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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Wembley 1938


There has been a large increase in the number of complaints received regarding noise. During 1938 no less than 518 visits were made. The majority of these complaints, naturally, are made by residents whose houses adjoin industrial zones. Whilst there must be some boundaries on which residential zones meet industrial zones, the difficulties are obvious where dwelling houses are in close proximity to factories. For example there are instances of factories on one side of a road, with residential dwellings immediately opposite. In other cases dwelling houses back on to factories, the gardens of the houses forming the only intervening space.

The industries which are responsible for complaint of noise in the Borough are not those usually classed as heavy industries. For example, noise was caused by the running of pumping machinery, while very considerable amelioration was obtained by enclosing that part of the factory where such machinery was installed by screens made of sound-absorbing material, and by the provision of double windows.

In other instances noise from running machinery has been reduced by the erection of wooden fences and by the occupiers of the factories keeping particular windows and doors of the factory closed during the hours of work.

In another case amelioration of the existing conditions has been achieved by the provision of efficient silencers on the air intake pipes attached to air compressor plant. Another noise nuisance has been overcome by the provision of new buildings, in which the engines are now running in special chambers partially partitioned by glass, the exhaust gases going into a specially constructed tunnel, lined with sound-absorbing material. The new arrangements have reduced the considerable noise to one now barely audible in the near vicinity.

These are typical examples of achievement possible with the assistance of the occupiers of the factories. The results have been obtained without the service of statutory notices or recourse to legal proceedings.

Section 106—Middlesex County Council (General Powers) Act, 1938, is now relevant to the subject of noise. The section is as follows:—


(1) A noise nuisance shall be liable to be dealt with as a statutory nuisance under the Act of 1936. Provided that no complaint shall be made to a justice under section 99 of the said Act unless it is signed by not less than three householders or occupiers of premises within hearing of the noise nuisance complained of.

(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 practicable means within the meaning of the said Act of preventing or mitigating it have been adopted.

(3) Nothing contained in this section shall apply to a railway company the Transport Board or any statutory undertakers for the supply of water gas or electricity or their respective servants exercising statutory powers or to any mechanically propelled vessel on the Grand Union Canal.

(4) Nothing in this section shall affect the powers of the Council or the Council of a Borough to make byelaws under Section 249 of the Act of 1933.

(5) Section 56 (Noise nuisance) of the Act of 1930 is hereby repealed.

While factory owners, on their attention being drawn to the nuisance from their factories, have always been found to be willing to co-operate in an endeavour to secure reduction or elimination of the noise, the solution is not always easy, and considerable expenditure is often involved. The circumstances generally call for much technical knowledge of the inspectors, and tact and understanding are necessary throughout in dealing with this question.

It may be added that in making these inspections and observations regarding complaints of noise, no noise-measuring instruments have been used, the amount of noise being gauged by ear alone.