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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Mile End 1872

There is also a class of nuisances which, although apparently of a petty nature, may and do inflict much serious injury and annoyance, more especially to invalids. I refer to unnecessary street noises — to dog barking, cock crowing, railway whistling, noise of machinery, &c. I have seen patients dangerously ill suffer severely from these nuisances, the greatest injury being prevention of sleep; yet they, and the authorities, are powerless to suppress or remove them, complaints made to the selfish owners of such nuisances being generally treated with indifference or derision. Although these matters appear trifling, they are always more or less injurious to some, and, in many instances, not only assume dangerous proportions, but produce serious and fatal results. I have therefore not thought them unworthy of passing allusion, and hope they will obtain more definite notice in forthcoming health legislation. Rest is not only essential in disease, but for the preservation of health. How can this be secured in London, if the noises inseparable from day-time are perpetuated throughout the night in still more hideous and injurious forms? The best efforts should be directed to obtain the benefits of nocturnal rest for toiling Londoners, they would then feel less necessity for artificial stimulation during the day, enjoy better health, do more work, and have longer lives.

Bethnal Green 1887

The Vestry proposed to Pave the Carriageway of Wilmot Street with 3 by 7 stone pitchings. The School Board for London urged strongly that if such paving were laid down serious inconvenience from noise would be caused to the Board School in the street, and asked that wood paving should be laid instead of stone. The Vestry agreed not to lay down the stone paving, and decided the street should be maintained as a macadam road. The Septennial Perambulation of the Parish Boundaries was made in May.

Bethnal Green 1888


Numerous letters have been received from persons complaining of offensive smells, dust and noise proceeding from a recently started Flock Mill, situated at the corner of Satchwell’s Rents and Satchwell Street, two narrow streets of densely populated cottages. The Mill forms the angle of the two streets; houses run close up to it on two sides, and there is no yard space. The building is in the occupation of Mr. Sanderson, of 146, Shoreditch, who has carried on the business of flock making therein since January, 1888. The premises were formerly used as a saw mill, and the engine, together with its boiler and chimney shaft, was constructed for the purpose of driving the woodworking machinery. I inspected the premises and reported that, as then conducted, the business was a dangerous nuisance. By direction of the Vestry a notice was served by Inspector Weston, to the effect that unless the manufacture was at once stopped an indictment would be presented. On receipt of this notice the factory was closed, and remained so for six weeks. Mr. Sanderson then gave notice that he had made certain alterations and improvements and that he intended to resume work, which he did on the 11th of August. I re-inspected the premises and found that very little alteration had been made, and that the nuisance was not abated; moreover, numerous fresh complaints were received from the neighbours. The following is a description of the factory and the process of manufacture:— The building comprises a ground floor and a first floor. The whole of the machinery is on the ground floor. The flocks are manufactured from woollen rags; these are brought from the various marine stores in the district, and consist chiefly of filthy worn-out woollen clothing, much of it saturated with the exhalations of human beings, and alive with vermin. The process of manufacture is as follows:—

The rags, taken out of the bales just as they are brought in, are fed by hand into a machine called a “Devil,” where a wooden cylinder, covered with small spikes and revolving at great speed, rapidly tears up the material into its component fibres; as fast as it is broken up it is transferred by means of an endless band to the interior of another cylinder, also in rapid revolution, through which a current of air is drawn by means of a powerful fan. After being well winnowed and tossed about in this cylinder the flocks are discharged through an opening at the side, and are ready for use. They are sold to the manufacturers of cheap furniture and bedding.

[. . .] The exhaust steam from the engine is admitted to this chamber, and this wets the dust and causes a large portion of it to fall to the bottom, where it forms a pulpy, evil-smelling mass. The remainder of the blast, together with the uncondensed steam, passes out through a sheet-iron tube to the open-air. The dust chambers are periodically cleaned out, and the refuse is sold for manure. 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. Quantities of dust and fluffs escape from the machines whilst they are at work, and much of this is deposited on the walls and woodwork of the factory; but more passes through the open windows and is distributed over the neighbourhood. It is evident that if the rags contain any infectious matter (and it is certain that some, at least, of them must do so) it will be in the form of spores and bacteria, and these would constitute a portion of the fine dust spoken of. I look upon this as a constant source of danger to the neighbourhood, and I am of opinion that all rags before their conversion into flocks should be thoroughly disinfected in a Washington Lyon Apparatus. The Sanitary Committee visited the factory with me on several occasions, and at a meeting held on the 19th of September it was determined to view some other flock factories in various parts of London.

Mile End 1892

Sir, Settles street school. The Sub-Committee on Repairs have had under consideration a report from Her Majesty’s Inspector stating that the lessons are greatly hindered on one side of the building by the traffic, and that a wood or asphalte pavement would be a great relief to the teachers. I shall be glad to hear, for the information of the Sub-Committee, that your Vestry will take steps to provide a pavement of the kind suggested by the Inspector, in order that the lessons may not be interfered with by the noise outside.

Yours, &c., G. H. Croad, W.H.H. The Vestry Clerk, Clerk of the Board. Vestry Hall, Bancroft Road, Mile End, E.

Poplar 1912


[. . .] Amending Order of Local Government Board re Noise of Exhaust Gases from any Motor Engine. The Local Government Board made an Order amending Article IV. of the Motor Cars (Use and Construction) Order, 1904, as amended by the Motor Cars (Use and Construction) Amendment Order, 1909. The effect of the Order, which came into operation on the 31st March is to prohibit the use of any cut-out or other device which will allow the exhaust gases from any motor engine to escape into the atmosphere without passing through a silencer or other contrivance for reducing the noise which would otherwise be caused by the escape of such gases.

Poplar 1914

Motor Traffic (Street Noises) Bill.

A Bill to amend the law in respect of Warning Instruments on Motor Vehicles. The object of this Bill is to give powers to make regulations prohibiting the use in special areas or during specified hours of certain warning instruments on motor vehicles. The regulations will be made under section six of the Locomotives on Highways Act, 1890, under which there is power to confine the application of any regulations to a particular area.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Bethnal Green 1931

NOISE. I regret to report no progress in dealing with preventable noise, now generally recognised as conducive to ill health. Complaints are frequently made by residents of loud and persistent noises at all hours of the day and sometimes at night, with consequent loss of sleep and injury to nerves. In the absence of definite legislation extending the public health expression “nuisance” to cover such evils it is difficult to take any useful action.

Bethnal Green 1932

NOISE. I regret to report no progress in dealing with preventable noise, now generally recognised as conducive to ill health. During the year, complaint was made on two occasions by the residents in a street in the Borough of excessive noise from a factory, particularly at night. Representations made led to some improvement. It is obvious that there is need for further legislation extending the public health expression “nuisance” to cover loud and persistent noises in proximity to dwelling houses.

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.

Bethnal Green 1934

NOISE. I again draw attention to the urgent need for legislation to deal with the growing evil of noise. In the streets, we have more and more mechanical vehicles of greater size and power and carrying heavier loads, to say nothing of street repairing machines and building operations. There are factories containing powerful machinery often worked until late in the evening. The housing shortage frequently compels families to live in close proximity to industrial buildings; and where loud processes are carried on at all hours of the night as well as during the day, life almost becomes intolerable. It is useless for the doctors and health visitors at the welfare centres to advise good habits of sleep, when the means of practising such habits is denied the parents. This barrage on our complex nervous system is not conducive to good health and temper and ought to be brought under stringent public restriction. The people who have become accustomed to turn to the Public Health Department for assistance in dealing with their health problems cannot understand our helplessness in the face of an obvious menace to health, and it is to be hoped that some definite action will be taken very soon to deal with the matter.

Bethnal Green 1936

NOISE. I welcome the intention of the London County Council to promote legislation to deal in some small measure with the serious nuisance of noise. The close proximity of much of the housing accommodation in the Borough to factories and other noise producing agencies makes it urgently necessary that there should be some public control of a nuisance liable to cause injury to health.