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

Westminster 1857

Works in progress in this Department [Metropolis Roads Commissioners]

The repaying of the carriage-way and footways in Strutton Ground, from Great Peter Street to Pear Street, the materials for the carriage-way being taken from the Broad Sanctuary. The macadamizing of Grey Coat Place, from Great Peter Street to Rochester Row. The newly paving the footpaths, and macadamizing the roadway, of Johnson Street, from the Horseferry Road to Holywell Street. The macadamizing the roadway of Kensington Place; and The macadamizing a portion of the Broad Sanctuary, near the Westminster Hospital and the Sessions House; this work having been long much needed, on account of the serious inconvenience experienced by the Patients in the Hospital from the noise of the paved carriage-way.

Hanover Square 1859

In the Belgrave Sub-district, several complaints were brought against Marine store dealers, whose premises require constant supervision. Slaughter-houses and butchers’ premises, owing to the state of the weather, and the rapidity with which decomposition took place in meat, contributed so much to annoy several persons, as to cause more inspections than usual. One of the former required frequent visits, in consequence of its being a public slaughter-house. Besides the owner, who killed a great number of pigs, four or five butchers also destroyed sheep; and another pork butcher, from the in-wards, killed 40 or 50 pigs weekly. Besides the evils, in a sanitary point of view, from this excess of business, the noise occasioned by the animals was something terrific. Hitherto it has been usual for the magistrates to grant licenses unconditionally, but in consequence of the preceding case, Dr. Aldis brought the subject before the magistrates, Mr. Thrupp and Colonel Bagot, at the recent Petty Sessions, when the former told two of the butchers that their licenses were to be used only for private slaughtering.

Hanover Square 1860

The following were cases in which the Inspector could not interfere:—

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

Complaints Unavailing. From occupier of 319, Oxford-street, of a steam-engine at 320, which shook the house and made noise.

St James's 1879

To the Chairman and Members of the Vestry of St. James’s, Westminster. Vestry Hall, Piccadilly, March , 1880.

Reverend Sir and Gentlemen. The lists of the more important Works undertaken and executed by the Vestry of St. James’s, Westminster, during the twelve months ending March 25th, 1880, require no additional explanation as such Works have been previously decided upon by the Vestry or their Works Committee, with the exception of some unlooked-for matter that must of necessity arise from time to time in the maintenance of so important a Parish.

In these lists nothing very new, or special will be found, although there is a great deal in abeyance.

The Work at present entrusted to the Local Authorities, that attracts the most attention on the part of the General Public, are the Paving Works, for the simple reason that everybody can see all that is done. As a fact a large Paving matter becomes almost a source of Public amusement, and challenges much criticism, but this view is taken only by those who have no interest whatever in the result, or think they have no interest. The whole community have the most deep interest in results, although they have perhaps little voice in the actual methods employed to ensure their safety and comfort, — safety by adopting such materials and way of applying them as shall be the most secure from accident to man or beast, and even property — and comfort to obviate as much as possible the discomforts arising from those inseparable companions of busy traffic, Dust, Mud, and Noise, and the not to be forgotten element of smell.

St James's 1889

[On the building of a power station]

That the telegraphic and telephonic service of the Metropolis will be seriously interfered with. This difficulty ought to be easily met by proper regulations and proper clauses in the order. On the other hand, the system of the London Company possesses the undoubted advantages over any others, which arise from the location of the generating station on the riverside, and the consequent removal from the crowded parts of the Metropolis of all inconvenience from noise, vibration, smoke, and heavy traffic.

Westminster 1889

Bridge Street.—Complaint having been made of the excessive noise caused by vehicles passing over the granite setts at the foot of Westminster Bridge, wood blocks were substituted in place of the setts. The cost amounted to £150.

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.

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.

Westminster 1933

Noise from the Use of Rock Drills in Street Works.

The Council on the 20th July, 1933, referred the question of noise caused by the use of rock drills in street works to the Works and Public Health, &c., Committees for consideration and report. The Medical Officer of Health reported upon the subject to the Committees concerned and as the matter is of public interest his report is fully set out:— The Use of Rock Drills in Street Works and the Effect of their Noise on the Health of the People.

1. This matter is part of a reference from the Council at its meeting on 20th July last. The whole reference was made to the Works Committee which was instructed to consult with the Public Health Committee as to the aspect outlined at the head of this report. It is now understood that the Works Committee wish to be favoured with the views of the Public Health Committee.

2. It is unfortunately true that increasing noise seems to be a natural accompaniment of changing conditions particularly in cities and towns, but even in rural areas murmurs of complaint are being heard because of the motor traffic which rends the silence of the night. During the past few months The Times newspaper has given liberal opportunity for expression of opinion on the harmful effects of noise on health and from many authoritative quarters has come an appeal to mitigate or to prevent this menace. Thus has arisen a definite movement of public opinion now organised in a society called the Anti-Noise League, which numbers among its members many distinguished men and women including leading physicians and surgeons.

3. So far as can be gathered the activities of this League are directed against such noises as arise from motor vehicles, the handling of milk churns, church bells and others more or less of a chronic character. Very little attention has been given to the much more acute and violent noise from rock drills which is necessarily periodic, but constant during the operation of these implements.

4. With regard to interference with health one should first examine the question as it affects work and rest. The interference is so obvious that it needs but little elaboration. Mental concentration, discussion and the normal transaction of business is almost impossible within 20 yards of these drills and of course the evil is magnified according to the number being operated. It has been alleged that loss of business has been experienced in shops and similar premises adjacent. In a neighbourhood of mixed business and residential buildings the factions struggle for privilege. The non-residents would prefer the drilling to proceed only at night while the residents indignantly retort that their sleep has the prior claim for respect. There can be little doubt that the over stimulation of the auditory sense organs leads to nervous exhaustion and impaired efficiency.

5. Interference with rest and sleep is of a more serious nature as an average healthy individual cannot work to the best advantage unless he obtains sufficient rest and sleep. If road drilling is carried on late at night or early in the morning near dwellings the residents arc bound to suffer. Those who are fortunate enough to be masters of their own time arrange to go on holiday or otherwise temporarily leave the district until road operations are over. For those who must remain at home this period is trying in the extreme. Usually road drilling docs not last longer than a week or two, but in special circumstances it may persist for months. During the recent summer in a certain street in Westminster, drilling continued every day except on Sundays and with two or three days of peace occasionally intervening from early in July until well into September; a series of small areas of the roadway were being explored. For those who are confined to their houses by illness, conditions are of course definitely serious. It requires but little imagination to appreciate that the recovery of a case of acute or serious illness might be jeopardised by the deprivation of rest and sleep and the exhaustion caused by constant vibratory noise.

6. During September the Medical Officer of Health took steps to investigate conditions at Westminster Hospital while street excavation was in progress. The Secretary of the Hospital hastened to assure the Medical Officer that the City Council had been most considerate of the interests of the Hospital and in consequence the latter did not wish to make any complaints. It was explained that it would be helpful if an unbiased statement on the effects of the noise then in progress could be obtained. The following is an extract from the report kindly supplied by the Resident Medical Officer dated 13th September, 1933:— ” At least half of the Hospital was practically sleepless for nights at a time. The chief sufferers were naturally those about to be operated upon and those whose operations had just been performed. At least two eases awaiting thyroidectomy suffered acutely, whilst the many cases of head injuries in the Casualty Ward were to be profoundly pitied. In fact, hospital treatment, medical and surgical, has been seriously interfered with. On one occasion a private patient insisted upon leaving the Hospital owing to the disturbance. Apart from the patients, I found the resident medical officers suffered considerably. As far as my own duties were concerned, my whole days and nights for about three weeks were never free from the noise of hammering, and I was constantly up at night trying to make things bearable. Please do not think I am making unnecessary complaints, but six automatic drills working in a line for hours at a time, filling the Surgery, the Wards, and the Resident Medical Officer’s Rooms with dust, has rendered life extremely unpleasant.” It will be noted that in addition to noise, dust is alluded to as a cause of nuisance.

7. The Medical Officer has consulted the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene as to the results of any investigations of the effects of rock drills on health. The former body is not concerned with health but expressed willingness to take up the question of research into the maintenance of roads and methods of repairs, &c.

8. The London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene has been keenly interested on the health aspect for some considerable time. Dr. Crowden, a member of the staff, has been working on the subject and has different types of these drills fitted up in his Laboratory with the stone and concrete medium in which they operate. His conclusions so far are briefly as follows:— (1) Among riveters and boilermakers incurable deafness develops in the course of time. A large proportion of the men arc affected and it is due to the concussions of sound and sudden changes of air pressure incidental to riveting in an enclosed space, e.g., between decks in a shipyard. Road drillers on the other hand work in the open and apparently are not subject to deafness. (2) Riveters and boilermakers suffer from the effects of vibration on their hands ; a chronic numbness is caused due to interference with the circulation. These effects were largely dependent on cold; coldness of the atmosphere and of the handles of the apparatus. In the ease of road workers the air conducted to the drills is conveyed in comparatively short pipes and is, therefore, not cooled in long transit. The handles are not cold and these road workers do not suffer from the disturbance of circulation mentioned above. Dr. Crowden has not yet investigated the medical records of hospitals to see whether there are any grounds for assuming that complaints of nervous or other diseases arc based on the occupation under discussion. 9. It is most important to observe that the workers themselves do not receive the main impact of the noise as the sound and percussion waves intensify as they impinge on any high stone buildings surrounding.

10. In his enquiries he found that the men greatly preferred the mechanical drills to the hand pick and hammer. In one. instance a body of men threatened to strike because they were asked to go back to the methods of using human energy. Several firms reported that with manual excavation their casualty rate increased noticeably; chipped hands, fragments lodging in the eyes and other injuries were not uncommon. That was the main reason for the men’s preference for the mechanical drills.

11. The use of silencers diminishes the intensity of vibration but also lessens the efficiency of the instrument. Therefore, in order to complete certain work within a given time it would require additional partially silenced drills for every single unsilenced one. More men would be required and the net result would prove of no advantage because those extra drills would cause quite as much noise as a single unsilenced drill.

12. Dr. Crowden has studied the methods of ear stopping used among gun crews in the Navy, and in shipyards and other industries, and showed various types with which he had experimented. One of the most efficient and certainly the cheapest is shown to the Committee. They ought to be distributed among those who are about to be subjected to the noise of road drilling in their close vicinity.

13. In December, 1929, the Medical Officer of Health reported on the prevention of noise in connection with a presentment from the Metropolitan Standing Joint Committee. Although the matter under present consideration is limited to ” rock drills,” yet it may be interesting to recall that no fewer than seven different sources of noise were enumerated on that occasion as being causes of complaint to the Public Health Department. He commented on the fact that the By-laws made by the City Council from time to time to control different types of noise nuisance had been of great public benefit; and the London County Council had also made by-laws for other sources of noise which had also been effective.

14. Since those days other and no less obnoxious noises have arisen and some local authorities, notably Edinburgh, have sought powers to prohibit certain noires. There is no doubt that sooner or later public opinion will demand some measure of relief from this growing nuisance. Summary. The noise caused by the use of rock drills :— (1) Interferes with the work, occupations, or other activities of those in close proximity to the scene of their operations. (2) Is definitely harmful to the sick and may even jeopardise the lives of those suffering from acute or dangerous illness. (3) Disturbs the rest and sleep of those living nearby and is in consequence prejudicial to, and in some cases, injurious to health. (4) Under existing conditions, and so far as can be ascertained at present, is not prejudicial to the health of those operating these instruments. (5) Usually lasts in any given locality but for a limited period say one or two weeks and this is an important point in mitigation. (6) Is preferred by the workers to hand driven methods of operation. (7) Is somewhat diminished by fitting silencers, but to make up for the resulting loss of efficiency more drills must be employed. (8) Can be lessened in intensity for the sufferers if they use ear stops. These could be distributed among patients and other susceptible individuals. (9) Is only one among the many which are causing much concern. A public movement has been organised to combat this menace to health and quietude. The Committee might sec fit to express an opinion that although the noise caused by the use of rock drills in street works may arise in any given locality for a period of only a few days and may not recur for several years, yet there is evidence that health may be injuriously affected thereby and requests the Works Committee to consider what steps should be taken to effect its diminution. The Council received the report of the Committees on the 14th December and resolved that representations be made to the appropriate Government Departments with a view to special research being undertaken for the reduction of noise caused by the use of rock drills in street works.

City of Westminster 1937

Noise Nuisances.

Nuisances from noise may now be dealt with by the local authority under the Nuisance Sections of the Public Health (London) Act, 1936, a provision to this effect having been included in the London County Council (General Powers) Act, of 1937. Under this provision, a noise nuisance is deemed to exist where any person makes or continues or causes to be made, etc., any excessive or unreasonable or unnecessary noise, which is injurious or dangerous to health. Exemption is, however, provided in the case of noise occasioned by the carrying out of works under any Act of the County Council or Sanitary Authorities or by any public undertaking. In the case of proceedings taken in respect of noise from any trade, business or occupation, it is a good defence for the person summoned to show that he has taken the best practicable means for preventing or mitigating the nuisance having regard to cost and other relevant circumstances. Seventeen complaints were received during the year and these were adequately dealt with by informal action. These related to noise of machinery in business premises adjoining dwellings, building operations carried out at night, the use of electric drills in streets or in demolition of buildings, wireless sets, dogs, &c. One complaint was of noise caused by persons frequenting a club in the early hours of the morning. Admirable as these provisions are, they bring but little comfort to those who reside near busy streets where late motor traffic frequently interrupts the hours of sleep.

City of Westminster 1938

Noise Nuisances.

Complaints were made in respect of 23 noise nuisances during the year, and these were adequately dealt with by informal action. They related to the noise of machinery, wireless sets, electric drills in streets, &c. One complaint was of noise from a pin-table saloon and another from an all-night cafe. Fire alarm bells on two large adjoining buildings caused considerable annoyance to residents in the neighbourhood by ringing almost every day at about 2 a.m. The cause of this baffled investigation at first, until it transpired that the ringing of the bells coincided with the flushing of the street by the Highways Department. The operation of the hydrants had caused the bells to ring, the alarm systems being connected with “sprinkler” extinguishing systems. Certain minor adjustments in the sprinkler systems were all that was necessary to abate the nuisance.