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Historical references to London's sounds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
10th
11th to
15th
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17th
18th Early
19th
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19th
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20th
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20th
 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: 1874

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: Morning Post

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: Unnamed journalist

Year of publication: 3 October 1874

Page/volume number: 5

A gunpowder barge explodes on the canal near Regent’s Park

Yesterday morning, shortly before five o'clock, the inhabitants of the whole northern districts of London were startled by a terrific noise which resembled a tremendous clap of thunder. An earthquake could scarcely have created more alarm than did this horrible sound among those who were nearest the spot where it arose, for it shook the houses from their very foundations, blew in the windows, demolished the plaster ceilings, and scattered furniture right and left. Except in the locality the cause of the shock was unknown for several hours, but there it soon transpired that it was the result of an explosion of gunpowder on board one of five barges which were being towed by a steam tug on the canal close to North-gate, Regent's-park. It appears that one of these, named the Tilbury, was laden with blasting powder for quarries at the North, and on reaching the bridge, the powder, from some cause yet unknown, suddenly blew up with fearful effect, killing the three men, and, it is supposed, also a boy, who were on board, entirely destroying the bridge, and playing great havoc with the adjoining houses. The noise of the explosion was terrific, and it was distinctly heard for a radius of many miles.

Period referred to: 1856

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: The Daily Telegraph

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: The Daily Telegraph

Year of publication: 1856

Page/volume number: October 20

Disaster at the Surrey Music Hall in Kennington in 1856

The attention of the immense audience was attracted by a slight tingling sound, resembling that of a bell, and almost simultaneously cries arose in different parts of the building. "The place is falling!"

The audience rose en masse, as if electrified, and, apparently with one mind, made a rush towards the various places of exit, causing the most fearful confusion and uproar, every person endeavouring to save their own lives at the risk of sacrificing those of their fellow creatures.

Period referred to: 8 February 1750

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: Gentleman's Magazine

Type of publication: Periodical

Author: The Gentleman's Magazine

Year of publication: 1750

Page/volume number: February 1750

The London earthquake of 1750

Between 12 and 1 o'clock afternoon, an earthquake was felt through London and Westminster; the councellors in the court of king's bench and chancery in Westminster Hall were so alarm'd, that they expected the building to fall; and in the new buildings about Grosvenor Square people ran out of their houses, the chairs shaking, and the pewter rattling on the shelves; a slaughterhouse with a hayloft over it, was thrown down in Southwark, a chimney in Leadenhall-Street, and another in Billiter Square.

Period referred to: Early 1900s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: East End Underworld: Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding

Type of publication: Biography

Author: Raphael Samuel

Year of publication: 1981

Page/volume number: Not known

Exploding petrol bottles start a stampede around Brick Lane

One Sunday there was a disaster. We were playing in Sclater Street, just next to a jellied-eel stall . . . a fight started. Some of the barrows had bottles of petrol and when the fighting spread they got knocked over. 'Bang! Bang! Bang' people thought they were guns. The cry went up, 'They're shooting,' and that started a stampede. It was 1911, the time of Sidney Street, and everyone thought it was the anarchists and the police. There was a terrific rush to get away. Near by in Club Row was the great bird market and thousands of birds were trampled underfoot. The stampede broke out like a wheel, with people running in all directions to get away. A couple of people were killed.

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: Coming up for Air

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Orwell

Year of publication: 1939

Page/volume number: Part 4, Chapter 6

A bomb drops on a high street in Orwell’s Coming Up for Air

But the next moment – ah!

BOOM-BRRRRR!

A noise like the Day of Judgment, and then a noise like a ton of coal falling on to a sheet of tin. That was falling bricks. I seemed to kind of melt into the pavement. 'It's started,' I thought. 'I knew it! Old Hitler didn't wait. Just sent his bombers across without warning.'

And yet here's a peculiar thing. Even in the echo of that awful, deafening crash, which seemed to freeze me up from top to toe, I had time to think that there's something grand about the bursting of a big projectile. What does it sound like? It's hard to say, because what you hear is mixed up with what you're frightened of. Mainly it gives you a vision of bursting metal. You seem to see great sheets of iron bursting open. But the peculiar thing is the feeling it gives you of being suddenly shoved up against reality. It's like being woken up by somebody shying a bucket of water over you. You're suddenly dragged out of your dreams by a clang of bursting metal, and it's terrible, and it's real.

There was a sound of screams and yells, and also of car brakes being suddenly jammed on. The second bomb which I was waiting for didn't fall. I raised my head a little. On every side people seemed to be rushing round and screaming. A car was skidding diagonally across the road, I could hear a woman's voice shrieking, 'The Germans! The Germans!'

[. . .]

The bomb had dropped in a little side-street off the High Street, the one where Uncle Ezekiel used to have his shop. It wasn't fifty yards from where the shop used to be. As I came round the corner I could hear voices murmuring 'Oo-oo!' – kind of awed noise, as if they were frightened and getting a big kick out of it. [. . .] But in among the broken crockery there was lying a leg. Just a leg, with the trouser still on it and a black boot with a Wood-Milne rubber heel. This was what people were oo-ing and ah-ing at.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1666

Page/volume number: 2 June 1666

English soldiers depart during the Second Anglo-Dutch War

Very pleasant with her half an hour, and so away and down to Blackewall, and there saw the soldiers (who were by this time gotten most of them drunk) shipped off. But, Lord! to see how the poor fellows kissed their wives and sweethearts in that simple manner at their going off, and shouted, and let off their guns, was strange sport.

Period referred to: 1940s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: Few Oranges and No Eggs

Type of publication: Diary/Autobiography

Author: Winifred Vere Hodgson

Year of publication: 1944

Page/volume number: July 1944

Accounts of V-1 rockets in Winifred Vere Hodgson’s wartime diary

Monday, just as I had had lunch in the flat and was going to shop – a bumble sounded near. We all gathered in the front hall. Terrific explosion shook the house. [. . .] One listens fascinated to the Doodle Bugs passing over, holding one’s breath, praying they will travel on, but feeling a wretched cad, because you know that means they will explode on someone else.

Period referred to: 1940s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: Tribune

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: George Orwell

Year of publication: 1944

Page/volume number: 'As I Please', 7 July 1944

A V-1 rocket flies overhead in a sketch by George Orwell

Life in the civilized world.
(The family are at tea.)
Zoom-zoom-zoom!
‘Is there an alert on?’
‘No, it’s all clear.’
‘I thought there was an alert on.’
Zoom-zoom-zoom!
‘There’s another of those things coming!’
‘It’s all right, it’s miles away.’
Zoom-zoom-ZOOM!
‘Look out, here it comes! Under the table, quick!’
Zoom-zoom-zoom!
‘It’s all right, it’s getting fainter.’
Zoom-zoom-ZOOM!
‘It’s coming back!’
‘They seem to kind of circle round and come back again. They’ve got something on their tails that makes them do it. Like a torpedo.’
ZOOM-ZOOM-ZOOM!
‘Christ! It’s right overhead!’
Dead silence.
‘Now get right underneath. Keep your head well down. What a mercy baby isn’t here!’
‘Look at the cat! He’s frightened too.’
‘Of course animals know. They can feel the vibrations.’
BOOM!
‘It’s all right, I told you it was miles away.’
(Tea continues.)

Period referred to: Mid 18th century

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: Letters

Type of publication: Private correspondence

Author: Horace Walpole

Year of publication: 1750

Page/volume number: Not known

Horace Walpole and the London earthquake of 1750

I felt my bolster lift up my head; I thought somebody was getting from under my bed, but soon found it was a strong earthquake, that lasted near half a minute, with a violent vibration and great roaring. I rang my bell; my servant came in, frightened out of his senses: in an instant we heard all the windows in the neighbourhood flung up. I got up and found people running into the streets, but saw no mischief done: there had been some; two old houses flung down, several chimneys, and much chinaware. The bells rung in several houses.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: The Diary of John Evelyn

Type of publication: Diary

Author: John Evelyn

Year of publication: 1666

Page/volume number: 3rd September 1666

‘The noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames’

God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame! The noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like a hideous storm.

Period referred to: Early 11th century

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: The Saga of Olaf Haraldson

Type of publication: Saga/Epic poem

Author: Snorri Sturluson

Year of publication: 1225

Page/volume number: n/a

King Olaf destroys London Bridge c. 1014

London Bridge is broken down.
Gold is won, and bright renown.
Shields resounding,
War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din!
Arrows singing,
Mail-coats ringing –
Odin makes our Olaf win!

[Here Sturluson quotes the 11th century skald Ottar Svarte.]

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1665

Page/volume number: 30 Julty 1665

‘It was a sad noise to hear our bell to toll and ring so often to-day’

It was a sad noise to hear our bell to toll and ring so often to-day, either for deaths or burials; I think five or six times.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1665

Page/volume number: 14th April 1665

Naval guns rumoured to be heard in Walthamstow

This morning I was saluted with newes that the fleetes, ours and the Dutch, were engaged, and that the guns were heard at Walthamstow to play all yesterday, and that Captain Teddiman's legs were shot off in the Royall Katherine.

[This rumour must have been false, since the first major naval battle of the Second Anglo-Dutch War wasn't until nearly two months later. It is not implausible though that gunfire at sea could be heard as far away as Walthamstow. Pepys later records how naval guns at the Battle of Lowestoft were heard in London on 3 June 1665. During the First World War, the sound of massed artillery barrages on the Somme was reported by many in London – IMR]

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1666

Page/volume number: September 1666

‘And a horrid noise the flames made’

We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins.

Period referred to: Early 1600s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: The Wonderfulle Yeare

Type of publication: Pamphlet

Author: Thomas Dekker

Year of publication: 1603

Page/volume number: Unknown

The plague of 1603 in London

And even such a formidable shape did the diseased Citie appeare in: For he that durst (in the dead houre of gloomy midnight) have bene so valiant, as to have walkt through the still and melancholy streets, what thinke you should have bene his musicke? Surely the loude grones of raving sicke men; the strugling panges of soules departing: In every house griefe strinking up an Allarum: Servants crying out for maisters: wives for husbands, parents for children, children for their mothers: here he should have met some frantically running to knock vp Sextons; there, others fearfully sweating with Coffins, to steale forth dead bodies, least the fatall hand-writing of death should seale up their doores. And to make this dismall consort more full, round about him Bells heavily tolling in one place, and ringing out in another [. . .]