Royal Historical Society lecture: ‘The contested right of public meeting in England from the Bill of Rights to the Public Order Acts’

when is a square not a square

On 5 February 2021, I was honoured to give a lecture to the Royal Historical Society, on the history of the right of public meeting. It has been recorded and will be posted on their website soon.

Ironically the lecture came the day after a video of Handforth Parish Council went viral on Twitter and other social media. My choice of Isaac Cruikshank’s 1828 cartoon of a select vestry meeting being interrupted seemed especially relevant:

reflections on public space under lockdown

stone in Kennington Park

It’s now been 6 months since my last day commuting from work, and nearly 6 months since the start of a lockdown of some form or another in England.

Here are some brief reflections on what lockdown has highlighted about public space.

Table of Contents

    Parks and open spaces

    The first few weeks of lockdown were characterised by confusion – how does the virus spread? does it stay on surfaces and for how long? Is being outdoors more dangerous than indoors?

    In those early weeks the focus was on spread through touching surfaces. So we saw odd scenes like every potential spot that could be construed as a seat being taped off. These images of the stones in Kennington Park, which I know well, taken by Will Jennings, are perhaps the most representative of this sense of panic of the unknown:

    At the same time, government guidance delineated what activities were and were not permitted in public parks and other open spaces. So while exercise, including yoga, was allowed, sitting and sunbathing was not. So we had the unnerving sight in some areas of police patrolling through parks and telling sunbathers off. However seemingly random previous parks’ byelaws had been in the Victorian era (everyone seems to cite the ‘no beating carpets and rugs’ byelaw), this rule really felt like an inversion of all normal order, a world-turned-upside down.

    Several well known parks in heavily populated areas, notably Brockwell Park in south London, closed in the first week of April, as temperatures rose unseasonably. The Easter and May bank holidays similarly caused problems.

    bbc article of sunbathers
    glasgow sunbathers

    Driving to outdoor spaces was also initially prohibited by government guidance, the ban not lifted until mid May. The National Trust closed its carparks and properties to prevent people accessing its outdoor spaces. Another of the now notorious images of the early lockdown period were of Derbyshire police using drones to spot people who had ignored the guidance to go walking out in the countryside.

    The other notorious image, which has quickly become a twitter meme, is this one of a police megaphone shouting at a woman walking:

    woman walking police car

    By June, the impact of devolution began to surface, with each devolved government setting its own parameters for restrictions and quarantines, which is still creating inconsistencies and public confusion currently (September).

    Throughout this period, the issue of public rights of way and access to the countryside have been heightened, not least by informal and unofficial closures of ROW and signs made by farmers and landowners wishing to protect their livestock and workers.

    This produced a whole genre of covid signs, such as this one spotted by Dr Claire Hickman:

    peak district sign

    The Viral Archive on Twitter has been collecting similar signs and writing/markings on urban open spaces:

    See also Miles King and Guy Shrubsole’s highlighting of illegal ROW closures:

    See Miles’s blog posts at the time about ‘performing lockdown’ in open spaces:

    Once lockdown eased, it also became evident that people were using public open spaces in different ways. Or at least because people were ‘staycationing’ instead of going abroad, they were using their local parks and beauty spots at different times than usual and thus noticing alternative uses by people they would not normally come into contact with:

    burgess park sex acts

    Raves returned to the countryside as young people felt frustrated not to be able to socialise in clubs:

    raves June 2020

    social and economic inequalities

    It very soon became evident that lockdown restrictions highlighted and indeed exacerbated the spatial inequalities of race and class in Britain. Lack of access to private gardens and to public parks was most acute in the most deprived urban areas. The debates over whether public parks should be closed hinged on the issue of how gentrification of parts of London meant that working people, especially of colour, were predominantly those suffering lack of access to open space. And with links being quickly made between pollution and covid deaths, most severely affecting deprived areas, this connection was underlined even further.


    urban spaces

    As lockdown lifted, and the government encouraged us to ‘eat out to help out’, the urban street space changed rapidly and pretty dramatically. Local councils enabled temporary pedestrianisation and street licences allowing cafes and restaurants to have outdoor seating on previously busy roads. In the continued hot summer, there was a brief vision of the ‘continental cafe culture’ that has always been an aim of successive regeneration schemes but never achieved on this scale in practice.

    But it came with problems, with concerns about the West End of London being so packed that social distancing was impossible on ‘Super Saturday’ in early July after the pubs reopened:

    super saturday soho

    The implementation of social distancing measures also saw the morphology of streets change in densely populated areas, most physically with the replacing of car lanes with pedestrian routes and cycle paths on some large roads.

    tfl borough high street

    Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, a key demand of the ‘living streets’ movement were also temporarily trialled in some London boroughs.

    low traffic neighbourhoods


    The Open Spaces Society provide a useful summary of the various changes made to both legislation and government guidance related to use of open spaces:

    OSS guidance

    The right of public assembly

    Legal scholars have pointed out the barrage of emergency legislation that has been passed without full parliamentary scrutiny over lockdown, and that much involves restrictions on public gatherings. The increasing vagaries and contradictions inherent involve, as much legislation about gatherings has historically, a series of numbers – 1 household, 1 ‘bubble’, 30 people, now the ‘rule of 6’.

    See the multiple and very informative posts of Adam Wagner @AdamWagner1 :

    As Black Lives Matter and later X-tinction Rebellion protests tried to navigate the restrictions and assert their right to protest, and more illegally as large groups held raves in the countryside, inevitable parallels were made with the passing of the Public Order Acts in 1986 and 1994:

    rave legislation

    Wagner also points out the ambiguities inherent in the legislation’s use of the word ‘mingling’, the first occurrence of such a term in English & Welsh legislation:

    Some legal scholars argue that the government’s ambiguity between regulations, legislation and guidance has exacerbated the situation. See for example Tom Hickman’s paper, ‘The Use and Misuse of Guidance during the UK’s Coronavirus Lockdown’:

    [to finish]

    Alternative Guide to London Boroughs

    The Open House London organisation invited Owen Hatherley to produce a guide to all 33 London boroughs. It’s available here:

    Given that most of the Open House activities can’t take place in person this year (weekend of 19-20 September 2020), this alternative guide provides a brilliant variety of approaches, insights and takes on what it’s really like to live in the material space and architecture of London.

    open house cover
    Open House London cover of the Alternative Guide

    I was honoured to be asked to write the Croydon entry, with a focus on public space.

    It is my first published writing on the borough, and stems from some of the research I’ve been doing for the project that this website is showcasing.

    contents page
    contents page. Look at that range and variety of authors.

    I conclude that the 1950s and 60s redevelopment of Croydon in favour of office accommodation and roads severely diminished the availability or amenity of central open public or civic space in the town centre, a problem that has not been fully remedied by pedestrianisation.

    I also point out the current fashion among the big developers redeveloping Croydon again for calling the open spaces between the new massive towers as ‘town squares’. Squares are back, but they are privately owned and controlled, and I doubt will form a communal space for either residents or the general public.

    london square
    ruskin square
    saffron square
    lansdowne road

    But I also praise the range and extent of green spaces in and around Croydon, and hope they are retained in the face of current rezoning and redesignation of land use under the various plans.

    purley way playing fields
    Purley Way playing fields, July 2020, under lockdown

    I love Open House London. It’s genuinely one of the highlights of the year, marking the end of summer and the start of the new academic year. A final mosey round new places and familiar sites, often in an Indian summer in the last rays of warm sun before it goes cold and dark for the rest of the year.

    I’ve seen some great buildings (notably the Isokon and Pullman Court art deco buildings in Belsize Park and Streatham respectively), been shown round wonderful housing schemes by local residents (Cressingham Gardens, Golden Lane, also the Walter Segal self-builds in Lewisham) and got into the most delightful spaces on my doorstep (St Bernard’s estate in Park Hill, Croydon).

    There are virtual tours and some activities going ahead 19-20 September, and I very much hope everything returns bigger and better next year.

    revisions to the emergency powers act on public gatherings

    coronavirus regs

    Feed by the human rights barrister Adam Wagner :

    Link to the legislation changes here:

    coronavirus regs

    playing fields

    st george's field braintree

    more on historic access to open space

    wyck gardens lambeth

    who has the right to use public space? (1/n)

    brockwell park

    Yet again, research and writing for a chapter in my book that originally was historical and as I thought, non-controversial, has now become urgently relevant in the wake of the current crisis.

    I’ve written (not finished!) a chapter on Victorian public parks, and contests over their use, particularly by political groups for meetings. I’ve got a hard drive full of photos of council parks committee minutes from various boroughs in England across the late 19th century and early 20th century.

    At the time of researching, so far so historical. The relevant research was being done by Dan Hancox on the commercialisation of parks and their temporary closing off for big concerts and other ticketed events, where councils make a little money to the expense of local residents not able to enter their parks for a few weekends a year. Enclosure by privatisation is easy to recognise. (

    But now we have the threat that all public open spaces will be closed, just as the weather warms up, with the lock-down. Morally it’s a trickier issue. Of course, this may be the measure we need to prevent the spread of the virus and to enforce social distancing. Stay at home if you have a garden folks. But it has raised huge debate about the lack of access to public space among urban residents living in small flats with (as is increasingly common) not even a Juliet balcony to get any fresh air at all. The balancing of public health between preventing the spread and maintaining people’s physical and mental health by allowing them to exercise outside is very difficult to work out.

    The issue has centred around Lambeth Council’s decision to close Brockwell Park.

    Brixton Buzz

    It often seems to be the south London parks and Lambeth council that are the lightning conductors for these issues. Perhaps because of the highly urbanised nature of south London, and its gentrification southwards.

    Will Jennings and others on Twitter raise the issue of what is a park and what is a common in these areas:

    The south London commons are in somewhat an unusual position in that they are technically still urban commons, but because their ownership and management passed to the Metropolitan Board of Works in the later 19th Century (and then subsequently to the LCC and then to their respective borough councils), they are regulated more as public parks.

    Lambeth Council byelaws:

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    LCC map of parks 1924
    London County Council map of parks and recreation grounds, 1924

    Survey of London history:

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    Parks, recreation grounds and other council-controlled public spaces have always been heavily regulated with regulations and bye-laws. That was part of the point of parks – they were former commons and open spaces that have been enclosed and regulated both legally by regulations and physically by railings and gates that are usually closed at night, and by park wardens monitoring public behaviour. Urban commons (which differ from rural commons) were often the product of the commons preservation societies’ campaigns from the 1860s onwards. Many were regulated by as many byelaws as parks. Access to open space in urban areas in the late 19th century was always about social control, of improving the morals and ‘civilising’ the behaviour of the population, particularly the working classes and poor who lived in overcrowded urban streets who needed the ‘lungs’ of the park as a respite from their polluted working lives.

    update from a discussion on Twitter on whether London councils have the right to close commons:

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    Jonathan Healey jokingly raised the issue of restrictions on behaviour in public spaces made by clergy and local authorities in the early modern period:

    This moral regulation continued well up to the 20th century. With the new public parks in the later 19th century, Sabbatarians and other religious were keen to prevent the population using them on Sundays, when they should be in church. Organised games (football, cricket) and music (e.g. brass bands on the bandstand) were banned in many public parks until well into the first decades of the 20th century. Debates raged in council parks committees and in the local newspapers about whether leisure activities should be allowed on Sundays, and only gradually were concessions made, for example allowing band concerts after 2pm, but then only playing classical music with no dance tunes allowed.

    musical world 1870 Sunday League on music in parks
    Musical World, 23 April 1870,
    LCC pamphlet 1924
    LCC pamphlet, 1924, Lambeth Archives
    council restrictions on games 1922
    LCC guide to public parks, 1924

    field and court games should be allowed on Sundays from 1pm in winter and 2pm in summer at such parks and open spaces as might be prescribed.

    LCC guide to public parks, 1924

    There were no restrictions on access to public parks during the cholera pandemics, not least because it was still believed that disease spread in the air, so access to fresh air was seen as essential. The Boards of Health were more concerned with patrolling and inspecting other sites where particularly the poor and vagrants congregated or were confined – they set up inspections of lodging houses and backstreet pubs for example.

    The restriction on use of public parks and commons for political meetings is another story I’ve related elsewhere and which will be the main focus of my chapter on ‘Railings’, and its most obvious expression was during the Hyde Park riots of 1866 when the crowd tore up the railings in protest at their exclusion.

    A later debate about access to parks and commons was during both world wars. Some (though not as many as perceived) of the Victorian railings had been removed for the metal salvage effort during WWII, and much debate in the council parks’ committee minutes concerned whether there should be extra wardens employed to police the parks now that access was easier. Even for parks that retained their railings, some had to be left open at night because air raid shelters were constructed within them. This led to a large rise in juvenile delinquency and petty vandalism to for example the toilets or cricket pavilions recorded by the parks committees, and there was pressure on them to restrict or police them using the air raid wardens to prevent further criminal damage.

    The town planning schemes and idealistic or indeed simply pragmatic reconstruction plans after both wars sought to maximise access to open green space for all residents (see my previous blog), although in already congested urban centres this was often done aiming at an average acreage per 1000 population rather than trying to make sure every residence was within easy reach of an open space. The space syntax of this accessibility is something I need to do more research on. With the selling off of playing fields, the renewed densification of urban centres as family houses have been split up into several flats, with front gardens turned into driveways and back gardens also sold off or only accessible to the ground floor flat, and especially with all the office block conversions allowed by the easing of planning regulations for permitted use, and new build flats only having those useless julienne balconies, the main issue debated today is that yet again, many people, including young professionals as well as people in lower income bands, have no access to any open space apart from their local parks.

    Further reading:

    Hazel Conway, People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1991)

    Playing fields and recreation grounds

    I went on my government mandated local exercise once a day to my local open space, which is some council owned playing fields. The ubiquity of this sort of open space – slightly scrubby grass fields, no fences or barriers apart from a raised mound around the perimeter to stop vehicles, no planting apart from a line of trees along the edge of the path. © Copyright Dr Neil Clifton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Photo from c.1978

    In debate about the current imposition of restrictions on parks and city commons – here I’m thinking of the hundreds of flat-dwelling residents no longer able to descend on Victoria Park in Hackney or another city park – the focus has been on definable green spaces that can be closed off, notably parks with railings. But for many of the population, their nearest open green space is not a landscaped park or a National Park, but a playing field or a recreation ground – less definable, less manicured, less uniform, and more open.

    Hackney Citizen article

    As we know, the Victorians became obsessed with public parks as a form of improvement and to some extent social control as well as preservation of open space against intense urban density. Railings is a major theme of my new book’s chapters covering this period, symbolised by the crowd pulling up the railings of Hyde Park during the popular agitation of the 2nd Reform Bill in 1866.

    In the early 20th century, by contrast, the main theme is of open space without railings. Though the parks movement was still lobbying councils for more formal parks, new types of recreation spaces developed. We see a shift from the Victorian railed park with gates closed at night, to open playing fields and recreation grounds, to inner city children’s playgrounds. Once large estate building and slum clearance went underway, there was a proliferation of even less defined open grassy spaces such as the small areas in between tower blocks and houses.

    The push for more open space in the driven first by pressure and lobbying by the National Playing Fields Association, founded 1925, who became a powerful body in influencing planning decisions.

    The move to ‘un-urbanising’ inner cities was further enabled by bombed out sites providing more opportunity (though inner city blitzed areas more often rebuilt upon or converted to car parks, outdoor and multi-storey) and by the optimism and vision of postwar reconstruction plans.

    The NPFA proposed standard of 6 acres per 1000 people became a mantra and main target for councils developing town and city plans, and postwar reconstruction. It was technocratic as well as about caring about access to open space.

    In some areas and among some associations and planners, the open space standard became a matter of civic pride to increase the proportion of acres per population.

    New towns such as Stevenage could boast of planning for well over the acreage standard. Inner cities and industrial boroughs had more trouble, and had to either patch together small spaces which were never enough or extend commons on their outskirts. It would be useful to do a space syntax analysis of the inequalities of access to open space in and between inner cities, suburbia, London vs other cities, rural villages surrounded by privately owned land e.g farms and forest.

    The selling off of playing fields from the 1980s onwards, coupled with the decline of large company’s social facilities for their workers which often included playing fields, and further urbanisation and suburbanisation, meant a decline in the ideal of the space standard.

    Further reading:

    Mike Huggins and Jack Williams, Sport and the English, 1918-1939: Between the Wars (Routledge 2006)

    John Allan Patmore , Land and Leisure in England & Wales (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970)