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Historical references to London's sounds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
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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: 1930s

Sound category: Ambient > River traffic and sounds

Title of work: The Water Gypsies

Type of publication: Novel

Author: A. P. Herbert

Year of publication: 1930

Page/volume number: Chapter XI

Sounds of life along the Grand Union Canal in Ealing

Their motion was as gentle as the coming of sleep; their blunt, round prows did not divide the water, but caress it; there was no sound but the ripple along the shore and the slow clip-clop of Beauty's feet, and these said 'Peace', and brought peace to Jane's soul. [. . .]

Two boats meet at a lock, and while they are waiting there are a few bold, laughing moments between the son of one and the daughter of another. Sometimes beside the lock an old inn hides among the trees, and there will be boats tied up for the night. The men stable their horses and go into the public bar for old and mild and a noisy game of dominoes; the mothers go too, or stay in the boat with their babies; all night they sleep under the lock, where there is always the music of water, whether it be a murmurous trickle or the swollen roar of a full 'pound' cascading over the gates. And at five o'clock they rise up and travel on through many locks to sleep again to the music of a lock.

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Ambient > River traffic and sounds

Title of work: The Water Gypsies

Type of publication: Novel

Author: A. P. Herbert

Year of publication: 1930

Page/volume number: Chapter XI

Barges loading and unloading at Brentford in the 1930s

At Brentford, opposite Kew Gardens, where they left the tideway and entered the canal, they passed into another world, people by another race. The narrow opening stretch between the river and the principal lock at Brentford High Street was crowded with barges lying on both sides under the warehouses, loading, unloading, or waiting for freight. The air was full of shouts and sacks of flour and the rattle of cranes, and the ribald cries of the warehousemen. The barge-folk gave them a queer greeting. Every one seemed to know the Greens; the men threw them a friendly word and the women as a rule said a soft 'Good morning' or nodded gravely without speaking.

Period referred to: 1880s

Sound category: Ambient > River traffic and sounds

Title of work: News from Nowhere

Type of publication: Novel

Author: William Morris

Year of publication: 1890

Page/volume number: Chapter 2

The Thames transformed in William Morris’s News from Nowhere

I was going to say, “But is this the Thames?” but held my peace in my wonder, and turned my bewildered eyes eastward to look at the bridge again, and thence to the shores of the London river; and surely there was enough to astonish me. For though there was a bridge across the stream and houses on its banks, how all was changed from last night! The soap-works with their smoke-vomiting chimneys were gone; the engineer’s works gone; the lead-works gone; and no sound of rivetting and hammering came down the west wind from Thorneycroft’s.

Period referred to: 1920s

Sound category: Ambient > River traffic

Title of work: The Water Gipsies

Type of publication: Novel

Author: A. P. Herbert

Year of publication: 1930

Page/volume number: Chapter 1

Thames tugs at Hammersmith in A. P. Herbert’s The Water Gipsies

The tide was rising again, and one of the first tugs came through Hammersmith Bridge [. . .] A man called a greeting from the tug to a watchman at the boat-houses [. . .] The tug went lazily past them, with a lazy chunk-chunk of the engine and a lazy swish at the bows, till at last the green narrowed too and was gone.

[. . .]

The mud, the reeds, had disappeared, and the water was lapping against the wall. There were two green eyes passing now, and all down the river the tugs were hooting to warn the wharves at which they were to call. The busy hour of the river was beginning.

Period referred to: 1850s

Sound category: Ambient > River traffic and related sounds

Title of work: Little Dorrit

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Charles Dickens

Year of publication: 1857

Page/volume number: Chaprer 28

Little Dorrit: Arthur Clennam visits Twickenham

The rich foliage of the trees, the luxuriant grass diversified with wild flowers, the little green islands in the river, the beds of rushes, the water-lilies floating on the surface of the stream, the distant voices in boats borne musically towards him on the ripple of the water and the evening air, were all expressive of rest. In the occasional leap of a fish, or dip of an oar, or twittering of a bird not yet at roost, or distant barking of a dog, or lowing of a cow—in all such sounds, there was the prevailing breath of rest, which seemed to encompass him in every scent that sweetened the fragrant air.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Ambient > River traffic and related sounds

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1665

Page/volume number: 27 December 1665

Pepys finds ice on the Thames at Rotherhithe

[. . .] so we took boat, and it being darke and the thaw having broke the ice, but not carried it quite away, the boat did pass through so much of it all along, and that with the crackling and noise that it made me fearfull indeed.

[This occurred near Redriffe, an old name for Rotherhithe.]

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Ambient > River traffic and related sounds

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1662

Page/volume number: 4 August 1662

‘Guided by nothing but the barking of a dog’

It being very dark, and the wind rising, and our waterman unacquainted with this part of the river, so that we presently cast upon the Essex shore, but got off again, and so, as well as we could, went on, but I in such fear that I could not sleep till we came to Erith, and there it begun to be calm, and the stars to shine, and so I began to take heart again, and the rest too, and so made shift to slumber a little. Above Woolwich we lost our way, and went back to Blackwall, and up and down, being guided by nothing but the barking of a dog, which we had observed in passing by Blackwall [. . .]

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Ambient > River traffic

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1660

Page/volume number: December 1660

‘A waterman who did tell such a company of bawdy stories’

From thence to the bridge by water, it being a most pleasant moonshine night, with a waterman who did tell such a company of bawdy stories, how once he carried a lady from Putney in such a night as this, and she bade him lie down by her, which he did, and did give her content, and a great deal more roguery.

Period referred to: End of 17th century

Sound category: Ambient > River traffic and related sounds

Title of work: The London Spy

Type of publication: Journal/Social investigation

Author: Ned Ward

Year of publication: 1698-1700

Page/volume number: Chapter III

‘The frightful roaring of the bridge waterfalls’

We turn'd down to Thames Side, where the frightful roaring of the bridge waterfalls so astonish'd my eyes and terrified my ears that, like the inhabitants near the Cataract of the Nile, I could hear no voice softer than a speaking trumpet, or the audible organ of a scolding fish-woman.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Ambient > River traffic

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1660

Page/volume number: March/April 1660

Gun practice by frigates near Tilbury

Early in the morning at making a fair new establishment of the Fleet to send to the Council. This morning, the wind came about, and we fell into the Hope, and in our passing by the Vice-Admiral, he and the rest of the frigates, with him, did give us abundance of guns and we them, so much that the report of them broke all the windows in my cabin and broke off the iron bar that was upon it to keep anybody from creeping in at the Scuttle.