Shouts, boos and laughter turned a grassy field in Beacon Hill Park into a raucous, happening scene October 23, 1960. Despite pouring rain, 300 people gathered by the animal enclosure on Circle Drive to hear and heckle orators on opening day of Speakers Corner.
The Sunday afternoon Hyde Park-style Speakers Corner was established by City Council following a strong campaign by the Socialist Party of Canada. C. M. Luff, the Party’s 77 year old Secretary-Treasurer, proposed a public speaking area in the British tradition. “In England nearly all parks and commons have a speaker’s corner--not only Hyde Park as some people seem to think,” Luff explained.
City Police and Parks Departments opposed the Corner, gloomily predicting problems. Ald. Lily Wilson said it would be a “serious mistake,” but a majority of City Council supported it. Ald. Geoffrey Edgelow thought older people would be entertained by “funny speeches.” Ald. Elmer McEwen said the open-air setting provided more freedom of movement for spectators, who usually feel obligated to remain seated inside a hall.
Bill Scott, identified by the Victoria Daily Times as a “second-hand store operator and self-appointed champion of crack-pots,” petitioned City Hall to be named first speaker but Mr. Luff argued a Socialist should have that honour. “What right has Scott to ask the city to be first speaker?” Luff said. “We fought for it. He did not do a thing to establish Speakers Corner.”
Park Administrator Herb Warren replied the City would not keep a speakers list and permission to speak was not required. “There’s plenty of room for all. The Speakers Corner area covers five acres.”
On opening day, Socialist Party member Don Pourier spoke first from a special podium constructed by his group. Waiting fifty feet away was Bill Scott, under the sign “Dangerous Thoughts from a Lighthouse Philosopher.” The Victoria Daily Times described Scott “pacing Napoleonically up and down, hands behind back, head bowed, waiting until the Socialist speakers had been heard.”
Scott told the newspaper he had agreed to let a Socialist go first: “They worked to establish this corner so that democratic free speech could be heard...So I’m giving them first speak.” As soon as Pourier finished, however, Scott rang a handbell and climbed on a stool. Half the crowd deserted the second Socialist speaker to gather around Scott.
There were passionate speeches, lively arguments and people talking at the same time. Two men dressed in old-fashioned bicycling outfits smoked pipes and holding signs saying “Keep B. C. White, Support Seagulls” added humour to the event. Despite all the action, the Victoria Daily Times sourly concluded the Victoria version was “too orderly by comparison with the Hyde Park classic.” The newspaper claimed audiences could hear “30 or 35" speakers in London compared to Beacon Hill Park’s slate of seven.
After receiving complaints that large crowds were trampling flowers, City Council moved Speakers Corner to a location near the totem pole by Dallas Road in March, 1961. That site quickly proved too cold and windy. After three months, Speakers Corner was returned to its permanent spot near the deer pen (a few feet east of the present Petting Farm).
In 1972, complaints about high-volume religious music prompted Parks Administrator Cliff Bate to draft the first rules for Speakers Corner. Amplifying equipment was outlawed and, according to the Victoria Times, speakers were allowed “a soap-box type of platform measuring two feet by three feet by one foot and to display a small placard indicating their name or their subject.”
Use of Speakers Corner declined in the 1970's and gradually, its very existence faded from memory. When Victoria lawyer Doug Christie challenged the City to establish a public free speech area in Beacon Hill Park in July, 1986, it sounded like a brand new idea to most Victoria residents. Christie made his proposal at a rally of the Canadian Free Speech League after one of the League’s heroes, holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, was excluded from several indoor Victoria forums.
Mayor Gretchen Brewin remembered the Park already had a Speakers Corner. “It was designated many years ago and has fallen into disuse, so people think it doesn’t exist,” she explained. “We’re looking up the rules of the road, and then soapboxes can go in at any time.”
Larry Tickner, a Socialist Party member and veteran of the original Speakers Corner, looked forward to a reactivated free speech area. He acknowledged his Party--reduced to twelve members in 1986--would no longer be a dominant player. Attracting more members to the Party, he said, was like “trying to launch the socialist ship when the tide is out.”
Tickner remembered 1960's Speakers Corner crowds were not always polite: “It was a cheap but tough arena. Once you’ve been through that, you can take just about anything. I was physically harassed by the Christian fundamentalists. The Lamb of God had some ugly traits.”
The City of Victoria prepared for the official re-opening of Speakers Corner by erecting a sign marking the location. It read: “Speaker’s Corner (1960) Bring Your Own Soapbox.”
The Canadian Free Speech League hated that sign.
League President Dick Lewers, the first speaker on opening day, August 31, 1986, said his organization asked City Council to provide a proper podium and a few seats. “All we got was a silly sign on top of a stick. I find this appalling and an insult to our integrity and to the people of Victoria and British Columbia that they would put a little steel post up and a small sign on top, smaller than the signs directing people to the public washrooms. To me it is a display of the sincerity they have regarding freedom of speech.”
He explained the sign’s wording--“Bring Your Own Soapbox”--was inexcusably outdated. In the past, soap was delivered in wooden boxes strong enough to support the weight of a person. “They make soapboxes out of cardboard now. Wood went out years ago. You can’t stand on a cardboard box.”
In 2005, the green sign so hated by the League is still there. Unnoticed by most visitors to Beacon Hill Park, the lonely old sign stands in the grass east of the Children’s Petting Farm. Ready for the next revival of Speakers Corner.