Radio actuality recordings

A unique collection of original BBC and other radio actuality recordings brings to life the London of the 1920s to the 1950s. These sounds were captured at street markets, fairgrounds, skittle alleys, auction houses, hopfields and elsewhere.

Speakers Corner 1937

THESE THREE RECORDINGS were made at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park in early July 1937. All of them are on a single 78rpm transcription disc, BBC Archive catalogue number 870454.

In the first, a man speaks in a toneless voice about the British Empire but he has to endure unceasing heckling. The sense of Speakers Corner as a regular social club for idlers and extraverts is brought home when the onlookers begin a chant of ‘Sit down! Sit down!’

The second recording has a religious proselytiser speak on the need to attend to the spiritual side of life and, despite some sly enquiries about his ‘old woman’, he fares much better than the first speaker.

The final speaker addresses the hot topic of the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 Franco’s Nationalists were beginning to gain the upper hand in the conflict. Bilbao had fallen to them the previous month and in August the Vatican would agree to receive Franco’s diplomatic representative.

But such matters don’t seem to be of prime concern to the Speakers Corner enthusiasts. Noisy heckling ensues and the crowd at one point sing the chorus to Charles Coburn’s music-hall classic ‘Two lovely black eyes’, which is about a man who gives up on political arguments because he keeps getting punched.

Speakers Corner wasn’t the only public-speaking pitch in early 20th-century London. Other regular pitches existed at Clapham Common, Kennington and Finsbury Parks, and elsewhere. In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell left a vivid description of a Mormon street meeting in Tower Hill.

Recording © copyright BBC. Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.

Speakers Corner British Empire 3:49
Speakers Corner spiritual side 1:13
Speakers Corner War in Spain 1:15