Unhealthy noise

Urban noise nuisances and related matters between 1856 and 1939, as described in Medical Office of Health reports compiled by the Wellcome Library for their London's Pulse project.

  • Among the many subjects which have occupied the Board’s attention, although, perhaps, more of a local than a general character, may be mentioned the Bridges carrying Railways over Roads in the District, particularly two in Lewisham. The noise occasioned by passing trains has, upon several occasions, alarmed horses, and accidents have occurred in consequence. ‑ Lewisham 1881
  • The mother was soliciting money from passers-by. The father was playing a combination slum orchestra which included a violin, Pan’s pipes, drum, a triangle, and cymbals. Lowest in the scale are fathers who “work pitches” outside public houses for a living, organ grinders, and those who “go busking” or singing to theatre queues. ‑ Finsbury 1914
  • The open spaces devoted to railway purposes are bare of vegetation and from them proceed the smoke of railway engines, the clanking of shunting trucks, the rumbling of trains, the explosions of fog signals, shrill whistlings, and other disturbances of matter immensely conducive to the activities of the nation, but not to the health of the people immediately surrounding. ‑ St Pancras 1904
  • No person shall, in connection with any show, roundabout, exhibition, or performance held or placed on any vacant ground adjoining or near to a street, make or cause or permit or suffer to be made, any loud or continuous noise by means of any organ or other similar instrument to the annoyance or disturbance of residents. ‑ Hammersmith 1905
  • A problem which is becoming more acute is that of noise. By this is not meant the inevitable increase in the “background of noise”, but the more specific causes of noise in so far as they affect health. Of particular concern to Southall is the noise from aeroplanes, especially at night time. Southall has two aerodromes, Hanworth and Heston, within a short distance. ‑ Southall 1934
  • I refer to the number of petty annoyances that keep us perpetually on the alert night and day, such as street calls and shouting, whether during the day or at the closing of the public houses, loud, vulgar, insane choruses by half drunken men in vans and brakes, vulgar horse play by lads at or near the station at night, perpetual barking of dogs often all night. ‑ Wembley 1902
  • The district of St. Marylebone possesses streets in which a large proportion of the houses are fitted up as nursing establishments. There is one disadvantage, that is, some of the sufferers require the muffling of the street noises as far as possible, hence these nursing streets are almost constantly littered with straw. ‑ Marylebone 1898
  • Ranelagh-street, No. 8. The complaint here was of stone masons’ hammering during the day. At Mr. Croft’s, Pork Butcher, Knightsbridge-terrace, that of a nuisance caused by the noise of a sausage-making machine, erected at the rear of complainant’s yard. At Cumberland-street, No. 73, annoyance caused by the playing of an organ next door. ‑ Hanover Square 1861
  • That the Clerk be authorised to write in reply, stating that in the opinion of the Vestry it is advisable that a By-law should be framed prohibiting the throwing of orange peel on the footways, and also that a By-law should be framed to obviate as much as possible noises in the streets after 12 o’clock at night. ‑ Rotherhithe 1894
  • There is no more offensive and disgusting sight or smell than that of a piggery, to say nothing of the nondescript character of the sties in which the animals are usually kept, or the hideous noises with which they invade even the silence of the night. ‑ Wandsworth 1877
  • The factory is small and the space is still further encroached upon by the bales of rags ready for tearing up. The engine is a good deal worn and is very noisy in its working. The machines do not appear to be fixed on very substantial foundations, and vibrate a good deal. ‑ Bethnal Green 1888
  • Cock-crowing at 1 a.m, the barking of dogs, the cooing of pigeons near your chamber window, or any other nuisance arising from noise, by which the sleep of nervous people is disturbed, is a serious annoyance, and probably ought, as in the manner of the street music, to be under control, or to be put down by law; but I cannot treat them as Sanitary nuisances. ‑ Paddington 1870
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1850s 1860s 1870s 1880s 1890s 1900s 1910s 1920s 1930s

St Pancras 1856


In many houses the over-crowding is very great, each room being occupied by a family. It is usually found too that families with children congregate in the same house, because the parties who occupy houses where there are not any children object to having them introduced, on account of the noise they make and the trouble which they give. The consequence is that some houses have as many as 50 or 60 inmates. There is a clause under the Nuisances Removal Act, sec. 29, by which the Vestry is called on to take proceedings before a Magistrate to abate over-crowding, if it is certified to be such as to endanger health. No prosecutions have been taken under this clause, but it is probable that in future years they may be considered advisable.

St Giles (Camden) 1892

Conditions of tenancy of the Thurston and Holland Model Buildings, Newton Street

5.—The stairs, passages, and balconies are to be swept daily during the week, and washed on the Saturday by the Tenants of each floor in the order of the numbers of the rooms. Children are not to be allowed to loiter or to make a noise on the roof, stairs, or balconies. The door leading to the roof to be constantly closed. Clothes-lines are to be removed when not in actual use. The balconies must not be used for drying, or hanging out clothes or other articles, or for shaking carpets; nor must any article be thrown out into the yards.

St James's 1898

Ventilation requirements for registered tenement-houses:

Many houses are ventilated only by air currents coming in through the water-closets and drains, and down the cold chimneys. It must be realized that each fire carries up its chimney an average of 40 cubic feet of air per minute and that this large body of air cannot go out up the chimney unless counter-provision be made for its entrance into the room.

[. . .]

The staircase face of the inlet should be guarded by a silk flap-valve. This works without noise. Being very light, it rises instantly under the suction of the fire and allows air to pass freely from the staircase into the room. But when no fire is alight the silk flap-valve falls down and closes the inlet. This prevents reflux into the staircase, which would be attended by a down-draught through the chimney into the room.

Finsbury 1914

[Description of Finsbury slums]

Many of the mothers did not know where their husbands worked or what their earnings were. Other mothers wished to conceal the occupations of their husbands. One such had stated that her husband was a carman. Later, they and their baby, 13 months old, were seen in a London square. The mother was soliciting money from passers-by. The father was playing a combination slum orchestra which included a violin, Pan’s pipes, drum, a triangle, and cymbals.

[. . .]

Lowest in the scale are fathers who “work pitches” outside public houses for a living, organ grinders, and those who “go busking” or singing to theatre queues. Those who are attached to public house “pitches” act as messengers, porters, cartminders, or hold horses’ heads. They earn from 1s. to 2s. a day, but are often remunerated by having ale given to them instead of money. The takings of organ grinders are said to have materially lessened during the last 5 years. It would appear that 10s. to 15s. is now a fair average weekly amount.

[. . .]

Some of the homes were in dark, dilapidated and domestically dirty basements or attics. It is noteworthy that families with numerous children are compelled by house owners in many instances to occupy the basements. Such families are precluded from living in upper rooms because when they occupy the higher storeys the children at play make much noise and interfere with the peaceable enjoyment of their holdings by those who occupy the rooms underneath. One mother observed, “If you have children, you are always pushed to the bottom of the house if you live with respectable people. My children have always been ill since we have had to live in these underground places.” Many of the tenements were verminous, many were crowded, a few were overcrowded.

Bermondsey 1922

Devon Buildings and Abbey Buildings are in a good sanitary condition, while Wolseley Buildings are very far from satisfactory. One point to be noted about children living in buildings is that they frequently get too little sleep. When they inhabit the higher storeys their parents seldom think to go down to the playground to fetch them at bedtime, while when they live in a lower storey, the noise of older children at play effectually prevents sleep. Children as young as two years may be seen playing in the yards till 10 p.m. summer and winter.

Holborn 1928

Chain versus Cord Sash-lines.

A frequently recurring trouble in connection with tenement houses is the broken sash-line. In this connection representations have been put forward that the substitution of chain lines in place of cord lines for sashes would be an advantage. As a result of enquiries made in the matter, it would seem that the general opinion of builders is in favour of the retention of cord lines, except perhaps for very heavy windows. The objections raised to the chains are (i) the cost—several times that of cord, without a correspondingly greater length of life, (ii) oxidation of metal chains, especially if not kept oiled, (iii) noise, and (iv) the necessity for special pullies.

Bethnal Green 1933

NOISE. I regret to report no progress in dealing with preventable noise, now generally recognised as conducive to ill health. Complaints continue to be received about this evil. Apart from unnecessarily loud street noises, industrial processes are frequently carried on regardless of the hearing and nerves of the workpeople and residents in the vicinity. When, as sometimes happens, work is carried on at rush periods late into the night, children and adults, who have to rise early, and who are compelled by the housing shortage to five in the neighbourhood, are deprived of proper sleep. They naturally apply to the Public Health Department for assistance, and quite rightly, cannot understand our apparent helplessness or how the law can be so stupid as not to recognise as a “nuisance” something which is at least as bad as a bad smell in its effect upon health.