Historical references to London's sounds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: 1716

Sound category: Authority > Public executions

Title of work: Diary of Dudley Ryder

Type of publication: Private diary

Author: Dudley Ryder

Year of publication: 1716

Page/volume number: 24 February 1716

The execution of the Jacobite James Radclyffe, Earl of Derwentwater

Lord Derwentwater was executed first. After he was brought upon the stage and was saluted by several officers and others that were there, he prayed and spoke to them and told them, as I am informed, that since he was to die he was sorry he pleaded guilty, for he was an innocent man, for he knew no king but King James III. He was a papist and therefore had no priest along with him. He seemed to behave himself very well and made his exit decently enough, though with but a melancholy and pious aspect. The executioner struck off his head at one blow and then held it in his hand and showed it to the people and said, 'Here is the head of the traitor. God bless King George!' His head and body were wrapped in a black cloth and put into the coach in which he came and carried back to the Tower. There was no disturbance made at all, while the mob were as quiet as lambs, nor did there seem to be any face of sorrow among the multitude.

Period referred to: Mid 18th century

Sound category: Authority > Public executions

Title of work: Familiar Letters on Important Occasions

Type of publication: Letter

Author: Samuel Richardson

Year of publication: c. 1745

Page/volume number: Not known

Samuel Richardson describes a hanging at Tyburn

The exhortation spoken by the bell-man [accompanying the condemned men], from the wall at St Sepulchre's churchyard, is well intended; but the noise of the officers, and the mob, was so great, and the silly curiosity of people climbing into the cart to take leave of the criminals, made such a confused noise, that I could not heard the words of the exhortation when spoken; tho' they are as follows:

All good people pray heartily to God for these poor sinners, who now are going to their deaths; for whom this great bell doth toll. You that are condemned to die, repent with lamentable tears. Ask mercy of the Lord for the salvation of your own souls, thro' the merits, death, and passion, of Jesus Christ, who now sits at the right-hand of God, to make intercession for as many of you as penitently return unto him. Lord have mercy upon you! Christ have mercy upon you! – which last words the bell-man repeats three times.

[. . .]

At the place of execution, the scene grew still more shocking; and the clergyman who attended was more the subject of ridicule, than of their serious attention. The psalm was sung amidst the curses and quarrelling of hundreds of the most abandoned and profligate of mankind [. . .]

Period referred to: 1840s

Sound category: Authority > Public executions

Title of work: Going to see a Man Hanged

Type of publication: Article in Fraser's Magazine

Author: William Thackeray

Year of publication: 1840

Page/volume number: n/a

Thackeray witnesses a hanging at Newgate

What good sense and intelligence have most of the people by whom you are surrounded; how much sound humour does one hear bandied about from one to another! A great number of coarse phrases are used, that would make ladies in drawing-rooms blush; but the morals of the men are good and hearty. A ragamuffin in the crowd (a powdery baker in a white sheep's-wool cap) uses some indecent expression to a woman near: there is an instant cry of shame, which silences the man, and a dozen people are ready to give the woman protection.

[. . .]

The character of the crowd was as yet, however, quite festive. Jokes bandying about here and there, and jolly laughs breaking out. Some men were endeavouring to climb up a leaden pipe on one of the houses. The landlord came out, and endeavoured with might and main to pull them down. Many thousand eyes turned upon this contest immediately. All sorts of voices issued from the crowd, and uttered choice expressions of slang. When one of the men was pulled down by the leg, the waves of this black mob-ocean laughed innumerably; when one fellow slipped away, scrambled up the pipe, and made good his lodgment on the shelf, we were all made happy, and encouraged him by loud shouts of admiration.

[. . .]

As the clock began to strike, an immense sway and movement swept over the whole of that vast dense crowd. They were all uncovered directly, and a great murmur arose, more awful, bizarre, and indescribable than any sound I had ever before heard. Women and children began to shriek horribly.

I don't know whether it was the bell I heard; but a dreadful quick feverish kind of jangling noise mingled with the noise of the people, and lasted for about two minutes. The scaffold stood before us, tenantless and black; the black chain was hanging down ready from the beam. Nobody came. "He has been respited," some one said; another said, "He has killed himself in prison."

Just then, from under the black prison-door, a pale quiet head peered out. It was shockingly bright and distinct; it rose up directly, and a man in black appeared on the scaffold, and was silently followed by about four more dark figures. The first was a tall grave man: we all knew who the second man was. "That's he -- that's he!" you heard the people say, as the devoted man came up.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Authority > Public executions

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1662

Page/volume number: 14 June 1662

‘And the trumpets were brought under the scaffold
that he might not be heard’

Then we sat down to business, and about 11 o'clock, having a room got ready for us, we all went out to the Tower-hill; and there, over against the scaffold, made on purpose this day, saw Sir Henry Vane brought.

A very great press of people. He made a long speech, many times interrupted by the Sheriff and others there; and they would have taken his paper out of his hand, but he would not let it go. But they caused all the books of those that writ after him to be given the Sheriff; and the trumpets were brought under the scaffold that he might not be heard. Then he prayed, and so fitted himself, and received the blow; but the scaffold was so crowded that we could not see it done. But Boreman, who had been upon the scaffold, came to us and told us, that first he began to speak of the irregular proceeding against him; that he was, against Magna Charta, denied to have his exceptions against the indictment allowed; and that there he was stopped by the Sheriff. Then he drew out his, paper of notes, and begun to tell them first his life; that he was born a gentleman, that he was bred up and had the quality of a gentleman, and to make him in the opinion of the world more a gentleman, he had been, till he was seventeen years old, a good fellow, but then it pleased God to lay a foundation of grace in his heart, by which he was persuaded, against his worldly interest, to leave all preferment and go abroad, where he might serve God with more freedom.

Then he was called home, and made a member of the Long Parliament; where he never did, to this day, any thing against his conscience, but all for the glory of God. Here he would have given them an account of the proceedings of the Long Parliament, but they so often interrupted him, that at last he was forced to give over: and so fell into prayer for England in generall, then for the churches in England, and then for the City of London: and so fitted himself for the block, and received the blow. He had a blister, or issue, upon his neck, which he desired them not hurt: he changed not his colour or speech to the last, but died justifying himself and the cause he had stood for; and spoke very confidently of his being presently at the right hand of Christ; and in all, things appeared the most resolved man that ever died in that manner, and showed more of heat than cowardize, but yet with all humility and gravity. One asked him why he did not pray for the King. He answered, "Nay," says he, "you shall see I can pray for the King: I pray God bless him!"

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Authority and public order > Public executions

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1660

Page/volume number: October 1660

Execution of the regicide General Thomas Harrison

To my Lord's in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn; and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.