This month my tour of London’s coffee house speaking clubs took me to the City of London branch of the Society of Cogers – not for the first time mind. In fact, I’m a regular visitor to this esteemed club, which is essentially an indoor version of Speakers’ Corner for people who want to air their views about the events of the last month.
The Cogers can quite reasonably lay claim to being London’s longest running speaking club having been set up in 1755 during the craze for coffee house debating societies. Founded by friends of the loveable rogue, John Wilkes, (made famous for retorting to the Earl of Sandwich, after the latter’s taunt that he would die either of the pox or on the gallows, with the response: “That depends, my lord, whether I embrace your mistress or your principles.”) the Cogers have been a bastion for free speech ever since. A club dedicated to providing a platform for the ordinary man on the street, followed a couple of hundred years later by the ordinary woman, its members also included former Liberal Prime Ministers, William Gladstone and Herbert Asquith.
Today it is presided over nationally by the Cogers Trust, while each individual branch (there are three at present) elects its own committee to manage the day to day running of the club. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the Cogers is how it has managed to stay true to its roots by retaining its 18th century rules while providing such a warm and welcoming environment for those entirely new to public speaking, including a significant number of non-native English speakers, many of whom had never addressed an audience in English before.
One of my favourite Cogers traditions is the requirement for the opening speaker to say something nice about the sitting Monarch, which was originally designed as a safeguard against accusations of sedition from a nervy government worried that London’s debating societies would lead the population to follow the examples of our cousins across the Channel at the time of the French Revolution.
Cogers is the place to go for your five minutes on the soapbox to say whatever you want about whatever is most important to you in front of an audience of your peers who are assembled for no other reason than to respect and honour your right to say it. A truly liberating experience and ideal for someone looking for a gentle introduction to the world of public speaking.
The City of London Cogers meet on the second Monday of every month (except when the month begins with a Bank Holiday in which case they meet on the third Monday) at the Old Bank of England pub on Fleet Street. Their sister society, the Westminster Cogers, meet on the fourth Wednesday of every month at the Plumber’s Arms pub in Victoria. Admission to both clubs is free for first timers with regulars asked to donate what they can towards the running costs of the club.