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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Holborn 1929

The noise nuisance in cities is by no means a new evil. “Staple Inn,” wrote Dickens, “is one of those nooks the turning into which from the dashing street imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton wool in his ears and velvet soles on his boots.” To-day the volume of traffic down the main thoroughfares of London is vastly increased; in 1930 there are, fortunately or unfortunately, conditions new to Charles Dickens, which add to the complexity of life and incidentally increase its noisiness. Harley Street, a relatively quiet place, at any rate up to the present, is objecting to unnecessary noise: it prevents them getting on with their work. Last year and now the possibility of legislative action to mitigate the nuisance caused by noise has been much discussed, and is being discussed, in administrative circles and in technical journals, engineering and medical—the “Lancet” has dealt with it: the importance of excessive noise and general interest taken, in the possibility of it being reduced are also reflected in the morning and evening newspapers.

Additional evidence of the seriousness of the nuisance, if any were wanted, is the amount of attention that has been devoted to the matter not only here but also in Germany, Canada, and the United. States of America. In New York City medical research has brought out fresh evidence on the deleterious effects of noise. The Medical Noise Abatement Sub-Committee, appointed by the Health Commissioner (Dr. Shirley W. Wynne), has found definite proof that noise causes considerable disturbance to t he mechanism of the human body as evidenced by an increased pulse rate, increased blood pressure, and irregularities in the rhythm of the heart; these produce increase of pressure in the brain. This is by no means all the story: among other effects is interference with the metabolism of the body, the building up of the body from the intake of food is hindered. These scientific findings have influenced the minds of technical men, the demand of the people that there shall be less noise has turned the mind of engineers and workers towards the production of less noisy machinery and vehicles; they are learning the needlessness of noise and, it may be, the costliness of noise. Administrative action has followed: inter alia, the nuisance arising from radio loud-speakers is being brought under control by local legislation. Henceforth, in New York City, no sound-producing apparatus will be allowed to disturb the quiet or repose of persons in its vicinity, and the use of loud-speakers or other amplifying devices is forbidden in any public street or place without a permit from the police commissioner, or in any case within 250 feet of a school, court-house, church, or hospital during the hours when these places are in use. In these islands some local authorities in England and Wales have extensive powers designed to prevent nuisance from noise.

At Edinburgh valuable progress has been made by the provisions of Section 34 of the Edinburgh Corporation Order Confirmation Act, 1930. The section is as follows:— 34 (1) A noise shall be liable to be dealt with summarily in the manner provided in Part II of the Public Health (Scotland) Act, in the same way and to the same effect as in cases under Sub-Section (6) of Section 16 of that Act, and the Corporation shall have all the powers and duties with reference to a noise nuisance which a local authority has with reference to a nuisance under the said Act. (2) For the purpose of this section a noise nuisance shall be deemed to exist where any person makes or continues, or causes to be made or continued, any excessive or unreasonable or unnecessary noise, and where such noise: (a) is injurious or dangerous to health, and (b) is capable of being prevented or mitigated, having due regard to all the circumstances of the case: Provided that if the noise is occasioned in the course of any trade, business, or occupation, it shall be a good defence that the best practical means of preventing or mitigating it having regard to the cost have been adopted. (3) Nothing contained in this section shall apply to a railway company or their servants exercising statutory powers. The powers available in Holborn are not very extensive. In Holborn the by-laws made by the Council for the suppression of street cries are in force, and on 1st August, 1929, the more general legislation—Motor Cars (Excessive Noise) Regulations, 1929—came into operation. These regulations, however, cannot be regarded as dealing adequately with the problem, nor are they as comprehensive as the Edinburgh legislation.

The Holborn Council, therefore, adopted a resolution asking the London County Council to consider the promotion of legislation for London on lines similar to those adopted in Edinburgh. During the preparation of this report a communication has been received from the Clerk to the London County Council to the effect that the County Council has decided to take no action to obtain by legislation further powers to deal with the noise nuisance. It is interesting to observe that in the report of the Local Government Committee of the London County Council it is admitted that there are noises not fully dealt with by the Motor Cars (Excessive Noise) Regulations or by-laws made by the London County Council or the Borough Councils, such for example as mechanical road-breaking or road-making appliances (e.g., pneumatic drills), noise caused by motor horns especially when traffic is held up and noise caused by wireless loud-speakers. One newspaper comment on this decision was “Peace for the Deaf.” The fact remains that a large section of the Public complain of excessive noise; Holborn residents and workers are bringing their complaints to the Medical Officer of Health. If further testimony were necessary of the seriousness of the evil, it is found in the ready response made by the persons responsible for the nuisance.

The progressive attitude of the Holborn Borough Council is exemplified by their proposal to make a new by-law dealing with nuisance caused by loud-speakers and gramophones. Complaint is frequently made of the annoyance caused by the playing of loud-speakers in shops for the sale of wireless instruments and accessories. It is the practice, in many instances, to place a loud-speaker in or about the entrance to the shop in order to attract the attention of the passers-by without regard to the disturbing effect the frequent playing has on other businesses or offices in the immediate vicinity. The Police Authorities have been asked to assist in mitigating the nuisance, but they are unable to render more than little assistance in this direction as the instruments are on private property. The Holborn Town Clerk is taking the necessary steps to enable The Council to make the following by-law:—

“No person shall in any street or public place, or in any shop, business premises, or place which adjoins any street or public place, and to which the public are admitted, operate or cause to suffer to be operated, any wireless loud-speaker or gramophone in such a manner as to cause annoyance to, or disturbance of, occupants or inmates of any premises or passengers. Any person offending against the foregoing by-law shall be liable upon conviction to a penalty not exceeding forty shillings.”

Bethnal Green 1930

NOISE. In last year’s report I mentioned 8 sources of preventable noise, which is becoming generally recognised as a factor in ill health. I am glad to note that the Council has made a bye-law to deal with one of these causes — unduly loud public radio instruments.

St Pancras 1937

Noise Nuisances.

The following byelaw in regard to street cries and noises was made by the Borough Council in 1907 and only applies to Sundays: —

Under section 66 it is provided that a noise nuisance shall be a nuisance which may bo dealt with summarily under the Public Health (London) Act, 1936. A noise nuisance is deemed to exist where any person makes or continues or causes to be made or continued any excessive or unreasonable or unnecessary noise which is injurious or dangerous to health. The section does not apply to a noise occasioned by the exercise of the functions under any Act of the county council or the sanitary authorities or any statutory undertakers; or affect the power of the county council or any borough council to make byelaws for good rule and government and suppression of nuisances under section 38 of the London County Council (General Powers) Act, 1934. It is further provided by section 66 of the new statute that no complaint to a petty sessional court under paragraph 20 of the fifth schedule to the Act of 1936 in respect of a noise nuisance shall be of any effect unless it is made by not less than three persons, being either householders or occupiers of premises within hearing of the noise nuisance which is the subject of the complaint. In any proceedings occasioned in the course of any trade, business or occupation it will be a good defence for the person charged to show that he has used the best practicable means of preventing or mitigating the nuisance having regard to the cost and to other relevant circumstances. [Extract from Report of Town Clerk.]

In connection with this matter the following byelaw recently made by the Borough Council as to nuisances caused by wireless loudspeakers, gramophones, etc., came into operation on the 1st August, 1937.

“No person shall (a) in any street or public place or in or in connection with any shop, business premises or other place which adjoins any street or public place and to which the public are admitted, or (6) upon any other premises by operating or causing or suffering to be operated any wireless loudspeaker, gramophone, amplifier or similar instrument make or cause or suffer to be made any noise which shall be so loud and so continuous or repeated as to cause a nuisance to occupants or inmates of any premises in the neighbourhood.

Provided that no proceedings shall be taken against any person for any offence against this byelaw in respect of premises referred to in paragraph (b) thereof, unless the nuisance be continued after the expiration of a fortnight from the date of the service on such person of a notice alleging a nuisance, signed by not less than three householders residing within the hearing of the instrument as aforesaid.

Any person offending against this byelaw shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five pounds.”

Marylebone 1938


During the year 30 complaints of noise were received, eleven relating to nuisance at night (rowdy disturbances, door slamming, etc.), four to motor vehicles, four to operation of machinery in industrial premises, three to roller skating on the public way, three to itinerant newsvendors, two to dogs, two to milk delivery, and one to street hawking.

Street Musicians and Singers.

On the 28th July, 1938, the Council made the following bye-law in pursuance of section 38 of the London County Council (General Powers) Act, 1938:—

“(1) No person shall sound or play upon any musical or noisy instrument or sing in any street or public place within 100 yards of any dwelling-house, office, or business or professional premises to the annoyance or disturbance of any inmate or occupant thereof, after being requested to desist by any constable, or by any inmate or occupant so annoyed or disturbed, or by any person acting on his behalf.

Provided that this byelaw shall not apply to—

(a) any person taking part in a properly conducted religious service, except where the request to desist is made on the ground of the serious illness of any inmate of the house; or

(b) any person (i) whilst playing under the order of his commanding officer, in any band belonging to any branch of His Majesty’s Naval, Army, Air Reserve or Territorial Forces; or (ii) whilst playing in any band performing with the sanction of and in a place appointed by the London County Council or the St. Marylebone Borough Council.

(2) Any person offending against the foregoing byelaw shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £5.”

The bye-law was duly confirmed by the Home Secretary and came into operation on the 1st November, 1938. Eight complaints were received and dealt with informally.

Wireless Loudspeakers, etc.

During the year, seven complaints were received relating to nuisance from wireless loudspeakers, gramophones and similar instruments. In six cases, abatement of the nuisance was secured without the service of formal notice. In the remaining instance, the issue of a notice was necessary to obtain a remedy.

In securing attention to the several provisions relating to noise nuisances, the temporary streets nuisance inspector rendered valuable assistance, and also cooperated with the police in regard to a number of the complaints received.