Historical references to London's sounds

A database of several hundred historical descriptions and references to London's sounds. They're drawn mainly from primary sources such as autobiographies, diaries and statutes, as well as novels written around the times they depict.

11th to
16th to
18th Early
 General sounds of street and town   1 9 2 3 20 13 7
 Open-air markets     1   2 2    
 Road traffic         1 3    
 Communal living and confinement     1 1   2 3  
 River traffic and related sounds     5     2 3  
 Plague, war and disaster   1 6 2   2 4  
 Sound qualities of buildings     1          
 Sounds of crowds   1       1    

Period referred to: 1840s

Sound category: Ambient > Open-air markets

Title of work: London Labour and the London Poor

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: Henry Mayhew

Year of publication: 1853

Page/volume number: Volume 1, Chapter 1

Costermongers buy their donkeys at the ‘Smithfield races’

Having set forth the costermonger's usual mode of conveying his goods through the streets of London, I shall now give the reader a description of the place and scene where and when he purchases his donkeys.

When a costermonger wishes to [unclear] or buy a donkey, he goes to Smithfield-market on a Friday afternoon. On this day, between the hours of one and five, there is a kind of fair held, attended solely by costermongers, for whose convenience a long paved slip of ground, about eighty feet in length, has been set apart. The animals for sale are trotted up and down this – the " racecourse," as it is called – and on each side of it stand the spectators and purchasers, crowding among the stalls of peas-soup, hot eels, and other street delicacies.

Every thing necessary for the starting of a costermonger's barrow can be had in Smithfield on a Friday, – from the barrow itself to the weights – from the donkey to the whip. The animals can be purchased at prices ranging from 5s. to 3l. On a brisk market-day as many as two hundred donkeys have been sold. The barrows for sale are kept apart from the steeds, but harness to any amount can be found everywhere, in all degrees of excellence, from the bright japanned cart saddle with its new red pads, to the old mouldy trace covered with buckle marks. Wheels of every size and colour, and springs in every stage of rust, are hawked about on all sides. To the usual noise and shouting of a Saturday night's market is added the shrill squealing of distant pigs, the lowing of the passing oxen, the bleating of sheep, and the braying of donkeys. The paved road all down the "race-course" is level and soft, with the mud trodden down between the stones. The policeman on duty there wears huge fishermen's or flushermen's boots, reaching to their thighs; and the trouser ends of the costers' corduroys are black and sodden with wet dirt. Every variety of odour fills the air; you pass from the stable smell that hangs about the donkeys, into an atmosphere of apples and fried fish, near the eating-stalls, while a few paces further on you are nearly choked with the stench of goats. The crowd of black hats, thickly dotted with red and yellow plush caps, reels about; and the "hi-hi-i-i" of the donkey-runners sounds on all sides. Sometimes a curly-headed bull, with a fierce red eye, on its way to or from the adjacent cattle-market, comes trotting down the road, making all the visitors rush suddenly to the railings, for fear – as a coster near me said – of "being taught the hornpipe."

The donkeys standing for sale are ranged in a long line on both sides of the "race-course," their white velvetty noses resting on the wooden rail they are tied to. Many of them wear their blinkers and head harness, and others are ornamented with ribbons, fastened in their halters. The lookers-on lean against this railing, and chat with the boys at the donkeys' heads, or with the men who stand behind them, and keep continually hitting and shouting at the poor still beasts to make them prance. Sometimes a party of two or three will be seen closely examining one of these "Jerusalem ponys," passing their hands down its legs, or looking quietly on, while the proprietor's ash stick descends on the patient brute's back, making a dull hollow sound. As you walk in front of the long line of donkeys, the lads seize the animals by their nostrils, and show their large teeth, asking if you "want a hass, sir," and all warranting the creature to be "five years old next buff-day." Dealers are quarrelling among themselves, downcrying each other's goods. "A hearty man," shouted one proprietor, pointing to his rival's stock, "could eat three sich donkeys as yourn at a meal."

One fellow, standing behind his steed, shouts as he strikes, "Here's the real Brittannia mettle;" whilst another asks, "Who's for the Pride of the Market?" and then proceeds to flip "the pride" with his whip, till she clears away the mob with her kickings. Here, standing by its mother, will be a shaggy little colt, with a group of ragged boys fondling it, and lifting it in their arms from the ground.

During all this the shouts of the drivers and runners fill the air, as they rush past each other on the race-course. Now a tall fellow, dragging a donkey after him, runs by crying, as he charges in amongst the mob, "Hulloa! Hulloa! hi! hi!' his mate, with his long coat-tails flying in the wind, hurrying after and roaring, between his blows, "Keem-up!"

[ . . .]

In another "race-course," opposite to the donkeys, – the ponies are sold. These make a curious collection, each one showing what was his last master's whim. One has its legs and belly shorn of its hair, another has its mane and tail cut close, and some have switch tails, muddy at the end from their length. A big-hipped black nag, with red tinsel-like spots on its back, had its ears cut close, and another curly-haired brute that was wet and steaming with having been shown off, had two huge letters burnt into its hind-quarters. Here the clattering of the hoofs and the smacking of whips added to the din; and one poor brute, with red empty eye-holes, and carrying its head high up – as a blind man does – sent out showers of sparks from its hoofs as it spluttered over the stones, at each blow it received. Occasionally, in one part of the pony market, there may be seen a crowd gathered round a nag, that some one swears has been stolen from him.

Raised up over the heads of the mob are bundles of whips, and men push their way past, with their arms full of yellow-handled curry-combs; whilst, amongst other cries, is heard that of "Sticks ½d. each! sticks – real smarters." At one end of the market the barrows for sale are kept piled up one on another, or filled with old wheels, and some with white unpainted wood, showing where they have been repaired. Men are here seen thumping the wooden trays, and trying the strength of the springs by leaning on them; and here, too, stood, on the occasion of my visit, a ragged coster lad trying to sell his scales, now the cherry-season had past.

On all sides the refreshment-barrows are surrounded by customers. The whelk-man peppers his lots, and shouts, "A lumping penn'orth for a ha'penny;" and a lad in a smock-frock carries two full pails of milk, slopping it as he walks, and crying, "Ha'penny a mug-full, new milk from the ke-ow!" The only quiet people to be seen are round the peas-soup stall, with their cups in their hands; and there is a huge crowd covering in the hot-eel stand, with the steam rising up in the centre.

Period referred to: 1830s

Sound category: Ambient > Open-air markets

Title of work: Oliver Twist

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Charles Dickens

Year of publication: 1838

Page/volume number: Chapter XXI

Oliver Twist and Bill Sikes visit Smithfield meat market

Turning down Sun Street and Crown Street, and crossing Finsbury square, Mr. Sikes struck, by way of Chiswell Street, into Barbican: thence into Long Lane, and so into Smithfield; from which latter place arose a tumult of discordant sounds that filled Oliver Twist with amazement.

It was market-morning. [. . .] Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market [. . .]