Fight for free speech on the Green
Heart of the city
Glasgow Green lies in the centre of the city, it is the oldest of Glasgow's parks. Its origin
lies in the common lands of the Burgh. Since the 1100s the area of the Green has been used for
all manner of purposes from peat cutting, pasturing, slaughtering cattle, executions,
walking, talking and playing.
On April 13th 1916 Glasgow Corporation repealed a bye-law passed in 1896 covering the regulation
of city parks and replaced it with bye-law 20, restricting the right of free assembly. The bye-law
was not invoked until 1922 when it became responsible for a considerable number of riotous
disturbances during the 1920s and 30s.
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On July 30th 1923, after many protests and demonstrations, bye-law
20 was amended to make an exception to the area outside the gates
of the Green at Joycelyn Square. Meetings were still being cleared
from outside all other city parks, this was not always concluded
quietly. Guy Alfred Aldred challenged
the bye-law by holding meetings outside the gates of the Botanic
Gardens, because of its historical traditions he considered the
Green a special case. On July 6th 1924 Guy
Aldred addressed an open letter in "The Commune" to the Lord
Provost, Magistrates and the City Council. He referred to the right
of unlicensed liberty of free speech on Glasgow Green secured by
long tradition and respected by the Common Law of Scotland. In the
letter he made it known that he would be one of seventy speakers
participating in an orderly quiet meeting at the monument on Glasgow
Green. He also mentioned the seventy cases pending and those already
in prison being treated like common criminals because of speaking
on the Green without a permit. The meeting went ahead as advertised
and further meetings for several weeks after this. At each meeting
the police took names and charged the speakers. The speakers were
drawn from two groups, Guy Aldred’s
Anti-parliamentary Communist Federation, and John
MacLean’s Scottish Workers’ Republican Party.
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On November 29th 1926 at a meeting of the Glasgow Parks Sub-Committee a report was read
detailing complaints from the Magistrates Committee, referring to the abuse of Joycelyn
Square by undesirables such as racing tipsters attracting a rowdy and troublesome element.
A motion was put to the Parks Sub-Committee that the exemption of the square from the
restrictions covering the Green should be repealed; the motion was carried.
At this point in time Guy Aldred was in London on another
campaign when on February 15th 1925 he was arrested from his platform in Hyde Park and
charged with blasphemy and sedition. When he got notice that the Sheriff Principal A.O.M
MacKenzie, had received an application from Glasgow Corporation for deletion of the clause
in the bye-law exempting Joycelyn Square from the restriction that applied to the Green he
lodged Notice of Appeal. The hearing was on March 29th 1927, Guy
Aldred appeared in person to state his objections.
Aldred quoted Acts and authorities supporting his view that the
bye-law was beyond the legal authority of the Corporation and inconsistent with the laws of
Scotland and that this bye-law was in fact an act of prohibition. He also stated that the
London authorities had laws to prevent tipsters from acting in Hyde Park but allowed public
meetings. Sheriff MacKenzie on April 1st 1927 confirmed the bye-law. The Glasgow Herald went
further in an article on April 2nd suggesting that the Corporation take steps to regulate all
street corner oratory within the city. The Daily Herald carried the headline "Glasgow Green Silent".
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June 1931 saw the issue come very much alive again when the Brotherhood of the Way - known as
Tramp Preachers - arrived in Glasgow and started with fervour and passion to preach on the Green.
They seldom had anywhere to sleep and had no worldly possessions bar their wooden crosses.
They relied on collections to survive, prison to them would mean food and a bed. They were
continually arrested and sentenced to thirty days in prison, their only defence in court was to
loudly sing "Onward Christian Soldiers".
John McGovern, ILP Member of Parliament for Shettleston, asked the Secretary of State William
Adamson if he would release the Tramp Preachers. Not happy with the answer McGovern persisted until
the speaker ordered him to leave the Chamber. He refused and as four doorkeepers tried to remove him
supporters took hold of him in an attempt to prevent his removal. As this struggling mass of bodies
rumbled towards the door the House was treated to a scene more in keeping with a street meeting being
broken up by the police. McGovern was eventually ejected from the Chamber and was suspended for the
remainder of the session. The event got him widespread publicity and he announced to the press that he
would speak on Glasgow Green without a permit.
A Free Speech Council was formed. On Sunday July 5th 1931 McGovern arrived at the Green to
speak, a crowd of some six thousand had assembled. The meeting was allowed to proceed with the
police taking the names of all the speakers, of which there was no shortage. The speakers were
McGovern,Aldred, Pickering, McShane, Rennie, Heenan, McDougal,
Reilly, McGlinchy and Lanaghan. All made two Court appearances and were fined £3 each. Guy Aldred
gave Notice of Appeal on behalf of all the accused.
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Council of action
At a meeting in Central Halls Glasgow on September 19th 1931 the Free Speech Committee became
a permanent Council of Action. The Council of Action was held together because of the issue of
the Green. In actual fact the members were from many different shades of the left with different
motives. They ranged from the right to work, anti-means tests, anti-parliamentarians and others;
in many instances there was little love lost between them.
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The differing motives and the fragmented leadership led to the days of rioting that occurred on
and after October 1st 1931. On Thursday October 1st a large crowd had assembled on the Green,
estimates were put at 100,000 although the police estimate was 40,000. The police had instructed certain
members of the Council of Action to lead demonstrators away in organised groups in different directions.
Some of the crowd were armed with sticks, hammers and bottles as instructed the previous day by certain
members of the Council of Action. There appears to have been a disturbance at the head of a large group
preparing to march off the Green. McGovern was assaulted and arrested. The police charged the crowd,
McShane ended up behind the police and led a group who were going to "have a go at the police", away
from the Green over the Suspension Bridge and into the Gorbals. Rioting broke out all over the city and
it went on over the weekend. Shop windows were smashed and shops looted in every street in the city.
It was reported that the city "is in a grip of terror". On Monday October 5th Guy Aldred
held a meeting on the Green and sternly rebuked McGovern and McShane for stirring up the people
with no other purpose than to appear to be their leader and further their own personal agenda.
January 18th 1932 saw McGovern, McShane and ten others appear in court charged with assault,
mobbing and rioting. McShane was acquitted, the police stating that he had complied with their
instructions. McGovern was also acquitted as he was in custody before the violence erupted.
The ten others, all ordinary members of the public, each received three months in prison.
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Bye-law 20 repealed
The appeal against the conviction of Guy
Aldred, John McGovern and others for speaking on Glasgow Green
on July 5th 1931 came before the High Court of Justiciary on October
17th 1931. Though the appeal was unsuccessful, observations made
by the Lord Justice General were brought to the notice of the Parks
Committee. These observations and the events of October 1st to 6th
1931 brought the Parks Committee, on March 3rd 1932 to repeal bye-law
20 and an amended bye-law that gave the right to public meetings, literature
sales, and collections on places set aside by Notice for that purpose.
The amendment was confirmed on June 8th 1932 by Sheriff Principal
MacKenzie. The old bandstand part of the Green was set aside for
public speaking. Guy Aldred maintained
that the amended bye-law applied to every park in the city and that
the corporation was failing in its duty if it did not set aside
by notice parts of all the city parks where citizens could meet
and freely debate.
The right of Freedom of Assembly only returned to Glasgow Green
because of the determined and always courageous struggle of those
involved. The events of Glasgow Green prove that all rights we sometimes
take for granted have to be vigilantly guarded or they disappear
and to have them returned can be a hard and bitter struggle.
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