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Historical references to London's sounds

A database of several hundred historical descriptions and references to London's sounds. They're drawn mainly from primary sources such as autobiographies, diaries and statutes, as well as novels written around the times they depict.

 SUB-CATEGORY 1st to
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18th Early
19th
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 General sounds of street and town   1 9 2 3 20 12 7
 Open-air markets     1   2 2    
 Road traffic         1 3    
 Communal living and confinement     1 1   2 3  
 River traffic and related sounds     5     2 3  
 Plague, war and disaster   1 6 2   2 4  
 Sound qualities of buildings     1          
 Sounds of crowds   1       1    

Period referred to: 1852

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Bleak House

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Charles Dickens

Year of publication: 1852

Page/volume number: Chapter XXXII

Bells and silence in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House

Mr. Guppy casts up his eyes at the portrait of Lady Dedlock over the mantelshelf and replies, "Tony, you are asked to leave that to the honour of your friend. Besides its being calculated to serve that friend in those chords of the human mind which—which need not be called into agonizing vibration on the present occasion—your friend is no fool. What's that?"

"It's eleven o'clock striking by the bell of Saint Paul's. Listen and you'll hear all the bells in the city jangling."

Both sit silent, listening to the metal voices, near and distant, resounding from towers of various heights, in tones more various than their situations. When these at length cease, all seems more mysterious and quiet than before. One disagreeable result of whispering is that it seems to evoke an atmosphere of silence, haunted by the ghosts of sound—strange cracks and tickings, the rustling of garments that have no substance in them, and the tread of dreadful feet that would leave no mark on the sea-sand or the winter snow. So sensitive the two friends happen to be that the air is full of these phantoms, and the two look over their shoulders by one consent to see that the door is shut.

Period referred to: 1896

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: A Child of the Jago

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Arthur Morrison

Year of publication: 1896

Page/volume number: Chapter IV

Nocturnal fighting in A Child of the Jago

That night fighting was sporadic and desultory in the Jago. Bob the Bender was reported to have a smashed nose, and Sam Cash had his head bandaged at the hospital. At the Bag of Nails in Edge Lane, Snob Spicer was knocked out of knowledge with a quart pot, and Cocko Harnwell's missis had a piece bitten off of one ear. As the night wore on, taunts and defiances were bandied from window to door, and from door to window, between those who intended to begin fighting to-morrow; and shouts from divers corners gave notice of isolated scuffles. Once a succession of piercing screams seemed to betoken that Sally Green had begun. There was a note in the screams of Sally Green's opposites which the Jago had learned to recognise. Sally Green, though of the weaker faction, was the female champion of the Old Jago: an eminence won and kept by fighting tactics peculiar to herself. For it was her way, reserving teeth and nails, to wrestle closely with her antagonist, throw her by a dexterous twist on her face, and fall on her, instantly seizing the victim's nape in her teeth, gnawing and worrying. The sufferer's screams were audible afar, and beyond their invariable eccentricity of quality—a quality a vaguely suggestive of dire surprise—they had mechanical persistence, a pump-like regularity, that distinguished them, in the accustomed ear, from other screams.

Josh Perrott had not been home all the evening: probably the Bishop's watch was in course of transmutation into beer. Dicky, stiff and domestically inclined, nursed Looey and listened to the noises without till he fell asleep, in hopeful anticipation of the morrow.

Period referred to: 1891

Sound category: Ambient > General sound of street and town

Title of work: MacMillan's

Type of publication: Magazine

Author: Arthur Morrison

Year of publication: 1891

Page/volume number: October 1891

Arthur Morrison describes the sounds of an East End street

Every morning at half-past five there is a curious demonstration. The street resounds with thunderous knockings, repeated upon door after door, and acknowledged ever by a muffled shout from within. These signals are the work of the night-watchman or the early policeman, or both, and they summon the sleepers to go forth to the docks, the gasworks, and the ship-yards. To be awakened in this wise costs fourpence a week, and for this fourpence a fierce rivalry rages between night-watchmen and policemen. The night-watchman—a sort of by-blow of the ancient 'Charley,' and himself a fast vanishing quantity—is the real professional performer; but he goes to the wall, because a large connection must be worked if the pursuit is to pay at fourpence a knocker. Now, it is not easy to bang at two knockers three-quarters of a mile apart, and a hundred others lying between, all punctually at half-past five. Wherefore the policeman, to whom the fourpence is but a perquisite, and who is content with a smaller round, is rapidly supplanting the night-watchman, whose cry of "Past nine o'clock," as he collects orders in the evening, is now seldom heard.

The knocking and the shouting pass, and there comes the noise of opening and shutting of doors, and a clattering away to the docks, the gasworks and the ship-yards. Later more door-shutting is heard, and then the trotting of sorrow-laden little feet along the grim street to the grim Board School three grim streets off. Then silence, save for a subdued sound of scrubbing here and there, and the puny squall of croupy infants. After this, a new trotting of little feet to docks, gasworks, and ship-yards with father's dinner in a basin and a red handkerchief, and so to the Board School again. More muffled scrubbing and more squalling, and perhaps a feeble attempt or two at decorating the blankness of a square hole here and there by pouring water into a grimy flower-pot full of dirt. Then comes the trot of little feet toward the oblong holes, heralding the slower tread of sooty artisans; a smell of bloater up and down; nightfall; the fighting of boys in the street, perhaps of men at the corner near the beer-shop; sleep. And this is the record of a day in this street; and every day is hopelessly the same.

Period referred to: 1859

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Welcome Guest

Type of publication: Magazine

Author: George Augustus Sala

Year of publication: 1859

Page/volume number: Unknown

George Augustus Sala describes the New Cut, Waterloo

I wish that I had a more savoury locality to take you than the New Cut. I acknowledge frankly that I don't like it.

[. . .]

The broad pavement presents a mixture of Vanity Fair and Rag Fair. It is the paradise of the lowest of costermongers, and often the saturnalia of the most emerited thieves. Women appear there in their most unlovely aspect: brazen, slovenly, dishevelled, brawling, muddled with beer or fractious with gin. The howling of beaten children and kicked dogs, the yells of ballad-singers, 'death and fire-hunters', and reciters of sham murders and elopements; the bawling recitations of professional denunciators of the Queen, the Royal family and the ministry; the monotonous jodels of the itinerant hucksters; the fumes of the vilest tobacco, of stale corduroy suits, of oilskin caps, of mildewed umbrellas, of decaying vegetables, of escaping (and frequently surreptitiously tapped) gas, of deceased cats, of ancient fish, of cagmag meat, of dubious mutton pies, and of unwashed, soddened, unkempt humanity: all these make the night hideous and the heart weak.

Period referred to: 1890s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Great God Pan

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Arthur Machen

Year of publication: 1894

Page/volume number: Chapter VI

London at night described by Arthur Machen

I had the streets pretty much to myself. It's a curious thing, Austin, to be alone in London at night, the gas-lamps stretching away in perspective, and the dead silence, and then perhaps the rush and clatter of a hansom on the stones, and the fire starting up under the horse's hoofs. I walked along pretty briskly, for I was feeling a little tired of being out in the night, and as the clocks were striking two I turned down Ashley Street, which, you know, is on my way. It was quieter than ever there, and the lamps were fewer; altogether, it looked as dark and gloomy as a forest in winter. I had done about half the length of the street when I heard a door closed very softly, and naturally I looked up to see who was abroad at such an hour.

Period referred to: 1870

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Middlesex Chronicle

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: Unnamed journalist

Year of publication: 1870

Page/volume number: 2 April 1870, page 2

Sights and sounds of the Thames Subway at Tower Hill

The mysterious-looking thoroughfare admits of a very brief description. It is a well-constructed tubular iron bridge, about a quarter of a mile long, and seven feet in diameter, sunk bodily into the bed of the Thames, so as to be snugly embedded in the London clay through its entire distance. Nowhere is the Subway nearer than 22 feet to the water, and in places is as much as 50 feet distant - an important fact to bear in mind in comparing the Subway with the old Thames Tunnel, over the archcrown of which there were here and there but four feet to the water. The Subway, in point of fact dips at the rate of one in thirty.

At present, the Tower-hill station at the one end, and the Tooley-street Station at the other, are more useful than ornamental, especially when the cage by which passengers are taken down is at the bottom. We use the word "cage" because of the resemblance to that familiar object of the mining districts, but it is in reality rather a nicely padded little compartment, semi-circular in shape, and with cushioned seat for four or six. Into this the passenger enters, and the doors are shut. There is a rumble, a rattle, a consciousness of steady downward motion, and an intention perhaps to remark to your neighbour that it is all very pleasant, but any such reflection is nipped in the bud by the termination of the journey, which has occupied about the time it would take to [illegible]. The distance is only fifty feet.

Through a small waiting-room you enter a long low carriage, with seats for seven each side. The signal is given, the drum begins to revolve, and the wire rope twines swiftly round it, the pretty omnibus answers to the strain, and in about 60 seconds the subterranean passage of the Thames has been accomplished. Safety is secured in the shafts by an unusually powerful clip; in the Subway by the single line of tramway upon which collision is impossible. We (correspondent of Daily News, from which we are quoting) walked through the narrow, dark, road on Tuesday, absolutely dryshod, and without any inconvenience from defective ventilation. At times, a listener in the centre of the Subway can hear strange noises, said to be reverberations of paddles beating the river overhead, and the sounds of hammering and thumping on board vessel.

Period referred to: 1867

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: South London Press

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: Unnamed journalist

Year of publication: 1867

Page/volume number: 3 August 1867, page 10

Rowdy soldiers of the 19th Surrey Rifles upset a Kennington resident

On Saturday evening last, the 19th Surrey Rifles was officially inspected in Kennington Park by Col. Wright, the deputy-inspector-general. The regiment was in six companies, and the whole of the officers were present. Col. Labrow commanded, and with him was Major James. The companies were commanded by Captains Prewett, Hill, Driver, Brady, Harding, and Alsop. The movements were well executed, and Col. Wright, at the conclusion, expressed his satisfaction with all he had seen. He congratulated the corps on having so large a muster, especially of officers. The regiment then marched off the ground to the drill-shed in New-street, Doddington Grove, where the men were entertained by their officers.

A correspondent writes as follows in reference to the foregoing: "Up to nearly midnight the quiet of New-street and Doddington Grove was greatly disturbed. Some of the members, in knots of three and four, rolled (that's the proper expression, I think) along the streets, shouting and singing at the top of their voices, brandishing their rifles and causing no small amount of commotion. This was a frequent scene for some time. I do not condemn the whole body - far from it - but the only misfortune is that those who so far misconducted themselves, owing to the darkness, could not from the windows of the houses be recognized. As usual, none of the police were in the way."

Period referred to: 1865

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Shoreditch Observer

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: Unnamed correspondent

Year of publication: 1865

Page/volume number: 9 December 1865, page 3

A letter-writer complains about church bells and other noises in Shoreditch

SIR, - People lament the good old times of our ancestors, but we need not go so far back for a lamentation. Time was when our beloved parish had not become like a battle field, - sounds of furious rushings, painful shrieks, dreadful tumblings! Smoke, steam, and din, are now the order of the day, and a good part of the four and twenty their day is too, while that bell, that dreadful bell, with the remorseless tongue, that clamours to be heard in Leonard-street, seems to exult in the general disturbance. Are people made more religious by that restless engine? I have been told that people who live literally under the sound, have been heard to be exceedingly warm in their sentiments in the matter, and indeed, the sound must be a great consolation to those who have illness of any sort in the house. I presume the bell (which surely is of the feminine gender), was engaged on the express condition that it should be "afraid to flinch," whatever discomfort it might cause. The music of the bells across the fields is a pleasant sound in the country, but the music of the bells across the streets is quite another matter.
Yours &c.,
SHOREDITCH

[The church referred to is most likely St Mark's.]

Period referred to: 1874

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Wilds of London

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: James Greenwood

Year of publication: 1874

Page/volume number: Chapter 3: Sunday Evening with the 'Fancy'

Victorian cage-bird fanciers in Brick Lane

But, before all, Hare Street is strongest in singing birds. Not so much for sale seemingly, as brought out for an airing. There they were, not here and there one, but by dozens and hundreds – goldfinches and chaffinches chiefly, the cages that contain them tied in handkerchiefs, silk and cotton, and carried swinging in the hand, and jostling amongst the rude mob, as though they were of no more account than parcels of most ordinary merchandise. But the most amazing part of the business was, that not only did the imprisoned and much-hustled finches continue to exist under such circumstances, but they retained perches and equanimity in the most perfect manner, and sang as they were carried.

[. . .]

There were a good many performers before the bar, and before every man had re-plighted his torth and put himself in condition to discuss ordinary topics, my measure of Brick Lane beer was considerably reduced. But alas! even when they began to talk I was almost as much in the dark as ever. The conversation was strictly birdy. One person was bragging of him 'slamming' goldfinch, and there was a dispute as to how many 'slams' it could execute within a given time. Another individual button-holed a friend, and told him all about his 'greypates,' while a third was learned on the subject of linnets, and recited that able bird's sixty-four distinct notes, but of which the only sentence I could make out was 'Tollic, tollic, tollic, chew-chew-tew-wit-joey,' and as the man had a very gruff voice and gave the recitation with a strong nasal twang, I am afraid that my ideas of the linnet's song were not exalted by the lesson. There was presently some talk about chaffinches and 'chaffinch matches,' and then I began to glean a little real information. I learned that in the very house we were then in the 'muffin man' had sung his bird against another songster the property of a gentleman whom the company spoke of as 'More-Antique,' on the previous Thursday, for £3 a side, and that More-Antique had lost by three chalks. The terms of the said match appeared to be that each man hung up his bird against the wall, in the position he best fancied, and that the finch that uttered the greatest number of perfect notes within the space of fifteen minutes – an impartial person sitting at a table, and chalking down the notes as they were delivered – should be the winner. A 'perfect note,' as described by the gentleman who was so great in linnets, was 'toll-loll-loll chuck weedo,' and if in its utterance the bird abated a single syllable of the note it didn't count in the scoring.

Period referred to: 1857

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Little Dorrit

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Charles Dickens

Year of publication: 1857

Page/volume number: Chapter 14

Little Dorrit travels across London at night

They had shrunk past homeless people, lying coiled up in nooks. They had run from drunkards. They had started from slinking men, whistling and signing to one another at bye corners, or running away at full speed. Though everywhere the leader and the guide, Little Dorrit, happy for once in her youthful appearance, feigned to cling to and rely upon Maggy. And more than once some voice, from among a knot of brawling or prowling figures in their path, had called out to the rest to 'let the woman and the child go by!'

So, the woman and the child had gone by, and gone on, and five had sounded from the steeples.

Period referred to: 1820s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Lavengro

Type of publication: Novel/memoir

Author: George Borrow

Year of publication: 1851

Page/volume number: Chapter XXIX

Early nineteenth century street sounds in George Borrow’s Lavengro

And there I continued in thought before the fire, until my eyes closed, and I fell asleep; which was not to be wondered at, after the fatigue and cold which I had lately undergone on the coach-top; and, in my sleep, I imagined myself still there, amidst darkness and rain, hurrying now over wild heaths, and now along roads overhung with thick and umbrageous trees, and sometimes methought I heard the horn of the guard, and sometimes the voice of the coachman, now chiding, now encouraging his horses, as they toiled through the deep and miry ways. At length a tremendous crack of a whip saluted the tympanum of my ear, and I started up broad awake, nearly oversetting the chair on which I reclined—and, lo! I was in the dingy room before the fire, which was by this time half extinguished. In my dream I had confounded the noise of the street with those of my night-journey; the crack which had aroused me I soon found proceeded from the whip of a carter, who, with many oaths, was flogging his team below the window.

Period referred to: 1880s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Secret Agent

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Joseph Conrad

Year of publication: 1907

Page/volume number: Chapter 4

Joseph Conrad depicts an Islington street in the 1880s

However, he ventured another question. “Did you walk down here?”

“No; omnibus,” the little man answered readily enough. He lived far away in Islington, in a small house down a shabby street, littered with straw and dirty paper, where out of school hours a troop of assorted children ran and squabbled with a shrill, joyless, rowdy clamour.

Period referred to: 1880s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Secret Agent

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Joseph Conrad

Year of publication: 1907

Page/volume number: Chapter 2

A walk through Belgravia in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Before reaching Knightsbridge, Mr Verloc took a turn to the left out of the busy main thoroughfare, uproarious with the traffic of swaying omnibuses and trotting vans, in the almost silent, swift flow of hansoms [. . .] And Mr Verloc, steady like a rock – a soft kind of rock – marched now along a street which could with every propriety be described as private. In its breadth, emptiness, and extent it had the majesty of inorganic nature, of matter that never dies. The only reminder of mortality was a doctor’s brougham arrested in august solitude close to the curbstone. The polished knockers of the doors gleamed as far as the eye could reach, the clean windows shone with a dark opaque lustre. And all was still. But a milk cart rattled noisily across the distant perspective; a butcher boy, driving with the noble recklessness of a charioteer at Olympic Games, dashed round the corner sitting high above a pair of red wheels.

Period referred to: 1880s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Nether World

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Gissing

Year of publication: 1889

Page/volume number: Chapter XXX

The clamour of life in the Farringdon Road Buildings

What terrible barracks, those Farringdon Road Buildings! . . . The yells of children at play in the courtyard tortured her nerves; the regular sounds on the staircase, day after day repeated at the same hours, incidents of the life of poverty, irritated her sick brain and filled her with despair to think that as long as she lived she could never hope to rise again above this world to which she was born.

Period referred to: 1880s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Nether World

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Gissing

Year of publication: 1889

Page/volume number: Chapter XXX

George Gissing describes the sounds of Waterloo Station

Waterloo Station is a convenient rendezvous; its irregular form provides many corners of retirement, out-of-the-way recesses where talk can be carried on in something like privacy. To one of these secluded spots Scawthorne drew aside with the veiled woman who met him at the entrance from Waterloo Road. So closely was her face shrouded, that he had at first a difficulty in catching the words she addressed to him. The noise of an engine getting up steam, the rattle of cabs and porters' barrows, the tread and voices of a multitude of people made fitting accompaniment to a dialogue which in every word presupposed the corruptions and miseries of a centre of modern life.

Period referred to: 1880s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Nether World

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Gissing

Year of publication: 1889

Page/volume number: Chapter XI

The quiet of a summer morning in London

Occasionally her eyes wandered, and once they rested upon her grandfather's face for several minutes. But for the cry of a milkman or a paper-boy in the street, no sound broke the quietness of the summer morning. The blessed sunshine, so rarely shed from a London sky—sunshine, the source of all solace to mind and body—reigned gloriously in heaven and on earth.

Period referred to: Late 29th century

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

Year of publication: 1886

Page/volume number: Search for Mr Hyde

The quietness of night-time London in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

It was a fine dry night; frost in the air; the streets as clean as a ballroom floor; the lamps, unshaken, by any wind, drawing a regular pattern of light and shadow. By ten o'clock, when the shops were closed, the by-street was very solitary and, in spite of the low growl of London from all round, very silent. Small sounds carried far; domestic sounds out of the houses were clearly audible on either side of the roadway; and the rumour of the approach of any passenger preceded him by a long time. Mr. Utterson had been some minutes at his post, when he was aware of an odd, light footstep drawing near. In the course of his nightly patrols, he had long grown accustomed to the quaint effect with which the footfalls of a single person, while he is still a great way off, suddenly spring out distinct from the vast hum and clatter of the city.

Period referred to: 1850s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Bleak House

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Charles Dickens

Year of publication: 1853

Page/volume number: Chapter XLVIII

A moonlit London night in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House

A very quiet night. When the moon shines very brilliantly, a solitude and stillness seem to proceed from her that influence even crowded places full of life [. . .] even on this stranger's wilderness of London there is some rest. Its steeples and towers and its one great dome grow more ethereal; its smoky house-tops lose their grossness in the pale effulgence; the noises that arise from the streets are fewer and are softened, and the footsteps on the pavements pass more tranquilly away. In these fields of Mr. Tulkinghorn's inhabiting, where the shepherds play on Chancery pipes that have no stop, and keep their sheep in the fold by hook and by crook until they have shorn them exceeding close, every noise is merged, this moonlight night, into a distant ringing hum, as if the city were a vast glass, vibrating.

What's that? Who fired a gun or pistol? Where was it?

The few foot-passengers start, stop, and stare about them. Some windows and doors are opened, and people come out to look. It was a loud report and echoed and rattled heavily. It shook one house, or so a man says who was passing. It has aroused all the dogs in the neighbourhood, who bark vehemently. Terrified cats scamper across the road. While the dogs are yet barking and howling—there is one dog howling like a demon—the church-clocks, as if they were startled too, begin to strike. The hum from the streets, likewise, seems to swell into a shout. But it is soon over. Before the last clock begins to strike ten, there is a lull. When it has ceased, the fine night, the bright large moon, and multitudes of stars, are left at peace again.

Period referred to: 1850s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Bleak House

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Charles Dickens

Year of publication: 1853

Page/volume number: Chapter X

Holborn traffic and a cock crowing in Bleak House

Peffer is never seen in Cook's Court now. He is not expected there, for he has been recumbent this quarter of a century in the churchyard of St. Andrews, Holborn, with the waggons and hackney-coaches roaring past him all the day and half the night like one great dragon. If he ever steal forth when the dragon is at rest to air himself again in Cook's Court until admonished to return by the crowing of the sanguine cock in the cellar at the little dairy in Cursitor Street, whose ideas of daylight it would be curious to ascertain [. . .]

Period referred to: 1870s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Travels in the Air

Type of publication: Travel/Autobiography

Author: James Glaisher

Year of publication: 1871

Page/volume number: Not known

London heard from a balloon

I have seen London by night. I have crossed it during the day at the height of four miles. I have often admired the splendour of sky scenery, but never have I seen anything which surpassed this spectacle. The roar of the town heard at this elevation [7,000 feet] was a deep, rich, continuous sound—the voice of labour. At four miles above London, all was hushed; no sound reached our ears.

Period referred to: 1850s

Sound category: Ambient > Voices in the street

Title of work: The Three Clerks

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Anthony Trollope

Year of publication: 1858

Page/volume number: Unknown

‘Shrill voices shrieked at him as he passed’

He went along the Strand, over the crossing under the statue of Charles on horseback, and up Pall Mall East till he came to the opening into the park under the Duke of York's column. The London night world was alive as he made his way. From the Opera Colonnade shrill voices shrieked at him as he passed, and drunken men coming down from the night supper-houses in the Haymarket saluted him with affectionate cordiality. The hoarse waterman from the cabstand, whose voice had perished in the night air, croaked out at him the offer of a vehicle [. . .]