Historical references to London's sounds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
 Hue-and-cry     1 4 2      
 Laws, curfews and control of crowds   2 1 2        
 Sentries and nightwatchmen   1 2       1  
 Public executions     2 2 1      
 Courts of law       2        
 Prison regimes       1 1      
 Other legal proceedings           1    
 Sounds of crime     1          

Period referred to: 15th century

Sound category: Authority > Sentries and nightwatchmen

Title of work: Knight's London

Type of publication: History and gazetteer

Author: Charles Knight

Year of publication: 1841

Page/volume number: Chapter VI

The cries of nightwatchmen

It is curious, in these our own days of police and gas-lights, to look back to the means by which the safety and preservation of the city were secured. The watchman had gradually been transformed from a sturdy constable in harness into a venerable personage bearing halberd and lanthorn. It was the business of this reverend person to make the cry inscribed under the figure of the watchman here given ['Lanthorn and a whole candle light! Hang out your lights! Hear!']. He had to deal with deaf listeners, and he therefore proclaimed with a voice of command, "Lanthorn!" But a lanthorn alone was a body without a soul; and he therefore demanded "a whole candle." To this the vital spark was to be given, and he continued to exclaim, "light." To render the mandate less individually oppressive, he went on to cry, "Hang out your lights!" And that even the sleepers might sleep no more, he ended with "Hear!"

We are told by the chroniclers that, as early as 1416, the Mayor, Sir Henry Barton, ordered lanthorns and lights to be hanged out on the winter evenings, betwixt Allhallows and Candlemas. For three centuries this practice subsisted, constantly evaded, no doubt, through the avarice and poverty of individuals, sometimes probably disused altogether, but still the custom of London up to the time of Queen Anne. The cry of the watchman, "hang out your light," was an exhortation to the negligent, which probably they answered only by snores, equally indifferent to their own safety and the public preservation. A worthy mayor in the time of Queen Mary provided the watchman with a bell, with which instrument he accompanied the music of his own voice down to the days of the Commonwealth. The "Statutes of the Streets," in the time of Elizabeth, were careful enough for the preservation of silence in some things. They prescribed that "no man shall blow any horn in the night, or whistle after the hour of nine of the clock in the night, under pain of imprisonment;" and, what was a harder thing to keep, they also forbad a man to make any "sudden outcry in the still of the night, as making any affray, or beating his wife." Yet a privileged man was to go about knocking at doors and ringing his alarum – an intolerable nuisance if he did what he was ordered to do.

But the watchmen were, no doubt, wise in their generation. With honest Dogberry, they could not "see how sleeping should offend;" and after the watch was set, they probably agreed to go sit upon the church bench till two, and then all to bed. Dekker, however, describes the bellman as a person of some activity "the child of darkness; a common night-walker, a man that had no man to wait upon him, but only a dog; one that was a disordered person, and at midnight would beat at men's doors, bidding them (in mere mockery) to look to their candles, when they themselves were in their dead sleeps." Stow says that in Queen Mary's day one of each ward "began to go all night with a bell, and at every lane's end, and at the ward's end, gave warning of fire and candle, and to help the poor, and pray for the dead."

Period referred to: 1900s

Sound category: Authority > Sentries and nightwatchmen

Title of work: IInside Out: An Essay in the Psychology and Aesthetic Appeal of Space

Type of publication: Essay

Author: Adrian Stokes

Year of publication: 1947

Page/volume number:

The sounds of park-keepers’ whistles in Hyde Park

The keepers had boxes scattered in the park, so that their emergence could have something of the suddenness associated with the paratroop whose landing has not been observed. The keepers carried whistles. Emergence from a telephone booth is always associated by me with the fingering of something tucked away on one side of the chest, a cold, punishing little organ that it was a positive duty to handle. When a park whistle was blown near the fountains, the shrill sound seemed to travel on an eagle journey, piercing the water pellets whose clattering was considerable. In fact, you had to shout to make yourself heard near the fountains.

Period referred to: 1680s

Sound category: Authority > Sentries and nightwatchmen

Title of work: A Copy of Verses presented by Isaac Ragg, Bellman, to his Masters and Mistresses of Holbourn Division, in the parish of St. Giles's-in-the-Fields.

Type of publication: Printed broadside

Author: Isaac Ragg

Year of publication: 1683-84

Page/volume number: N/A

Printed bellman’s verse, as sung or spoken to householders

Time, Master, calls your bellman to his task,
To see your doors and windows are all fast,
And that no villany or foul crime be done
To you or yours in absence of the sun.
If any base lurker I do meet,
In private alley or in open street,
You shall have warning by my timely call,
And so God bless you and give rest to all.

[A bellman's verse was typically sung or spoken by the bellman or nightwatchman in his ward, perhaps at Christmas, in the hope of receiving tips from householders. Some verses were printed as broadsides. The expression 'Bellman's verse' became synonymous with doggerel.]

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Authority and public order > Sentries and nightwatchmen

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1660

Page/volume number: January 1660

‘I staid up till the bell-man came by with his bell just under my window ‘

I staid up till the bell-man came by with his bell just under my window as I was writing of this very line, and cried, "Past one of the clock, and a cold, frosty, windy morning."