed, the protests were not only visual in their showcasing of politics as written into the throngs of bodies they involved. They also subverted the firm ‘decency’ of the park through joyful, indecent, visual celebration.

Speakers’ Corner: Regulation of Comedic Publics

In 1872, responding to calls for greater access to public assembly, the Parks Regulation Act created Speakers’ Corner. SC is a political public sphere, a site of expression and enactment, and a place of silliness and lunacy. It is also a site of concentrated police presence and heightened regulation. In this way, the history of Speakers Corner is still shaped through the dialect of control and subversion, expressed through absurd spectacle. At the same time, as a result of the nature of contemporaneous speaking and the role of the audience, SC is imbued with “‘eventness’” and contingency (Roberts 2008, p.111).

Subversion and Spectacle

On Sundays, SC transforms into a charged, subversive site. In the words of a regular, captured in the oral history project, Sounds from the Park, SC is a place where people mingle, “listening and talking and arguing and debating…[where] you got that feeling that the ideas were exciting” (Edna Mathieson, min.9:50). These ideas range from political diatribes, to religious proselytizing, to pure absurdity. In brief illustration, speakers say everything from: “if Jesus Christ came back and arrived in England today, he’d need a visa!” (SFTP 2014, min.1:15) to “Follow Jesus…let’s read this scripture again!” (author’s recording). SC’s speakers are candid, “a marvellous mixture of groups, beliefs, doctrines, cultures and identities in direct physical presence and discursive confrontation”  (McIlvenny  1996,  p.8).  With  a  few exceptions, SC is no longer a site of mass demonstrations. But, it still registers as subversive. Its speech events are explicit and topical, they subvert notions of decent speech, they obliterate political silos, and they flippantly express radical, bizarre, and hateful stances. In doing so, speech events at Hyde Park often centre the marginal, subaltern, and radical, both conservative and liberal (McIlvenny 1996; Cooper 2006). An equal-opportunities platform like SC provides space for racist, niche, counter-hegemonic, and bizarre voices alike. As such, SC is heteroglossic, expressing subversive meanings (though not exclusively) in who it centres and what they say.

Figure four. Speakers' Corner at the “All Together Now Festival.” Schwarz, 1978.
Figure 5 – Speakers’ Corner at the “All Together Now Festival.” Schwarz, 1978. City of London: London Metropolitan Archives, No. 294193.

The subversion of SC is expressed visually, aurally, and audaciously. SC is participatory – where audiences move and stand determines how loudly speakers’ talk, what they choose to speak about, and the energy of the corner. One speaker describes himself as responding to “an audience that are browsing really, that can just move away at any time” (SFTP 2014, min.15:06). Bodies’ movements – lingering, knotting together, and flowing past – constitute SC, as demonstrated in the pictures below. Audiences, in this way, are agential in the Corner, they help create it through the movement of their bodies, the sounds of their hoots, and the visual, aural landscape both produce.


Figure six to nine. Speakers and audiences at Speakers' Corner.
Figure 6-8 – Speakers and audiences at SC. Photos by the author, 11/02/2018.












To attract audience attention, speakers perform spectacular politics at SC. Many, in the oral history, spoke about the ‘open air theatre’ of the Corner. Debord (1994) suggests that, in postmodern late capitalism, we become self-produced spectacular objects. The speakers at SC “excessively parody the notion of ‘the orator’” (McIlvenny 1996, p.32) through their visual appearance, aural performance, and the distinction they draw between on and off stage. In doing so, they construct their own spectacular image. Abdurraheem Green, in Sounds from the Park, explains his decision to wear traditional religious dress at SC. He recognised that what he wore would frame his arguments and was conflicted as to whether to publicise his Muslim- ness or argue that Muslims are ‘just like everyone else’ (SFTP 2014, min.21:30). SC is a site of self-conscious visual presentation. It is also a site of aural performance, through the use of song, screams, and cajoles. Finally, speakers frequently spoke about the distinction between the character of their speaker (on stage) and their ‘real’ self. As one speaker explained, “I don’t think the part really reflects who I am as a human being, a lot of it has now become theatre… like that character smokes, I don’t” (SFTP 2014, min.23:02). Speakers’ and audiences’ cumulative performances create a visually and aurally chaotic sphere. In Coopers words, “the sensory experience of [SC is] a space in which a kaleidoscope of sounds and sights…compete for attention” through dress, speech, and outrageousness (Cooper 2006, p.757). It is no wonder that cameras are ubiquitous in SC, nor that they seem unoffending within this performative landscape (see photo, below).


Figure ten. Cluster of cameras and people around a debate at SC. Photo by author, 18/02/2018.
Figure 10 – Cluster of cameras and people around a debate at SC. Photo by author, 18/02/2018.


Speakers’ Corner has become an enactment of a comedic public sphere, a site of subversion through entertainment. Echoing the carnival of public executions and protesting workers sleeping in the fields, SC’s heteroglossic discursive fabric is composed of “mockery, bawdiness, and foolishness” that “constitute, augment, and run alongside other more serious, if less visible, speech acts” (Cooper 2006, p.761). The spectacle of oration and the embodied visual-aural experience of the Corner create a palpable humour. SC is a space where people laugh as they call each other names (author’s observations). As Cooper (2006) argues, this humour masks and intermingles with serious political statements. The foolishness of this spectacle is intensified when SC is consumed as entertainment (Debord 1994), both by the many tourists that follow their guidebooks to Hyde Park on a Sunday morning and by regulars. As one regular visitor explained, she “would follow the hecklers – for me that was great entertainment” (SFTP 2014, min.18:48). The humour of the heckler, who yells from the crowd, keeps the Corner entertaining and jolly. In this way, Speakers’ Corner grows out of the humorous, visual and aural spectacles of its past – a raucous, yet political space. Its subversion is expressed through and alongside entertainment, foolishness, and spectacle.

Figure eleven. Police at Speakers' Corner.
Figure 11 – Police at SC. Photo by author, 11/02/2018



The authorities created Speakers’ Corner “to regulate populist struggles around free speech,” by sequestering them into a controllable site (Roberts 2008, p.103). Most significantly, the regulation allowed park constables to arrest park-goers without a warrant. On the Sundays that the researcher observed, there were consistently two police officers watching or milling about the corner. They often stood apart from the clusters of people, yet their bright visibility jackets meant that it was always easy to spot a police officer, even in the middle of the Corner. The police are present to ensure the safety of those in the Corner, but also to ensure speech regulations are upheld.

The 1872 Act does not reference free speech; instead, it writes about ‘public address.’ Roberts (2008, p.107) explains that “‘public address’ was designed, in part, to limit the ‘annoyance’ caused to ‘well-disposed people’ by demonstrators ‘abusing’ the Royal Parks for their own political agenda.” The free speech practiced in SC is limited in its reach; speakers are not (supposedly) allowed to swear, insult the queen, or elicit donations. Speeches cannot be “indecent, seditious or blasphemous” (McIlvenny 1996, p.8). These regulations are not merely rhetorical, in 1968, Roy Sawh, speaker on anti-racism, responded to a question about ending apartheid with a comment about poisoning white South Africans. He was promptly arrested and taken to the Hyde Park Police station; continuing in his own words, “I was charged with inciting racial violence – four charges… I couldn’t believe it, I was like, ‘what’s with this freedom of speech, Hyde Park is free, you can stand up and say whatever you want to say’” (SFTP 2014, min.13:09-14:15). Instead of being able to critique apartheid through humour, Moore received a £120 fine and a sentence of a year in prison. This arrest is one among many (On The Record 2013) through to the present day (Khoo 2018).

Throughout this history of control, state regulation has been consistently evaded, subverted, and ignored. In this way, the state has continued to attempt to regulate SC, but its unruliness has dialogically surprised, challenged, and disobeyed it. SC’s continues to be a site of multiple, contested meanings in dialectical dialogue (Roberts 2008, p.116).


A palimpsestuous history of Speakers’ Corner highlights its construction through performative control and subversion. The legacy of Tyburn, of the Reform League protests, and of the Corner’s early days haunt Sunday’s ritual, brought to life in its spectacular silliness. The lens of the palimpsest highlights the deep roots and textual recurrence of chaotic, heteroglossic performances. Viewing the Corner within this limited scope links it to the broader history of the development of capitalism, to questions about comedic politics, and to consumption of performative politics and spectacle. The Corner would be well-served by further investigation of its regulation, movements, spectacle, and politics. In turn, perhaps it can illuminate the mechanisms of performance, dialectics, and palimpsestuous history in other ‘public forums,’ such as Twitter.

Iolanthe Brooks.


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Archival Images:

Anon. 1760. “Marble Arch (Image).” City of London: London Metropolitan Archives No. 304173.

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Schwarz,   Christopher.  1978.  “Speakers’   Corner   (Image).”  City  of  London:   London Metropolitan Archives No. 294193.

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