The following reminiscence was printed in a November, 1991 issue of a journal called The Brummagem Bugle or The Birmingham Bugle, we’re not sure which.
Mr S.E. Parker of 19, St Stephen’s Gardens, London W2 5QU, writes – as follows – about childhood memories of some 60 years vintage…
When I was a child in the 1930s I knew the Birmingham Bull Ring only as a place to which my father took me on Saturday afternoons when he paid our HP instalments at the Times Furnishings store and, if I was lucky, treated me to a beef dripping sandwich on the old Market Hall.
As a teenager in the 1940s, however, I discovered it anew as an open-air forum where a fascinating variety of orators held forth every Sunday night. This discovery proved to be an important one, for the years I spent there listening to the “soapboxers”, heckling them and taking part in many an argument were more valuable than I knew at the time. It was there that I learned how to present a case, how to deal with opponents and their verbal infighting, and the learning was no less useful because it took place in the rough and tumble of a market place rather than in the cloistered halls of Academe.
Among the speakers there were, of course, representatives of various political groups, usually those composed of idealistic word-changers. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, for example (often called “The Small Party of Good Boys” by their raucous critics) frequently set up its platform in order to preach a doctrine of pure and unsullied socialism to the assembled masses. All other parties, including the Labour Party, were damned as wicked upholders of capitalism and only the faithful of the SPGB could expect salvation was their message. I can remember it being delivered in stentorian tones by Charlie Lestor, one of their leading speakers, and father of Joan Lestor who became a Labour Minister after his death. This was, no doubt, fortunate for her as I can imagine the thunderous way in which he would have denounced her “treachery to the Cause!”
It was, however, the free lance speakers who provided the more colourful and entertaining spectacle. I remember two in particular.
One was a gentleman who, at one time, called himself “His Majesty’s Loyal Communist Party”, and at another, “The Crimson Crowd”. The main burden of every speech he made was the terrible and unjust way large families were treated in this country. Needless to say, he was the father of a very large family….
The other called himself “The Church of the Living God” and his meetings were among the rowdiest. His pet hate was the Roman Catholic Church and he regularly offered to divorce any Catholic couples who were in his audience, whom he regarded as “living in sin”, and remarry them according to the rites of his, the only “true church” . I do not recall anyone taking up his offer. His dislike for the Catholic Church was taken to such a length that he actually believed that it was dangerous to pass outside a monastery or a convent because, as he once told me, the monks and nuns could use “mesmerism” to draw one into their clutches…
He was not without a dry sense of humour, however, for on one occasion he was arrested for calling a police inspector a “bastard” and sentenced to four weeks in prison. The Sunday after his release he returned to his usual pitch but, before beginning his tirade against the Catholics, remarked that “You all know why I have been away. I will say no more about it, except that I have not changed my mind!”
Like all open-air forums the Bull Ring had its share of hecklers, the undoubted king of whom was my old friend Alex Wakefield. Sallying forth from his house in Windmill Lane, Smethwick, clad in a check sports jacket and cordurory trousers, his cap at a jaunty angle on his shaven head and with a colourful muffler round his neck, Alex would joyfully give battle every Sunday night. He had only to place himself before a platform for a crowd to gather in order to witness the fun.
Alex’s technique changed according to his estimate of the intellectual calibre of the speaker he was heckling. The shallow tubthumper and the blatant fanatic were the recipients of his scorn. When facing those who were more intelligent, and had some sort of coherent case to make, he would draw on the knowledge garnered from his well stocked library. “My dear sir”, he would say to the speaker on the platform of The Catholic Evidence Guild, “on page Y of the Collected Works of St. Thomas Aquinas he states… whereas on page Z he states… which is inconsistent with it. How do you explain this contracdiction?”
The speaker would blink apprehensively and, while he was trying desperately to remember what he could say about Aquinas, Alex would wait with a beatific smile on his face. Very few of the crowd knew what Alex was on about, but they enjoyed his ability to disconcert the most cocksure speaker and at this he was a master.
By the time ten o’clock came the speakers had packed up their platforms and headed for home. Although they had saved the world in their various ways most of them had jobs to go to on Monday morning. Reluctant to acknowledge that the entertainment was over a few of us would wend up the hill to a cafe and continue the arguments there, until the immediate departure of the last bus dispersed us – until next Sunday night.