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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St Pancras 1856


In many houses the over-crowding is very great, each room being occupied by a family. It is usually found too that families with children congregate in the same house, because the parties who occupy houses where there are not any children object to having them introduced, on account of the noise they make and the trouble which they give. The consequence is that some houses have as many as 50 or 60 inmates. There is a clause under the Nuisances Removal Act, sec. 29, by which the Vestry is called on to take proceedings before a Magistrate to abate over-crowding, if it is certified to be such as to endanger health. No prosecutions have been taken under this clause, but it is probable that in future years they may be considered advisable.

St Giles (Camden) 1876

North Metropolitan Tramways.

The North Metropolitan Tramways Company issued notices, and deposited plans and Bill for the formation of various lines of tramway in the Metropolis, including lines in Vernon Place and the South side of Bloomsbury Square. The formation of these tramways, with their objectionable noise, the occupation of the public ways by the tram cars, and the inevitable ruts and dangerous condition of the paving, which seems to be necessarily attendant upon all tramways, was considered by your Board would be highly detrimental to the class of property in Bloomsbury Square and its vicinity, and would moreover be in direct contravention of an Act of Parliament, passed in 1806, instituted, “An Act for ornamenting and embellishing the centre or area of Bloomsbury Square,” and which Act expressly prohibited the plying for hire of any hackney coach within the Square, or within the distance of 300 ft. of any house forming part of the said Square. Your Board accordingly petitioned the House of Commons against the Bill, and appeared by Counsel before the Parliamentary Committee in support of its petition. The Board’s opposition was successful, and that portion of the scheme of the Tramway Company was rejected by the Committee.

I have the honour to remain, Gentlemen, Your obedient Servant, G. WALLACE, Surveyor.

St Giles (Camden) 1892

Conditions of tenancy of the Thurston and Holland Model Buildings, Newton Street

5.—The stairs, passages, and balconies are to be swept daily during the week, and washed on the Saturday by the Tenants of each floor in the order of the numbers of the rooms. Children are not to be allowed to loiter or to make a noise on the roof, stairs, or balconies. The door leading to the roof to be constantly closed. Clothes-lines are to be removed when not in actual use. The balconies must not be used for drying, or hanging out clothes or other articles, or for shaking carpets; nor must any article be thrown out into the yards.

St Pancras 1904

Leighton Crescent is controlled by a Committee of the adjoining residents, and the Secretary is Mr. Blunton, of No. 6, Leighton Crescent, N.W. The Crescent, Euston Street, is owned by the London and North Western Railway Company. The enclosed Gardens adjoining Regent’s Park Terrace and Maitland Park Villas, are owned by adjoining owners of land, and are maintained by them.


It is to be observed that in their effect upon the atmosphere and the population the two classes of open spaces produce opposite results. The open spaces planted with herbage, flowering plants, shrubs, and trees purify and cleanse the atmosphere, and afford the means of recreating and recruiting the health of the people surrounding them, and the only noises heard within them are the piping sounds of children’s voices.

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 vibration of heavy moving weights, 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. In addition they form large enclosed areas inaccessible to the public, and obstructive to local traffic, transit, and inter-communication.

What contribution outside the Parliamentary Acts of the Railway Companies does the nation make towards the health and well-being of the local community subjected to these ills, for the nation’s welfare?

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.

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.”

Holborn 1930


Section 66 of the London County Council (General Powers) Act, 1937, provides that a noise nuisance may be dealt with summarily under the Public Health (London) Act, 1936. In securing attention to this provision the temporary streets nuisance inspector rendered valuable assistance, and also co-operated with the police in regard to complaints relating to street musicians, noisy hawkers, etc. During the year, five complaints were received relating to nuisance from wireless loudspeakers, gramophones and similar instruments. In each instance abatement of the nuisance was secured without the service of formal notice. Early in the year complaints were received of noise and disturbance caused by the violent slamming of doors of motor vehicles. The attention of taxicab and car drivers was drawn to the matter by the display of the following poster at cab ranks and garages:—

BOROUGH OF ST. MARYLEBONE. NOISE. Nuisance From Motor Vehicles.

The Borough Council receive many complaints of the noise and disturbance caused by the violent slamming of doors of motor vehicles, and have been urged to take action with a view of preventing the nuisance. Drivers and users of motor-cars and taxicabs are particularly requested to show consideration for others by reducing the occasions for closing car doors and to avoid slamming as far as possible.

Town Hall, CHARLES PORTER, St. Marylebone, W.1. Medical Officer of Health.

Publicity was also given to the matter in the Press and as a result of this and the co-operation of garage proprietors and others concerned with cars it may be hoped that some mitigation of the door-slamming nuisance has been secured. The Council continue to subscribe to the funds of the Anti-Noise League.

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.”