Historical references to London's sounds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: Early 1900s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: East End Underworld: Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding

Type of publication: Biography

Author: Raphael Samuel

Year of publication: 1981

Page/volume number: Not known

Exploding petrol bottles start a stampede around Brick Lane

One Sunday there was a disaster. We were playing in Sclater Street, just next to a jellied-eel stall . . . a fight started. Some of the barrows had bottles of petrol and when the fighting spread they got knocked over. 'Bang! Bang! Bang' people thought they were guns. The cry went up, 'They're shooting,' and that started a stampede. It was 1911, the time of Sidney Street, and everyone thought it was the anarchists and the police. There was a terrific rush to get away. Near by in Club Row was the great bird market and thousands of birds were trampled underfoot. The stampede broke out like a wheel, with people running in all directions to get away. A couple of people were killed.

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: Coming up for Air

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Orwell

Year of publication: 1939

Page/volume number: Part 4, Chapter 6

A bomb drops on a high street in Orwell’s Coming Up for Air

But the next moment – ah!


A noise like the Day of Judgment, and then a noise like a ton of coal falling on to a sheet of tin. That was falling bricks. I seemed to kind of melt into the pavement. 'It's started,' I thought. 'I knew it! Old Hitler didn't wait. Just sent his bombers across without warning.'

And yet here's a peculiar thing. Even in the echo of that awful, deafening crash, which seemed to freeze me up from top to toe, I had time to think that there's something grand about the bursting of a big projectile. What does it sound like? It's hard to say, because what you hear is mixed up with what you're frightened of. Mainly it gives you a vision of bursting metal. You seem to see great sheets of iron bursting open. But the peculiar thing is the feeling it gives you of being suddenly shoved up against reality. It's like being woken up by somebody shying a bucket of water over you. You're suddenly dragged out of your dreams by a clang of bursting metal, and it's terrible, and it's real.

There was a sound of screams and yells, and also of car brakes being suddenly jammed on. The second bomb which I was waiting for didn't fall. I raised my head a little. On every side people seemed to be rushing round and screaming. A car was skidding diagonally across the road, I could hear a woman's voice shrieking, 'The Germans! The Germans!'

[. . .]

The bomb had dropped in a little side-street off the High Street, the one where Uncle Ezekiel used to have his shop. It wasn't fifty yards from where the shop used to be. As I came round the corner I could hear voices murmuring 'Oo-oo!' – kind of awed noise, as if they were frightened and getting a big kick out of it. [. . .] But in among the broken crockery there was lying a leg. Just a leg, with the trouser still on it and a black boot with a Wood-Milne rubber heel. This was what people were oo-ing and ah-ing at.

Period referred to: 1940s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: Few Oranges and No Eggs

Type of publication: Diary/Autobiography

Author: Winifred Vere Hodgson

Year of publication: 1944

Page/volume number: July 1944

Accounts of V-1 rockets in Winifred Vere Hodgson’s wartime diary

Monday, just as I had had lunch in the flat and was going to shop – a bumble sounded near. We all gathered in the front hall. Terrific explosion shook the house. [. . .] One listens fascinated to the Doodle Bugs passing over, holding one’s breath, praying they will travel on, but feeling a wretched cad, because you know that means they will explode on someone else.

Period referred to: 1940s

Sound category: Ambient > Plague, war and disaster

Title of work: Tribune

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: George Orwell

Year of publication: 1944

Page/volume number: 'As I Please', 7 July 1944

A V-1 rocket flies overhead in a sketch by George Orwell

Life in the civilized world.
(The family are at tea.)
‘Is there an alert on?’
‘No, it’s all clear.’
‘I thought there was an alert on.’
‘There’s another of those things coming!’
‘It’s all right, it’s miles away.’
‘Look out, here it comes! Under the table, quick!’
‘It’s all right, it’s getting fainter.’
‘It’s coming back!’
‘They seem to kind of circle round and come back again. They’ve got something on their tails that makes them do it. Like a torpedo.’
‘Christ! It’s right overhead!’
Dead silence.
‘Now get right underneath. Keep your head well down. What a mercy baby isn’t here!’
‘Look at the cat! He’s frightened too.’
‘Of course animals know. They can feel the vibrations.’
‘It’s all right, I told you it was miles away.’
(Tea continues.)