The Contested Right of Public Meeting in England from the Bill of Rights to the Public Order Acts

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The 'right of public meeting' has historically been a key demand of extra-parliamentary political movements in England. This paper examines how public assembly came to be perceived as a legally protected right, and how national and local authorities debated and policed political meetings. Whereas previous histories have suggested that a 'liberal governance' dominated urban government during the nineteenth century, this paper offers an alternative framework for understanding the relationship between people and the state. It points to rights paradoxes, whereby the right of free passage and to 'air and recreation' often conflicted with the demand for the right of political meeting in challenges to use of public spaces. Local authorities sought to defend the rights of property against political movements by using the common law offences of obstruction and 'nuisance'. By the first half of the twentieth century, new threats of militant tactics and racial harassment by political groups necessitated specific public order legislation. Though twentieth-century legislation sought to protect certain types of assembly and protest marches, the implementation and policing of public order was spatially discriminatory, and the right of public meeting was left unresolved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)199-221
Number of pages23
JournalTransactions of the Royal Historical Society
Publication statusPublished - 2 Dec 2022


  • meetings
  • politics
  • democracy
  • Britain
  • public meetings
  • protest
  • public order


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