Historical references to London's sounds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: 1880s

Sound category: Ambient > Communal life and confinement

Title of work: Thackeray's London

Type of publication: London literary guide

Author: William Rideing

Year of publication: 1885

Page/volume number: Chatper III

Life at the Merchant Taylors’ School in Smithfield

They [the walls] are sepawhen I was there in the Easter vacation these open spaces were vacant, and the brisk twittering of the sparrows was the only sound that came from them. The quiet seemed all the greater, inasmuch as all around the walls is a busy neighbourhood, full of traffic and voices.

[. . .]

The dining-hall of the poor brethren has wainscoting from twelve to twenty feet high [. . . ] Here almost side by side, these boys with life untried before them and the old men well-nigh at their journey's end, ate the bread provided for them by their common benefactor, and joined voices in thanksgiving; here still the old pensioners assemble, and in trembling voices murmur grace over the provision made for them.

Period referred to: 1870s

Sound category: Ambient > Communal living and confinement

Title of work: Low-Life Deeps

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: James Greenwood

Year of publication: 1875

Page/volume number: Chapter 12

The regime of silence in a women’s prison

Personally I can vouch for one, where a wretched human waif, too young to know the use of his feet, or indeed to have a single tooth in its head, had the audacity to set at open defiance, and on his own premises, the governor of one of the largest prisons in the kingdom – defied him, cried him down, and mocked his pride and vaunting to the level of the dust. It was at the time when the silent system as applied to criminals was regarded as a radical cure for every shade of iniquity brought under its influence. I walked over his model establishment with the worthy governor, and when we came to that part where the women – over two hundred of them – were bestowed, he beckoned me to tread softly, and come and stand by him on a mat. He was a big man, but he appeared several inches bigger, as, swelling with the pride of power, he whispered,

"Here, sir, I am happy to introduce you to the very perfection of our grand system. Within fifty yards all about you are more than two hundred prisoners, all women – mark that, if you please, – and not a sound!"

And he straightened the crooked finger with which he had been emphasising his remarks, and held it above his head as a signal for me to listen. Barely had he done so, however, when a lusty shout, a yell, a "yah!" burst from a neighbouring cell, and made the vaulted roof ring again. I never saw a man so visibly collapse in all my life. The lofty finger was ignominiously lowered, and he coughed and turned about that I might not see his troubled countenance,

"Ahem! that's one of the babies born here, sir; we can't, of course, be responsible for their noise."

Period referred to: Early 1900s

Sound category: Ambient > Communal living and confinement

Title of work: The People of the Abyss

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: Jack London

Year of publication: 1903

Page/volume number: Chapter 9

Jack London spends the night in a doss-house

Many hours passed before I won to sleep. It was only seven in the evening, and the voices of children, in shrill outcry, playing in the street, continued till nearly midnight. The smell was frightful and sickening, while my imagination broke loose, and my skin crept and crawled till I was nearly frantic. Grunting, groaning, and snoring arose like the sounds emitted by some sea monster, and several times, afflicted by nightmare, one or another, by his shrieks and yells, aroused the lot of us. Toward morning I was awakened by a rat or some similar animal on my breast. In the quick transition from sleep to waking, before I was completely myself, I raised a shout to wake the dead. At any rate, I woke the living, and they cursed me roundly for my lack of manners.

Period referred to: Early 20th century

Sound category: Ambient > Communal living and confinement

Title of work: The People of the Abyss

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: Jack London

Year of publication: 1903

Page/volume number: Chapter 6

A dying boy’s tubercular coughing

There were seven rooms in this abomination called a house. In six of the rooms, twenty-odd people, of both sexes and all ages, cooked, ate, slept, and worked. In size the rooms averaged eight feet by eight, or possibly nine. The seventh room we entered. It was the den in which five men “sweated.” It was seven feet wide by eight long, and the table at which the work was performed took up the major portion of the space. On this table were five lasts, and there was barely room for the men to stand to their work, for the rest of the space was heaped with cardboard, leather, bundles of shoe uppers, and a miscellaneous assortment of materials used in attaching the uppers of shoes to their soles.

In the adjoining room lived a woman and six children. In another vile hole lived a widow, with an only son of sixteen who was dying of consumption. The woman hawked sweetmeats on the street, I was told, and more often failed than not to supply her son with the three quarts of milk he daily required. Further, this son, weak and dying, did not taste meat oftener than once a week; and the kind and quality of this meat cannot possibly be imagined by people who have never watched human swine eat.

“The w’y ’e coughs is somethin’ terrible,” volunteered my sweated friend, referring to the dying boy. “We ’ear ’im ’ere, w’ile we’re workin’, an’ it’s terrible, I say, terrible!”

Period referred to: 1720s

Sound category: Ambient > Sounds of communal life and confinement

Title of work: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Daniel Defoe

Year of publication: 1722

Page/volume number: n/a

The morning of a Newgate execution in Moll Flanders

But I go on with my relation. The next morning there was a sad scene indeed in the prison. The first thing I was saluted with in the morning was the tolling of the great bell at St. Sepulchre's, as they call it, which ushered in the day. As soon as it began to toll, a dismal groaning and crying was heard from the condemned hole, where there lay six poor souls who were to be executed that day, some from one crime, some for another, and two of them for murder.

This was followed by a confused clamour in the house, among the several sorts of prisoners, expressing their awkward sorrows for the poor creatures that were to die, but in a manner extremely differing one from another. Some cried for them; some huzzaed, and wished them a good journey; some damned and cursed those that had brought them to it—that is, meaning the evidence, or prosecutors—many pitying them, and some few, but very few, praying for them.

Period referred to: End of the 17th century

Sound category: Ambient > Communal living and confinement

Title of work: A London Spy

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: Ned Ward

Year of publication: 1698-1700

Page/volume number: Unknown

Ned Ward visits Bedlam lunatic asylum

Accordingly we were admitted through an iron gate, within which sat a brawny Cerberus of an indigo colour, leaning upon a money-box. We turned in through another iron barricade, where we heard such a rattling of chains, drumming of doors, ranting, holloaing, singing and rattling, that I could think of nothing but Don Quevado's vision, where the damned broke loose, and put Hell in an uproar.

[. . .]

We then moved on till we found another remarkable figure worth our observing, who was peeping through his wicket, eating bread and cheese, and talking all the while like a carrier at his supper, chewing his words with his victuals. All that he spoke was in praise of bread and cheese. Bread was good with cheese, and cheese was good with bread, and bread and cheese was good together, and abundance of such stuff, to which my friend and others stood listening.

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Ambient > Communal sleeping places

Title of work: Down and Out in Paris and London

Type of publication: Autobiographical/Social investigation

Author: George Orwell

Year of publication: 1933

Page/volume number: Chapter XXIV

Orwell spends the night in a common lodging-house

Several noises recurred throughout the night. About once in an hour the man on my left – a sailor, I think – woke up, swore vilely, and lighted a cigarette. Another man, victim of a bladder disease, got up and noisily used his chamber-pot half a dozen times during the night. The man in the corner had a coughing fit once in every twenty minutes, so regularly that one came to listen for it as one listens for the next yap when a dog is baying the moon. It was an unspeakably repellent sound; a foul bubbling and retching, as though the man's bowels were being churned up within him. [. . .] Every time he coughed or the other man swore, a sleepy voice from one of the other beds cried out:

'Shut up! Oh, for Christ's — sake shut up!'

I had about an hour's sleep in all.