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
1       4 1 1   2
          1 2    
      2 2   1 2  
          1 1   6
      1 1 3      
      1   1 1 1 1
    1 2 1   2 4 6
  1 1   2 1     2
  1   1 4 2   2  
1   1   1 1   3 2
    1   8 3 2 1  
          2     5
2 2 1 2 1     1 3
  1   1          
1850s 1860s 1870s 1880s 1890s 1900s 1910s 1920s 1930s

Poplar 1920


(1) (a) Tuberculosis Dispensary.— Alexandra House, 135, Bow Road, E. Premises unsuitable, owing to noise, being situated on the main road —  which is paved with granite setts and ever which the traffic is heavy. At the back the noise is even more troublesome — owing to the recent extension of a neighbouring engineering works — in such a way as to practically surround the dispensary at close quarters. The Council are negotiating for other premises in Wellington Road. This is a comparatively quiet site, and far better suited for the purposes of a dispensary.

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.

Deptford 1922

The Infant Welfare Centres are held in halls let to us by different religions organisations. There are two exceptions, viz., the Goldsmiths’ Centre, held in a classroom at the Goldsmiths’ College, London University, Lewisham High Road, and at the Princess Louise Centre, Hales Street. Until 1922, the last-named Centre employed its own medical officer, but during that year the Medical Officer of Health was appointed to carry out the Thursday afternoon consultations. The Borough Council, which also supplies two Health Visitors on Thursday afternoons, gave a grant of £20 to the Deptford Fund to help this Centre. Except for the staff as described, this Centre is the only voluntary one in the Borough. In the six Infant Welfare Centres there are voluntary workers whose admirable work is prized by the Council and officials. There are consulting rooms for the doctor at each Centre (except at Erlam Road, where a portion of the room is curtained off). At this Centre, consultation work is not easy owing to the noise. Further consideration of this point is necessary.

Bermondsey 1924

An important change in premises occurred in May, when the former Hostel at 110, Grange Road was transformed into a Welfare Centre [for Expectant Mothers] for the mothers who formerly met in the Shelter, behind the Town Hall. The advantages of more room, and light, were immediately felt, and especially was the garden a joy to mothers and toddlers alike. The absence of noise and smell, which were inevitable accompaniment to any work done in the Shelter, was gratefully noted by mothers and workers alike.

Walthamstow 1925

REPORT OF THE WORK OF THE SCHOOL MEDICAL SERVICE. Arranged according to the Suggestions made by the Board of Education, November. 1925.

School Hygiene.—The cleanliness of the schools is well maintained, the surroundings being quite good, with one or two exceptions where the buildings are quite close to the main roads, making for noise and dust.

Bethnal Green 1927

While it does not admit of statistical measurement, there can be little doubt that the Council’s provision of milk for necessitous mothers and children has been an important contributing factor to the improved standard of child life in the borough. The milk provides much needed increased resistance to the debilitating effects of over-crowding, noise and dirt, deficiency of sunlight and air, and the other concomitants of poverty in a congested urban area. Its value in better health far outweighs its modest cost in cash.

Deptford 1927

Various kinds of different sewing machines are used for different sets of bags required. In different industries in Deptford and elsewhere I have been struck with the veritable inferno created by the noise of machinery. One’s admiration goes out to the brains which conceived all such machinery, but it would be a fine thing if the nerveracking, deafening noise could be eliminated somehow. The sewing machines used in this factory are worked by electric power, the women skilfully direct the edges to be sewn from end to end. We were struck by the concentration shown by those manipulating the machines and material; how greedily the machines “eat up” the goods! The rooms on the different floors are large and spacious. The wooden floors are dry but the nature of the work tends towards dust collection. The ventilation is good, being effected by windows and doors. Steam pipes and radiators are in use. General cleanliness is good, though dust collection had to be mentioned to the manager.

[. . .]

Spinning Company. The stranded hemp arrives in bales on the canal from India and China. The bales are opened and the hemp is passed through separating machines dividing the hemp into strands. The strands are then passed through mixing machines, thus mixing the strands according to the quality or description of the cord required. The stranded hemp is then passed through a cord-making machine, coming out as the finished article, wound upon reels or into bundles or coils as required. The noise created by the machinery is very great. The floors are of cement with wood for the employees to stand upon.

Battersea 1928

The Tuberculosis Dispensary

The acquisition by the Borough Council of Southlands College has afforded—inter alia—an opportunity of the Council’s providing more suitable accommodation for the Borough Tuberculosis Dispensary. Rooms on the first floor of that portion of the College buildings reserved for Health Services of the Council were fitted up and adapted for use as a Tuberculosis Dispensary, and include waiting-room for patients, and rooms for Doctor, nurses, clerical staff, laboratory, pharmacy, &c. The Dispensary is now housed in commodious premises in a more suitable environment, and free from the noise from the traffic, which was, among others, a disagreeable and disturbing feature of the old premises in Bridge Road.

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.

Holborn 1928

To the tired worker solitude in pastoral scenes on the moor or mountain side or by the sea brings the peace and repose that comes from quietude. This is an age of noise; we have grown up without noticing its gradual] increase. In industrial pursuits the harmful effects of excessive noise on the hearing and the part it plays in producing fatigue are well known: in so far as they are unavoidable, they represent one of the costs of industrial civilisation. Are the noises of the city highway, in any serious measure, harmful to health? Many street noises are unrhythmic, discordant, varied in quality, pitch and, intensity and, above all, unpredictable. The sudden unexpected screech of the hooter, the rattling of the heavy omnibus, of the laden lorry, the unexpected explosion of the exhaust of the motor vehicle overstimulate and call up unnecessarily the sense of hearing and exhaust the brain; the noisiness of London means an enormous drain of energy even from those who are not acutely conscious of the noise as a nuisance, but who, nevertheless, all the while are unconsciously putting up a resistance to it. These noises harm the passers-by whose brains are not concentrated on work; the office worker must perforce take steps to combat the insufferable nuisance. The windows must be kept closed, with all the consequent disadvantages of discomfort ensuing on inadequate ventilation. This precaution does not always suffice in the case of professional men grappling with vital and intricate problems; the disturbance of intensive concentration causes irritation and the consequence is fatigue. Thousands of people work late at night and right through the night hours, sleeping as best they can during the daytime when noises and sounds prevent the unbroken sleep which is needed to give the body perfect rest so that it can store up energy for the working hours.

For the sick and convalescent in hospitals and nursing homes, quiet is imperative at all times: for these sufferers zones of silence must be enforced. Legislation already exists to deal with certain objectionable noises; soon it will be extended to motor traffic. A responsible Conference has recommended the making of a regulation* under the Motor Car Acts to deal with extensive and avoidable noise from motor vehicles which are badly constructed, badly loaded or in faulty condition. The Conference agreed that the excessive use of horns and their nerve racking noise constituted a legitimate grievance. Other remedies worthy of consideration are the placing of white lines across the opening of side roads into main roads to obviate hooting, the limitation of weight and bulk of goods carried by road, the control of the speed and hours of work of lorries, the prohibition of the sale of motor cycles without effective silencers, the prohibition of the use of pneumatic drills at night in proximity to occupied dwelling houses. Much is to be said in favour of the total prohibition of such drills on the ground of the injury to health caused to the workmen using them. A comprehensive measure would be the inclusion of all excessive and avoidable noise, whatever its source, as a nuisance with which sanitary authorities were empowered to deal under new Public Health legislation.

*Regulations have now been made and come into force on Aug. 1st, 1929.

Bethnal Green 1929


The commonsense fact remains that in the vast majority of cases the gift of milk to a necessitous mother or child is of obvious benefit in building up under-nourished or unsuitably-nourished bodies and in strengthening the capacity to resist the evil effects of overcrowding, shortage of sunshine and fresh air, presence of noise, dirt, etc. Until such time as every family is in a position to provide for itself, the expenditure on milk grants can be regarded as a sound public health investment.

Bethnal Green 1929

NOISE. During the past few years the question of noise as a factor in ill - health has received well needed attention. In 1928 the British Medical Association prepared a Memorandum on Preventable Noises which was submitted to the Minister of Health. The subject has more recently been under consideration by the Metropolitan Boroughs’ Standing Joint Committee. Among the preventable noises may be mentioned :—

(i) insufficiently silenced motor vehicles ;

(ii) unnecessarily raucous warning instruments carried by motor vehicles;

(iii) barking dogs and crowing cocks, especially in congested areas;

(iv) cries and bells of street vendors;

(v) careless handling of milk churns;

(vi) noise from shunting, etc., on railways;

(vii) public wireless loud speakers;

(viii) industrial machinery constructed or operated without regard to the noise produced thereby.

The fact that noise produces no immediate or obvious ailment and that the adaptable human body gets used to it as to other bad conditions is no argument for accepting it as a disagreeable but necessary evil. As was pointed out by the distinguished doctors who took part in the deputation to the Minister of Health, noise has an insidious but very definite prejudicial effect upon health, and it contributes to a great deal of nervous disease as well as complicating or retarding recovery from other ailments.

The time has come when public health authorities should insist that active steps be taken to reduce the amount of noise from which the public suffers, much of it preventable by the exercise of a little intelligence. It is to be hoped that engineers and transport administrators will devote some of their skill to devising machinery and vehicles which will operate with the minimum of nervous injury to the public at large.

Westminster 1929


The “mechanization” of living in modern conditions (if the word may be borrowed from its military context), particularly in large centres of population, has resulted in the perpetuation of noise to such an extent that many see in it a menace to the public health. It is perhaps one of the drawbacks of the progress of civilization. It is certain that noise of particular pitch or repetitive character can cause nervous exhaustion and perhaps nervous disease of functional nature. Loss of sleep, interference with concentration and other contributions to loss of human efficiency may in some cases be justifiably attributed to noise.

*The Corporation of Edinburgh has taken the matter up in the interests of public health, but so far has been unable to persuade Parliament to grant powers of suppression. The difficulty seems to lie in defining unreasonable or unnecessary noise, preventable noise, noise capable of mitigation and noise dangerous to health. Should action be confined to noise arising from any trade, occupation or business? That would leave untouched the roysterers who make night hideous. Street drilling by day or by night is harrowing, but it is “necessary” noise and would also be immune from legislation.

Private individuals in “Westminster have been successful in obtaining injunctions at common law for disturbance caused by the music of powerful organs in cinemas in the neighbourhood of their dwellings.

The Public Health Committee considered the question of noise on a reference from the Metropolitan Boroughs’ Standing Joint Committee. The former was reminded that noise had been recognized for some years as something which should be controlled by law inasmuch that the City Council and the London County Council had made by-laws in instances such as music near hospitals, street shouting, &c., &c., &c.

Complaints are received in the department from time to time as to noise arising from machinery in buildings near dwellings, collection and delivery of milk churns and many other causes. Usually the only remedy available for the complainant is to move for an injunction.

At the present time the local authority has no powers to deal with noise other than that regulated by particular by-law. The trend of opinion is, however, moving towards some measures for the control or prohibition of noise, and the time may not be far distant when the legislature may give effect to what appears to be a growing public desire.

* Since the above was written, Edinburgh has obtained powers from Parliament in an Act which contains a section devoted to the prohibition of noise as a nuisance. It is hoped that similar powers may be requested and granted for London.

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.”