I f IS a strange fact that two of the places in London famous for freedom of speech arc those where once the death penalty was most frequently carried out as a punishment for expressing it.
The Tower Hill speakers' pitch is close to the spot where men like John Fisher and Thomas More laid their heads on the executioner's block, and the much more famous place known the world over us Speakers' Corner is adjacent to the spot where the Tyburn gallows stood.
Three hundred years ago Tyburn was a village taking its name from a tributary of the Thames and where now buses. shops and hotels are seen, there were once broad fields.
Tybum's fame rested on its "Triple Tree", a triangular gallows on three legs on which many famous and infamous met thier detah. Highwaymen like "Sixteen-string Jack" of whom Boswell speaks, famous for his foppery of dress, came to Tyburn carrying a huge nosegay given to him by a prostitute from teh steps of St Sepulchre's and the artistocratic highwayman James Maclaine who robbed and shot at Horace Walpole.
But for Catholics it is the names of our martyrs that we associate with this spot, men like Prior Naughton, Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and a host of others who died because they spoke their minds, professed publicly their faith and demanded the freedom to teach it.
How surprised they would have been is they could have seen the Speakers' Corner of our day. On any fine Sunday afternoon people come out in .their thousands to listen, to argue, to criticise or to be entertained.
It is a colourfull, animated scene, the rows of orators with their human rings around them, greater or smaller in proportion to the rhetorical skill of the speaker.
There are the professional funny men, some on ground level, others on their improvised tubs; there are the Bible punchers crying their texts, waving banners and warning men of the wrath to come: there,are row upon row of political and religious orators, of every shade and opinion and belief.
Anarchists, Communists, trueblooded Conservatives, Mormons, Catholic Evidence Guild are all surrounded by mobs of eager listeners, curious or interested, while on the edge are small break-away groups, arguing among themselves, breaking up every now and again by some internal force of fission, like amoebae, into smaller dialectical units.
From all accounts all this is only a little over a hundred years old. One Sunday afternoon an unknown London carpenter jumped on to a battered box to address a meeting in Hyde Park.
He demanded the Englishman's privilege of free speech. Riots followed but he won his point and since those days many famous men have improved their oratory and their wits in the shadow of Tyburn Tree. Cobden and Bright, Lloyd George, Ernest Bevin. Herbert Morrison and • Sir Thomas More executed near Tower Hill speaker's pitch.
many others have spoken there and uttered many a bon nun.
When Lloyd George was speaking one day on home rule for Wales a heckler shouted out "Home rule for Hell". "Quite right-, replied Lloyd George "I believe in every man standing up for his own country".
The British crowd dearly loves a humourous comeback and many are the stories told and passed down of repartees of witticism. One heckler kept interrupting the speaker by saying "What about flying-saucers"? He received the reply "I can't deal with your domestic difficulties now".
Of course the speaker does not always win. A socialist was saying that the family was a perfect example of socialism "Take the bottle of milk", he said "the milk is equally shared by all".
"What about the cream?" someone said.
The Catholic Evidence Guild is usually treated with respect but occasionally an abusive or offensive heckler tackles the speaker. However, he is the exception and not the rule.
. I remember being called tautologically "a narrow-minded bigot". One can only smile at such people and not be put out, Certainly the Guild has done much good. One has only to talk to the habitues there, agnostics, atheists or members of some nonCatholic sect to see the respect shown towards the Catholic position by many who do not see their way to adopting it. But perhaps its greatest work lies in destroying prejudice and eradicating false notions about the Church. The sincerity and sound commonsense of the laymen and priests who speak from the platform have their effect.
A man of 72 once told me that he had given up believing in the existence of God for 50 years and was quite happy in his unbelief but liked to hear the Catholic speakers because they were gentlemen. That is sure!), somthing, the first step maybe, to the gift of faith.
Perhaps the spirit of Speakers' Corner can be best summed up by the words of Voltaire "I completely disagree with what you say but I would die so that you might have the right to say it."
That the place is able to exist at all without revolution or strife is a compliment to those who go there to their good humour and tolerance and above all their sense of fair play.
Maurice Nassan Si