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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.

11 August 2009

These are the warning sounds

IT’S NOT EASY to think of many current examples around London of sounds used to convey information over long distances. Even police sirens, which can be heard from far away, are really only designed to get traffic shifting on the road ahead. Unlike Edinburgh, there’s no one o’clock gun in London either. Many thanks, then, to Andrew Pollard for allowing London Sound Survey to include the soundtracks of two of his YouTube videos of working sirens.

First, the regular Monday morning test of the sirens at Broadmoor maximum security mental hospital in Berkshire, which can be heard over a wide area:


Next, a recording of a routine test of the flood siren warning system at Canvey Island in Essex:


This siren sound may not be around for ever. Proposals have been put forward for the sirens to be scrapped and replaced with radio broadcasts and mass text messaging. Does this really inspire confidence? Fifty-eight people died when the island was flooded in 1953.

Sometimes, typically during spring tides, a siren on the Thames Flood Barrier sounds a continuous tone to warn boats when the flood gates are about to be raised into position. But there can be very few working sirens left in or near London. Gone are the small electric and hand-cranked machines used in the docks when ships entered and left.

Gone too are the air raid sirens first installed in a hurry before the Second World War. (The 1936 film Things to Come doesn’t feature them in its depiction of the aerial bombing of ‘Everytown’.) The network of sirens was maintained throughout the Cold War, and this 1980 Protect and Survive public information film was produced to let people know what warning sounds to expect, with the help of some sound-to-light animation: 


How long would it have been between the attack warning and the fallout warning, perhaps half an hour? Doesn’t seem long to rush back to a pre-electric age of gongs and whistles.

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