Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

13 November 2013

Sound and the Law: Sounds you must and must not make

A POPULAR PIECE of wisdom for those being attacked or mugged is to shout Fire! instead of Help! That way more people are supposed to come out and look for what’s going on, although it’s maybe not such a good idea if someone’s pointing a gun at you.

Shouting Fire! in a crowded theatre is a different matter and in the US it’s become a metaphor evoking the act of inspiring unnecessary panic in general. The term arose from the judge’s summing-up of the case of Schenck v. United States 1919 in which leafleters who’d urged men to dodge the draft were prosecuted.

For a long time our own laws had little to say about false warning cries, despite the 1856 stampede at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall in which 15 people were killed. The Fire Services Act 1947 comes close in Section 31:

Any person who knowingly gives or causes to be given a false alarm of fire to any fire brigade shall be liable on summary conviction to [. . .] imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months.

Later, more stringent penalties were introduced under Section 51 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 for any fool communicating a bomb hoax.

Luckily the law places much more emphasis on what sounds you shouldn’t make rather than specifying those you should. This post digs around the statute books to find examples of both.


Local laws hedging noisy activities, such as metal-working, to within daylight hours have existed since the Middle Ages. The setting-up of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 soon led to standardised definitions of noise nuisances which applied across England and Wales.

The amended Metropolitan Police Act 1839 describes these nuisances at length in Section 54:

Every person shall be liable to a penalty not more than [level 2 on the standard scale], who, within the limits of the metropolitan police district, shall in any thoroughfare or public place, commit any of the following offences; (that is to say,)

[. . .]

12. Every person who shall sell or distribute or offer for sale or distribution, or exhibit to public view, any profane book, paper, print, drawing, painting or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language to the annoyance of the inhabitants or passengers;

13. Every person who shall use any threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or whereby a breach of the peace may be occasioned;

14. Every person, who shall blow any horn or use any other noisy instrument, for the purpose of calling persons together, or of announcing any show or entertainment, or for the purpose of hawking, selling, distributing, or collecting any article whatsoever, or of obtaining money or alms;

15. Every person who shall wantonly discharge any fire-arm or throw or discharge any stone or other missile, to the damage or danger of any person, or make any bonfire, or throw or set fire to any firework;

16. Every person who shall wilfully and wantonly disturb any inhabitant by pulling or ringing any door-bell or knocking at any door without lawful excuse, or who shall wilfully and unlawfully extinguish the light of any lamp;

And it shall be lawful for any constable belonging to the metropolitan police force to take into custody, without warrant, any person who shall commit any such offence within view of any such constable.

A near-identical list of misdemeanours appears in the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 applying to the rest of England and Wales. The Act is still in force and can be resorted to by local councils.

For decades those Acts appeared sufficient to place some boundaries around the urge of every male urchin to turn their neighbourhood into a mini war-zone thanks to the magic of fireworks. The importation of powerful and excitingly unpredictable Chinese fireworks starting from around the late 1980s led to the Fireworks Regulations 2004 which imposes limits on how loud fireworks can be:

1. No person shall supply, or offer or agree to supply, any category 3 firework which, when used, produces a maximum A-weighted impulse sound pressure level exceeding 120 decibels when measured in accordance with paragraph (2) below.

2. For the purposes of paragraph (1) above, the sound pressure level is to be measured –

a. at a horizontal distance of fifteen metres from the testing point at a height of one metre above the ground; and

b. using a sound measuring device which conforms to type 1 of BS EN 61672 with a free-field microphone.

Suspicions that law-makers are out to stop young people having fun arose the previous decade with the widely-mocked repetitive beats Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Somehow the Act avoids handling the word rave within inverted commas, much as you might imagine an elderly dowager would remove a dog turd from the croquet lawn with a pair of sugar-tongs, but the sense of a slight forensic pause before uttering the word still seems implicit:

63. Powers to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave.

1. This section applies to a gathering on land in the open air of or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality; and for this purpose –

a. such a gathering continues during intermissions in the music and, where the gathering extends over several days, throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night (with or without intermissions); and

b. “music” includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.

Further satisfaction came a few years later for those who thought the era of raves and free festivals embodied the worst excesses of unbridled bacchanalia. Regulation 4 of The Stonehenge Regulations 1997 prohibited solstice-celebrating crusties and Druids from:

erecting or using within the site of the monument any apparatus for the transmission, reception, reproduction or amplification of sound, speech or images by electrical or other means unless the sound emitted is audible to the user only.

Several statutory instruments are available to local councils for the more mundane tasks of dealing with raucous and thoughtless residents. Section 77 of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 defines when a burglar alarm starts being irritating rather than useful (20 minutes if sounding continuously), and lays down the conditions under which council officials can force their way into someone’s home to turn it off.


The recognition that high levels of noise at work could pose real and cumulative dangers to people’s hearing came relatively late. The Factories Act 1937 lists numerous hazards from poorly-secured trapdoors to unacceptably high levels of humidity, but makes no mention of noise.

Much progress has been made since. Regulation 4 of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 tells employers to begin to take action if their workers are exposed to constant noise of 80dBA with peak levels of 135DbA. It imposes absolute limits of 87dBA and 140dBA respectively.

Concern with the harmful effects of loud and persistent noise has even been extended to farm animals. Schedule 3D of the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2002 gives protection to chickens, up to the point of their demise at least:

The sound level shall be minimised. Constant or sudden noise shall be avoided. Ventilation fans, feeding machinery or other equipment shall be constructed, placed, operated and maintained in such a way that they cause the least possible noise.


The keepers of London’s Royal Parks had all the powers of police constables under the Parks Regulation Act 1872 until they were absorbed into the Metropolitan Police in 1974. Even so, they didn’t have quite the same scope of authority assumed by the Viz comic character the Parkie, who was only happy when doing things like putting up signs reading No ball games in the tennis courts.

Many parks regulations place limits on noise-making and give special attention to activities like busking and soapbox oratory. Royal Parks police can, under the the Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2012, prevent people from operating ‘amplified noise equipment’, which includes loudspeakers and megaphones.

With a bracing climate comes stern rules and, in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, you must obtain written permission before playing any kind of musical instrument or, bizarrely, making a sketch or painting. The Forestry Land Byelaws (Northern Ireland) 2013 forbid shouting, singing, and playing a musical instrument if someone deems it a nuisance.

As if sensing there’s some kind of competition going on, Section 9 of the London Cable Car Order 2012 gets in on the action by stipulating that:

(1) A person on the cable car system must not –

(a) sing; or

(b) use any instrument, article or equipment for the production or reproduction of sound,

to the annoyance of any person on the cable car system except with written permission from the operator or an authorised person.


Nearly all the sounds that the law says must be made refer to warnings to help prevent collisions and other accidents. Numerous railway orders applying to individual level crossings and light railways have much the same wording as Article 11 of the Level Crossing (Coldagh) Order (Northern Ireland) 1998:

An audible warning device shall be provided on or adjacent to each left hand side traffic light signal post on each approach to the crossing. Facilities shall be provided to reduce the sound output of these devices and any reduced sound output of these devices shall operate between 23.30 hours and 07.00 hours approximately.

Life gets more interesting at sea. The Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations 1989 require that a vessel of 12 metres or more in length carry a whistle and a bell. A vessel 100 metres or longer must carry a whistle, a bell and a gong – that’s almost a folk group.

But just because you’ve got a whistle to hand doesn’t mean you can sail aboard HMS Ramrod tooting it whenever you like. As Article 12 of the Dockyard Port of Plymouth Order 1999 states:

A whistle shall not be used within the limits of the Dockyard Port except –

(a) in accordance with the Rules contained in Schedule 2 to this Order;

(b) as a signal of distress;

(c) to prevent collision;

(d) in any condition affecting visibility;

(e) to test the whistle, provided that permission to do so has first been obtained from the Queen’s Harbour Master.

Shouting for help works on the assumption that you won’t have to do it for very long and someone’s near enough to hear, whether you use the fire ruse or not. In remote places shouting isn’t the best strategy because you’ll quickly become tired or, if you’ve fallen and injured yourself, you may not have the strength to begin with.

Wise hill-walkers and mountaineers carry whistles with them and the internationally-recognised distress signal is six short blasts in quick succession, repeated at one-minute intervals.

The serious business of rescuing people from accidents in mines has its own pattern of signals laid down in the Escape and Rescue from Mines Regulations 1995. One blast on a whistle or ‘other audible device’ means help wanted, two for halt, three for retire, four for advance, and five to call attention.

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