Historical references to London's sounds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: 1895

Sound category: Ambient > Road traffic

Title of work: Tales of Mean Streets

Type of publication: Journalism

Author: Arthur Morrison

Year of publication: 1895

Page/volume number: To Bow Bridge

On the Stratford to Bow tram

The eleven-five tram-car from Stratford started for Bow a trifle before its time. The conductor knew what he might escape by stealing a march on the closing public-houses; as also what was in store for all the conductors in his wake, till there were no more revellers left to swarm the cars. For it was Saturday night, and many a week's wages were a-knocking down; and the publicans this side of Bow Bridge shut their doors at eleven under Act of Parliament, whereas beyond the Bridge, which is the county of London, the law gives them another hour, and a man may drink many pots therein. And for this, at eleven every Saturday, there is a great rush westward, a vast migration over Lea, from all the length of High Street. From the nearer parts they walk, or do their best to walk; but from further Stratford, by the Town Hall, the Church, and the Martyrs' Memorial, they crowd the cars.

[. . .]

A quiet mechanic came in, and sat near a decent woman with children, a bundle, a basket, and a cabbage. Thirty yards on the car rumbled, and suddenly its hinder end was taken in a mass of people—howling, struggling, and blaspheming—who stormed and wrangled in at the door and up the stairs. There were lads and men whooping and flushed, there were girls and women screaming choruses; and in a moment the seats were packed, knees were taken, and there was not an inch of standing room. The conductor cried, "All full!" and tugged at his bell-strap, whereunto many were hanging by the hand; but he was swept from his feet, and made to push hard for his own place. And there was no more foothold on the back platform nor the front, nor any vacant step upon the stairway; and the roof was thronged; and the rest of the crowd was fain to waylay the next car.

This one moved off slowly, with shrieks and howls that were racking to the wits. From divers quarters of the roof came a bumping thunder as of cellar-flapping clogs. Profanity was sluiced down, as it were by pailfuls, from above, and was swilled back as it were in pailfuls from below. Blowses in feathered bonnets bawled hilarious obscenity at the jiggers. A little maid with a market-basket, hustled and jostled and elbowed at the far end, listened eagerly and laughed when she could understand; and the quiet mechanic, whose knees had been invaded by an unsteady young woman in a crushed hat, tried to look pleased. My own knees were saved from capture by the near neighborhood of an enormous female, seated partly on the seat and partly on myself, snorting and gulping with sleep, her head upon the next man's shoulder. (To offer your seat to a standing woman would, as beseems a foreign antic, have been visited by the ribaldry of the whole crowd.) In the midst of the riot the decent woman sat silent and indifferent, her children on and about her knees. Further along, two women ate fish with their fingers and discoursed personalities in voices which ran strident through the uproar, as the odor of their snack asserted itself in the general fetor. And opposite the decent woman there sat a bonnetless drab, who said nothing, but looked at the decent woman's children as a shoeless brat looks at the dolls in a toyshop window.

"So I ses to 'er, I ses"—this from the snacksters—"I'm a respectable married woman, I ses. More'n you can say, you barefaced hussey, I ses—" Then a shower of curses, a shout, and a roar of laughter; and the conductor, making slow and laborious progress with the fares nearest him, turned his head. A man had jumped upon the footboard and a passenger's toes. A scuffle and a fight, and both had rolled off into the mire, and got left behind. "Ain't they fond o' one another?" cried a girl. "They're a-goin' for a walk together;" and there was a guffaw. "The silly bleeders'll be too late for the pubs," said a male voice; and there was another, for the general understanding was touched.

Then—an effect of sympathy, perhaps—a scuffle broke out on the roof. But this disturbed not the insides. The conductor went on his plaguy task: to save time, he passed over the one or two that, asked now or not, seemed likely to pay at the journey's end. The snacking women resumed their talk, the choristers their singing; the rumble of the wheels was lost in a babel of vacant ribaldry; the enormous woman choked and gasped and snuggled lower down upon her neighbor's shoulder; and the shabby strumpet looked at the children.

A man by the door vomited his liquor: whereat was more hilarity, and his neighbors, with many yaups, shoved further up the middle. But one of the little ones, standing before her mother, was pushed almost to falling; and the harlot, seeing her chance, snatched the child upon her knee. The child looked up, something in wonder, and smiled; and the woman leered as honestly as she might, saying a hoarse word or two.

Presently the conflict overhead, waxing and waning to an accompaniment of angry shouts, afforded another brief diversion to those within, and something persuaded the standing passengers to shove toward the door. The child had fallen asleep in the street-walker's arms. "Jinny!" cried the mother, reaching forth and shaking her. "Jinny! wake up now—you mustn't go to sleep." And she pulled the little thing from her perch to where she had been standing.

The bonnetless creature bent forward, and, in her curious voice (like that of one sick with shouting), "She can set on my knee, m'm, if she likes," she said; "she's tired."

The mother busied herself with a jerky adjustment of the child's hat and shawl. "She mustn't go to sleep," was all she said, sharply, and without looking up.

The hoarse woman bent further forward, with a propitiatory grin. "'Ow old is she?... I'd like to—give 'er a penny."

The mother answered nothing; but drew the child close by the side of her knee, where a younger one was sitting, and looked steadily through the fore windows.

The hoarse woman sat back, unquestioning and unresentful, and turned her eyes upon them that were crowding over the conductor; for the car was rising over Bow Bridge. Front and back they surged down from the roof, and the insides made for the door as one man. The big woman's neighbor rose, and let her fall over on the seat, whence, awaking with a loud grunt and an incoherent curse, she rolled after the rest. The conductor, clamant and bedevilled, was caught between the two pell-mells, and, demanding fares and gripping his satchel, was carried over the footboard in the rush. The stramash overhead came tangled and swearing down the stairs, gaining volume and force in random punches as it came; and the crowd on the pavement streamed vocally toward a brightness at the bridge foot—the lights of the Bombay Grab.

The woman with the children waited till the footboard was clear, and then, carrying one child and leading another (her marketings attached about her by indeterminate means), she set the two youngsters on the pavement, leaving the third on the step of the car. The harlot, lingering, lifted the child again—lifted her rather high—and set her on the path with the others. Then she walked away toward the Bombay Grab. A man in a blue serge suit was footing it down the turning between the public-house and the bridge with drunken swiftness and an intermittent stagger; and, tightening her shawl, she went in chase.

The quiet mechanic stood and stretched himself, and took a corner seat near the door; and the tram-car, quiet and vacant, bumped on westward.

Period referred to: 1880s

Sound category: Ambient > Road traffic

Title of work: The Nether World

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Gissing

Year of publication: 1889

Page/volume number: Chapter XXXVIII

A horse-drawn cab on Pentonville Hill

Having a few shillings in her pocket, she took a cab at King's Cross and bade the driver drive his hardest to Clerkenwell Close. Up Pentonville Hill panted the bony horse, Clem swearing all the time because it could go no quicker. But the top was reached; she shouted to the man to whip, whip! By the time they pulled up at Mrs. Peckover's house Clem herself perspired as profusely as the animal.

Period referred to: 1850s

Sound category: Ambient > Road traffic

Title of work: Bleak House

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Charles Dickens

Year of publication: 1853

Page/volume number: Chapter VI

Horse-bells heard on the outskirts of London in Bleak House

By and by we began to leave the wonderful city and to proceed through suburbs which, of themselves, would have made a pretty large town in my eyes; and at last we got into a real country road again, with windmills, rick-yards, milestones, farmers' waggons, scents of old hay, swinging signs, and horse troughs: trees, fields, and hedge-rows. It was delightful to see the green landscape before us and the immense metropolis behind; and when a waggon with a train of beautiful horses, furnished with red trappings and clear-sounding bells, came by us with its music, I believe we could all three have sung to the bells, so cheerful were the influences around.

"The whole road has been reminding me of my namesake Whittington," said Richard, "and that waggon is the finishing touch. Halloa! What's the matter?"

We had stopped, and the waggon had stopped too. Its music changed as the horses came to a stand, and subsided to a gentle tinkling, except when a horse tossed his head or shook himself and sprinkled off a little shower of bell-ringing.

Period referred to: 1820s

Sound category: Ambient > Animal- and engine-powered traffic

Title of work: Lavengro

Type of publication: Autobiography

Author: George Borrow

Year of publication: 1851

Page/volume number: Unknown

‘Oh the cracking of whips, the shouts and oaths of the carters’

Thousands of human beings were pouring over [London] bridge. But what chiefly struck my attention was a double row of carts and wagons, the generality drawn by horses as large as elephants, each row striving in a different direction, and not infrequently brought to a standstill. Oh the cracking of whips, the shouts and oaths of the carters, and the grating of wheels upon the enormous stones that formed the pavement!