Historical references to London's sounds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
 Beggars, hustlers and scavengers   1 1 1   2 3 1
 Street entertainers             2  
 Costermongers and street traders   1   2 1 5 2  
 Transport for hire   1 1          
 Quack doctors       1        
 Recruitment of workers     1     1    
 Work songs and music             1  
 Workplace cries and audible signals       1 1 2 3  
 Shops and shop staff         1   3  

Period referred to: 1712

Sound category: Economic > Beggars, hustlers and scavengers

Title of work: The Spectator

Type of publication: Journal

Author: Richard Steele

Year of publication: 1712

Page/volume number: 11 August 1712

A beggar in 18th-century Soho

The day of people of fashion began now to break, and carts and hacks were mingled with equipages of show and vanity; when I resolved to walk it out of cheapness; but my unhappy curiosity is such that I find it always my interest to take coach, for some old adventure among beggars, ballad-singers, or the like, detains and throws me into expense. It happened so immediately; for at the corner of Warwick Street, as I was listening to a new ballad, a ragged rascal, a beggar who knew me, came up to me, and began to turn the eyes of the good company upon me by telling me he was extreme poor, and should die in the streets for want of drink, except I immediately would have the charity to give him sixpence to go into the next alehouse and save his life. He urged, with a melancholy face, that all his family had died of thirst. All the mob have humour, and two or three began to take the jest; by which Mr. Sturdy carried his point, and let me sneak off to a coach.

Period referred to: 1820s

Sound category: Economic > Beggars, scavengers and hustlers

Title of work: Lavengro

Type of publication: Novel/memoir

Author: George Borrow

Year of publication: 1851

Page/volume number: Chapter XXIX

A conman tries a feeble scam in George Borrow’s Lavengro

"One-and-Ninepence, sir, or the things which you have brought with you will be taken away from you!"

Such were the first words which greeted my ears, one damp misty morning in March, as I dismounted from the top of a coach in the yard of a London inn.

I turned round, for I felt that the words were addressed to myself. Plenty of people were in the yard – porters, passengers, coachmen, ostlers, and others, who appeared to be intent on anything but myself, with the exception of one individual, whose business appeared to lie with me, and who now confronted me at the distance of about two yards.

I looked hard at the man – and a queer kind of individual he was to look at – a rakish figure, about thirty, and of the middle size, dressed in a coat smartly cut, but threadbare, very tight pantaloons of blue stuff, tied at the ankles, dirty white stockings and thin shoes, like those of a dancing-master; his features were not ugly, but rather haggard, and he appeared to owe his complexion less to nature than carmine; in fact, in every respect, a very queer figure.

"One-and-ninepence, sir, or your things will be taken away from you!" he said, in a kind of lisping tone, coming yet nearer to me.

I still remained staring fixedly at him, but never a word answered. Our eyes met; whereupon he suddenly lost the easy impudent air which he before wore. He glanced, for a moment, at my fist, which I had by this time clenched, and his features became yet more haggard; he faltered; a fresh "one-and-ninepence," which he was about to utter, died on his lips; he shrank back, disappeared behind a coach, and I saw no more of him.

"One-and-ninepence, or my things will be taken away from me!" said I to myself, musingly, as I followed the porter to whom I had delivered my scanty baggage; "am I to expect many of these greetings in the big world? Well, never mind! I think I know the counter-sign!" And I clenched my fist yet harder than before.

Period referred to: 1920s

Sound category: Economic > Beggars, hustlers and scavengers

Title of work: The Water Gipsies

Type of publication: Novel

Author: A. P. Herbert

Year of publication: 1930

Page/volume number: Chapter 7

Beggars at Epsom Races in A. P. Herbert’s The Water Gipsies

A gipsy woman with a baby sidled up to him and whimpered fluently, 'Something for the lucky baby, kind gentleman. Hold up, Lucky Mary, and show the gentleman your face. She'll bring you luck, sir; you'll never regret it. King George gave her a sixpence, sir, the day he won the Two Thousand Guineas. You've got a lucky face, sir; you'll have good fortune, sir – it's in your face. You'll have beautiful children, gentleman, and travel abroad. The lady's a lucky face too, sir. You'll be very happy. God bless you, sir. Say "Thank you," Lucky Mary.'

Mr Bell beamed happily when he heard that he had a lucky face, and gave Lucky Mary sixpence. His pockets were nearly empty, but his heart overflowed with the benevolence of a millionaire.

Photographers, tipsters, fortune-tellers, and ice-cream merchants clamoured for their custom. There was no time for photographs or fortunes. But when a man in a purple bowler hat came up to Mr Bell and said simply, 'Will you give me a shilling, sir?' without offering any services in return, Mr Bell could not refuse him. The man took off his hat and presented Mrs Higgins with a picture-postcard of the Duchess of York, and everyone was happy.

Period referred to: 1930a

Sound category: Economic > Hustlers, beggars and scavengers

Title of work: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Orwell

Year of publication: 1936

Page/volume number: Chapter 5

A beggar appears in Orwell’s Keeping the Aspidistra Flying

Outside Modigliani's they had paid off the taxi and were moving for the door when a big, lank wreck of a man seemed to spring up from the paving-stones in front of them. He stood across their path like some fawning beast, with dreadful eagerness and yet timorously, as though afraid that Ravelston would strike him. His face came close up to Ravelston's – a dreadful face, fish-white and scrubby-bearded to the eyes. The words 'A cup of tea, guv'nor!' were breathed through carious teeth. Ravelston shrank from him in disgust.

Period referred to: 1950s

Sound category: Economic > Beggars, hustlers and scavengers

Title of work: The Lonely Londoners

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Sam Selvon

Year of publication: 1956

Page/volume number: pp61-62, Penguin Modern Classics edition

A Caribbean writer describes elderly Londoners singing for money in the streets

The old fellars do that too, and sometimes they walk up a street in a plush area with their cap in their hand, and sing in a high falsetto, looking up at the high windows, where the high and mighty living, and now and then a window would open and somebody would throw down threepence or a tanner, and the old fellar have to watch it good else it roll in the road and get lost. Up in that fully furnished flat where the window open (rent bout ten or fifteen guineas, Lord) it must be have some woman that sleep late after a night at the Savoy or Dorchester, and she was laying under the warm quilt on the Simmons mattress, and she hear the test singing. No song or rhythm, just a sort of musical noise so nobody could say that he begging.

[. . .]

Or else, the old fellars go by the people that queueing up for the cinema. Not so much by the one and sixes and two and nines, but by the three and twos and four shillings. And some of them old fellars so brazen that though it against the law to beg they passing the old cap around, and if they see a policeman they begin to sing or play a old mouthorgan.

Period referred to: 1850s

Sound category: Economic > Beggars, hustlers and scavengers

Title of work: London Labour and the London Poor

Type of publication: Social study

Author: Henry Mayhew

Year of publication: 1851

Page/volume number: Volume 1

Henry Mayhew describes the lot of the Thames mud-larks

The mud-larks themselves, however, know only those who reside near them, and whom they are accustomed to meet in their daily pursuits; indeed, with but few exceptions, these people are dull, and apparently stupid; this is observable particularly among the boys and girls, who, when engaged in searching the mud, hold but little converse one with another. The men and women may be passed and repassed, but they notice no one; they never speak, but with a stolid look of wretchedness they plash their way through the mire [. . .]

Period referred to: 1380s

Sound category: Economic > Beggars and hustlers

Title of work: City of London Letter-Book

Type of publication: Manuscript

Author: Unknown

Year of publication: 1380

Page/volume number: n/a

‘They making a horrible noise, like unto a roaring,
and opening their mouths’

On the 24th day of October, in the 4th year of Richard II, John Warde, of the County of York, and Richard Lynham, of the County of Somerset, two impostors, were brought to the Hall of the Guildhall of London, before John Hadless, Mayor, the Aldermen, and the Sheriffs, and questioned for that, whereas they were stout enough to work for their food and rainment, and had their tongues to talk with, they, the same John Warde and Richard Lynham, did there pretend that they were mutes and had been deprived of their tongues; and went about in divers places of the city aforesaid [. . .] they making a horrible noise, like unto a roaring, and opening their mouths; where it seemed to all who examined the same, that their tongues had been cut off [. . .]

Period referred to: End of 17th century

Sound category: Economic > Beggars and hustlers

Title of work: The London Spy

Type of publication: Journal/Social investigation

Author: Ned Ward

Year of publication: 1690-1700

Page/volume number: Chapter I

Ned Ward and friend escape the attentions of confidence tricksters

As soon as we came near the bar, a thing started up, all ribbons, lace and feathers, and made such a noise with her bell and her tongue together that had half a dozen paper-mills been at work within three yards of her, they'd have signify'd no more to her clamorous voice than so many lutes to a drum. This alarmed two or three nimble-heel'd fellows aloft, who shot themselves downstairs with as much celerity as a mountebank's Mercury upon a rope from the top of a church steeple, every one charged with a mouthful of 'Coming! Coming!'

[. . .]

All our empty plates and dishes were, in an instant, changed into full quarts of purple nectar and unsullied glasses. Then a bumper to the Queen led the van to our good wishes, another to the Church Established, a third was left to the whimsy of the toaster, till at last their slippery engines of verbosity coin'd nonsense with such a facile fluency [. . .] Oaths were plenty as weeds in an almshouse garden, and in triumph flew about from one to t'other like squibs and crackers in Cheapside [. . .] But, thanks to good fortune, my friend in a little time redeemed me out of this purgatory; perceiving my uneasiness, he made an apology for our going, and so we took our leaves.

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Economic > Beggars and hustlers

Title of work: Down and Out in Paris and London

Type of publication: Aubiography/Social investigation

Author: George Orwell

Year of publication: 1933

Page/volume number: Chapter XXXI

A pavement artist describes the street photographers’ scam to Orwell

The most prosperous beggars are street acrobats and street photographers. On a good pitch – a theatre queue, for instance – a street acrobat will often earn five pounds a week. Street photographers can earn about the same, but they are dependent on fine weather. They have a cunning dodge to stimulate trade. When they see a likely victim approaching one of them runs behind the camera and pretends to take a photograph. Then as the victim reaches them, they exclaim: 'There y'are, sir, took yer photo lovely. That'll be a bob.'

'But I never asked you to take it,' protests the victim.

'What, you didn't want it took? Why, we thought you signalled with your 'and. Well, there's a plate wasted! That's cost us sixpence, that 'as.'

At this the victim usually takes pity and says he will have the photo after all. The photographers examine the plate and say that it is spoiled, and that they will take a fresh one free of charge. Of course, they have not really taken the first photo; and so, if the victim refuses, they waste nothing.