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Historical references to London's sounds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.

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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: 1940s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Rosie Hogarth

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Alexander Baron

Year of publication: 1951

Page/volume number: Not known

‘A constant din of altercation and neighbourly intercourse’: Angel Islington in the 1940s

The roads that meet at the Angel are as ugly as any in the ugly sprawl of London. But a hundred yards away, in the back streets, there is a quietness and serenity that keeps the traffic's roar at bay and even holds sway over the crying of babies and the shrill chatter of women that ascends from basement windows. [. . .] It is only in the little side turnings that connect these larger thoroughfares that dirt, noise, overcrowding and the sense of haste come into their own; in each of these little streets a constant din of altercation and neighbourly intercourse echoes across the narrow pavements.

Period referred to: 1945

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: London's Natural History

Type of publication: Wildlife guide

Author: R. S. R. Fitter

Year of publication: 1945

Page/volume number: Unknown

The sounds of waterfowl at Barn Elms

Barn Elms has become one of the loci classici of British bird-watching. The author, in a comparatively few visits, has seen such remarkable sights as a grey phalarope, buoyant as a cork, bobbing on the diminutive waves of the reservoir; a loon uttering its weird haunting wail before launching its cigar-shaped form into the air; a vast pack of nearly two thousand pochard and tufted duck huddled together in the cold spell of 1938-39; and the incomparable sight of mute swans, the Catalinas of the bird world, taking off with laboured strokes of their great wings across half the reservoir, flying with ponderous grace and that matchless avian sound ‘hompa, hompa, hompa, hompa’, over Ranelagh and Barnes, to descend again on the far side of the water with a loud swishing sound as their breasts create a sizeable bow-wave.

Period referred to: 1900s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Inside Out: An Essay in the Psychology and Aesthetic Appeal of Space

Type of publication: Essay

Author: Adrian Stokes

Year of publication: 1947

Page/volume number:

‘The seat of the greatest potential noise’ in Kensington Gardens

The best epitome of massive, meticulous incoherence provided by the Park, was the Magazine at the end of the Serpentine Bridge. Explosive powder stood stored in this building of grey brick. A sentry always marched outside, and for all I know, does so to this day. Potential murder and death were guarded with careful pageantry. Except for the sentry’s footfall there was a silence about the place, the seat of the greatest potential noise.

Period referred to: 1900s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Inside Out: An Essay in the Psychology and Aesthetic Appeal of Space

Type of publication: Essay

Author: Adrian Stokes

Year of publication: 1947

Page/volume number:

Park sounds by the Serpentine in Edwardian London

The walk home was marked by the passage underneath the Serpentine bridge. The dirty echoing tunnel with its lingering airs was cold at all times of the year. It was as if the passage lay beneath the dark water, here at its deepest according to a notice of warning. A dog would be barking like Cereberus. In view of the thunderous echoes, additional heads would have been in keeping.

Period referred to: 1900s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Inside Out: An Essay in the Psychology and Aesthetic Appeal of Space

Type of publication: Essay

Author: Adrian Stokes

Year of publication: 1947

Page/volume number:

Noises from the engine house powering the Kensington Gardens fountains

The machine house of the fountains, for instance, had an ominous air. A scour of mysterious steam hung over a sunken tank at the back of the engine house and was apprehended at the same time as the smell of oil and the clanking of the lethal cylinders. The cold and grinding mechanism was housed in Portland stone of a late Victorian style, both white and darkened.

Period referred to: 1920s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Midnight Bell

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Patrick Hamilton

Year of publication: 1929

Page/volume number: Chapter XLII

A prostitute’s lodgings in 1920s Fitzrovia

At this point they reached Bolsover Street. This starts off with tall and newly erected buildings, but soon dwindles down into the drab and decayed slum which actually it is. She took him to a door not far down. The house was of four stories, and seemed to be untenanted. [. . .] She let herself in with a large key, and they found themselves in a dark passage which chilled Bob's soul, but which had no such effect upon Prunella, whose dainty high heels went clock-clocking up the bar wooden stairs. He followed. On each landing three different doors led into three different rooms containing three different families. All the doors were closed, but the awful belligerence of the poor was to be heard and sensed. On the first floor a man was reviling a woman, and a child, in another room, screaming. It did this not as though it was being beaten (which it possibly was) but as though it was being put to death. On the second floor someone was playing a harmonica, but in the front room an old woman groaned. You could not imagine what at, unless it was the harmonica. On the third floor two other children were being put to death.

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Water Gypsies

Type of publication: Novel

Author: A. P. Herbert

Year of publication: 1930

Page/volume number: Chapter X

‘This horrid little smelly box of silence’: calling from a 1930s phonebox

But she had only once used the telephone before, and she read the directions very quickly twice. She took off the receiver and listened, trembling; her heart beat more wildly far than it had beaten for Ernest's speech.

A cool voice said startlingly, 'Number, please?' and, stammering, she gave the number. Nothing happened. The lady who had telephoned before her opened the door and said, 'Sorry, I left my bag.' A voice said wearily, 'Two pennies, please.' She put one penny in the slot, dropped another, and at last, breathless with agitation, heard a voice say, 'Hullo!' [. . .]

There was a sort of click, and then silence. This was the end of her expectations, the sudden grave of Love's Bliss, this horrid smelly little box of silence.

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Hangover Square

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Patrick Hamilton

Year of publication: 1939

Page/volume number: The First Part, Chapter 5

Liverpool Street station in Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square

The wheels and track clicked out the familiar and unmistakable rhythm – the sly, gentle suggestive rhythm, unlike any of its others, of a train entering a major London terminus, and he was filled with unease and foreboding as he always was by this sound. Thought and warmth must give place to action in cold streets – reality, buses, tubes, booking-offices, life again, electric-lit London, endless terrors.

Oh dear! – here we were – here was the platform under the huge roof – hollow, hellish echoing noises as in a swimming bath, and the porters lined up for the attack – no getting out of it now!

Period referred to: 1900s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Nighrts in London

Type of publication: Journalism/social investigation

Author: Thomas Burke

Year of publication: 1915

Page/volume number: A Lonely Night

Night-time sounds of Kingsland Road

My first night was the same as every other. My window looked out on a church tower which still further preyed on the wan light of the street, and, as I lay in bed, its swart height, pierced by the lit clock face, gloated stiffly over me. From back of beyond a furry voice came dolefully—
Goo bay to sum-mer, goo bay, goo baaaaay!

That song has thrilled and chilled me ever since. Next door an Easy Payments piano was being tortured by wicked fingers that sought after the wild grace of Weber's "Invitation to the Valse." From the street the usual London night sounds floated up until well after midnight. There was the dull, pessimistic tramp of the constable, and the long rumble of the Southwark-bound omnibus. Sometimes a stray motor-car would hoot and jangle in the distance, swelling to a clatter as it passed, and falling away in a pathetic diminuendo. A traction-engine grumbled its way along, shaking foundations and setting bed and ornaments a-trembling. Then came the blustering excitement of chucking-out at the "Galloping Horses." Half a dozen wanted to fight; half a dozen others wanted to kiss; everybody wanted to live in amity and be jollyolpal. A woman's voice cried for her husband, and abused a certain Long Charlie; and Long Charlie demanded with piteous reiteration: "Why don't I wanter fight? Eh? Tell me that. Why don't I wanter fight? Did you 'ear what he called me? Did you 'ear? He called me a—a—what was it he called me?"

Then came police, disbandment, and dark peace, as the strayed revellers melted into the night. Sometimes there would sound the faint tinkle of a belated hansom, chiming solitarily, as though weary of frivolity. And then a final stillness of which the constable's step seemed but a part.

Period referred to: 1900s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Nights in London

Type of publication: Journalism/social investigation

Author: Thomas Burke

Year of publication: 1915

Page/volume number: A Chinese Night

Thomas Burke explores Limehouse

But we were out for amusement, so, after the table hospitality, Sam took us into the Causeway. Out of the coloured darkness of Pennyfields came the muffled wail of reed instruments, the heart-cry of the Orient; noise of traffic; bits of honeyed talk. On every side were following feet: the firm, clear step of the sailor; the loud, bullying boots of the tough; the joyful steps that trickle from "The Green Man"; and, through all this chorus, most insistently, the stealthy, stuttering steps of the satyr. [. . .]

Every window, as always, was closely shuttered, but between the joints shot jets of slim light, and sometimes you could catch the chanting of a little sweet song last sung in Rangoon or Swatow. One of these songs was once translated for me. I should take great delight in printing it here, but, alas! this, too, comes from a land where purity crusades are unknown. I dare not conjecture what Bayswater would do to me if I reproduced it.

We passed through Pennyfields, through clusters of gladly coloured men. Vaguely we remembered leaving Henrietta Street, London, and dining in Old Compton Street, Paris, a few hours ago. And now—was this Paris or London or Tuan-tsen or Taiping? Pin-points of light pricked the mist in every direction. A tom-tom moaned somewhere in the far-away.

Period referred to: Early 1900s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: People of the Abyss

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: Jack London

Year of publication: 1903

Page/volume number: Chapter 5

Jack London hears East End women fighting

As I write this, and for an hour past, the air has been made hideous by a free-for-all, rough-and-tumble fight going on in the yard that is back to back with my yard. When the first sounds reached me I took it for the barking and snarling of dogs, and some minutes were required to convince me that human beings, and women at that, could produce such a fearful clamour.

Drunken women fighting! It is not nice to think of; it is far worse to listen to. Something like this it runs –

Incoherent babble, shrieked at the top of the lungs of several women; a lull, in which is heard a child crying and a young girl’s voice pleading tearfully; a woman’s voice rises, harsh and grating, “You ’it me! Jest you ’it me!” then, swat! challenge accepted and fight rages afresh.

The back windows of the houses commanding the scene are lined with enthusiastic spectators, and the sound of blows, and of oaths that make one’s blood run cold, are borne to my ears. Happily, I cannot see the combatants.

A lull; “You let that child alone!” child, evidently of few years, screaming in downright terror. “Awright,” repeated insistently and at top pitch twenty times straight running; “you’ll git this rock on the ’ead!” and then rock evidently on the head from the shriek that goes up.

A lull; apparently one combatant temporarily disabled and being resuscitated; child’s voice audible again, but now sunk to a lower note of terror and growing exhaustion.

Voices begin to go up the scale, something like this:-

“Yes?”

“Yes!”

“Yes?”

“Yes!”

“Yes?”

“Yes!”

“Yes?”

“Yes!”

Sufficient affirmation on both sides, conflict again precipitated. One combatant gets overwhelming advantage, and follows it up from the way the other combatant screams bloody murder. Bloody murder gurgles and dies out, undoubtedly throttled by a strangle hold.

Entrance of new voices; a flank attack; strangle hold suddenly broken from the way bloody murder goes up half an octave higher than before; general hullaballoo, everybody fighting.

Lull; new voice, young girl’s, “I’m goin’ ter tyke my mother’s part;” dialogue, repeated about five times, “I’ll do as I like, blankety, blank, blank!” “I’d like ter see yer, blankety, blank, blank!” renewed conflict, mothers, daughters, everybody, during which my landlady calls her young daughter in from the back steps, while I wonder what will be the effect of all that she has heard upon her moral fibre.

Period referred to: Early 1920s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Mrs Dalloway

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Virginia Woolf

Year of publication: 1925

Page/volume number: Not known

The sounds of Big Ben and Victoria Street in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’

For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty,— one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.