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Historical references to London's sounds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: 1992

Sound category: Ambient > Everyday sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Book of Dave

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Will Self

Year of publication: 2006

Page/volume number: Chapter 8

The City of London after the 1992 financial crash

While he slid into the back, Dave listened to the City itself. Could he hear the aftermath of the awful carnage of the day before? The final gargle as the dregs of fifteen billion pounds were sucked out of its dealing rooms? The sweat and moan of shirt-sleeved, plastic piano players pounding out the blues of ruin? No, there was only the hum of everyday urban vacuity.

Period referred to: 1951

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: The Times

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: The Times

Year of publication: 1951

Page/volume number: 16 November 1951

An escaped elephant in New Cross

A five-year old elephant escaped from the New Cross Empire in south-east London yesterday. It was recaptured by circus hands in New Cross post office. An assistant at the post office said: ‘We had quite a queue of old-age pensioners. There was a loud trumpeting, and through the swing doors appeared an elephant. Our queue disappeared like magic into telephone boxes and on, to and over the counter. We didn’t lose even a stamp'.

Note: This reference was originally spotted on the Transpontine blog.

Period referred to: 1951

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Royal Festival Hall: The Official Record

Type of publication: Official publication

Author: Max Parrish

Year of publication: 1951

Page/volume number: Unknown

1950s London: ‘the whistles of locomotives, the sounding of steamer sirens’

London, like all large cities, has an unceasing backgound of noise, the low, even rumble of its immense and widespread traffic, against which intermittent sharper sounds from far and near are audible – the whistles of locomotives, the sounding of steamer sirens and motor horns, the rattling and clanking of trains and trams, the sounds of hammering, drilling and riveting, the backfiring of engines and the sounds of nearby shouts and barks.

Many thanks to Matt Dixon for this reference.

Period referred to: 1959

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: To Sir, With Love

Type of publication: Novel

Author: E. R. Braithwaite

Year of publication: 1959

Page/volume number: Chapter 1

Charwomen’s banter on board a 1950s London bus

The crowded red double-decker bus inched its way through the snarl of traffic in Aldgate. It was almost as if it was reluctant to get rid of the overload of noisy, earthy charwomen it had collected on its run through the city [. . .]

They joshed and chivvied each other and the conductor in an endless stream of lewdly suggestive remarks and retorts, quite careless of being overheard by me – a Negro, and the only other male on the bus. The conductor, a lively, quick-witted fellow, seemed to know them all well enough to address them on very personal terms, and kept them in noisy good humour with a stream of quips and pleasantries to which they made reply in kind. Sex seemed little more than a joke to them, a conversation piece which alternated with their comments on the weather, and their vividly detailed discussions on their actual or imagined ailments.

I sat sandwiched between a window and a very larhe woman whose great dimpled arms hugged her shopping bag in her lap. She kept up a ribald duet with a crony sitting immediately in front of her.

"What've you got for the Old Man's dinner, Gert?"

Gert's square body remained ponderously immobile, but she turned her head around as far as her massive neck would permit and rejoined:

"He'll be lucky to get bread and dripping today, he will."

"He can't do you much good on bread and dripping, Gert."

"Feeding him on steak and chikcen won't make no difference neither, Rose. Never mind, he keeps me back warm."

All this was said in a tone intentionally loud enough to entertain everyone, and the women showed their appreciation by cackling loudly, rocking their bodies as much as the crowding permitted.

Period referred to: 1974

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Soft City

Type of publication: Popular sociology

Author: Jonathan Raban

Year of publication: 1974

Page/volume number: Chapter 8

Sounds of transience in 1970s Earls Court

I moved from Islington to Earl's Court, where motion and migration are the area's most constant, most evident features. It is under the flight-path to Heathrow and the pneumatic whoosh of low-flying jets punctuates the day at five-minute intervals. Container trucks speed north and south on either side of the square where I live, and the reverberations of a tube line somewhere nearby deep in the earth makes the top storey shudder on still evenings.

Period referred to: 1974

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Soft City

Type of publication: Popular sociology

Author: Jonathan Raban

Year of publication: 1972

Page/volume number: Chapter 1

Earl’s Court at night in Jonathan Raban’s Soft City

I am woken in the small hours by the sound of a girl achieving her climax; a deep shriek of pleasure that has nothing to do with me. I can hear her man sigh as close as if he and I were under the same sheet. On another night, a TV blares through an open window with a late-late show. On another, a woman is crying, a miserable train of broken hiccups. A man – I can hear his feet crackling on the bare boards – says: 'Shut up. Why don't you bloody well shut up?' Then there are nights of joke-hashing: someone mutters like a priest going quickly through a private office, followed by burst of yelling adenoidal laughter. The routine is repeated, and repeated; I fall asleep, alone, with Australians in my ears.

Period referred to: 1980s

Sound category: Ambient > General sounds of street and town

Title of work: Brick Lane

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Monica Ali

Year of publication: 2003

Page/volume number: Chapter One

Nazneen listens to her neighbours in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane

What she missed most was people. Not any people in particular (apart, of course, from Hasina) but people. If she put her ear to the wall she could hear sounds. The television was on. Coughing. Sometimes the lavatory flushing. Someone upstairs scraping a chair. A shouting match below. Everyone in their boxes, counting their possessions. In all her eighteen years, she could scarcely remember a moment that she had spent alone. Until she married. And came to London to sit day after day in this large box with the furniture to dust, and the muffled sound of private lives sealed away above, below and around her.