Historical references to London's sounds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: 1890s

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

Title of work: The Great God Pan

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Arthur Machen

Year of publication: 1894

Page/volume number: Chapter VI

The cries of newsboys in Piccadilly

"So you might; that never occurred to me. We might send it now. Hark! what are those boys calling?"

While the two men had been talking together a confused noise of shouting had been gradually growing louder. The noise rose from the eastward and swelled down Piccadilly, drawing nearer and nearer, a very torrent of sound; surging up streets usually quiet, and making every window a frame for a face, curious or excited. The cries and voices came echoing up the silent street where Villiers lived, growing more distinct as they advanced, and, as Villiers spoke, an answer rang up from the pavement:

"The West End Horrors; Another Awful Suicide; Full Details!"

Austin rushed down the stairs and bought a paper and read out the paragraph to Villiers as the uproar in the street rose and fell. The window was open and the air seemed full of noise and terror.

Period referred to: 1888

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

Title of work: The Lodger

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Marie Belloc Lowndes

Year of publication: 1913

Page/volume number: Chapter XII

Newspaper-sellers’ cries at the time of Jack the Ripper

And then the strangest smile came over Mrs. Bunting's face. There had fallen on her ear the still distant, but unmistakable, shouts which betokened that something had happened last night – something which made it worth while for the newspaper-sellers to come crying down the Marylebone Road.

"Well?" she said a little breathlessly. "Well, Joe? I suppose you've brought us news? I suppose there's been another?"

He looked at her, surprised. "No, that there hasn't, Mrs. Bunting – not as far as I know, that is. Oh, you're thinking of those newspaper chaps? They've got to cry out something," he grinned. "You wouldn't 'a thought folk was so bloodthirsty. They're just shouting out that there's been an arrest; but we don't take no stock of that. It's a Scotchman what gave himself up last night at Dorking. He'd been drinking, and was a-pitying of himself. Why, since this business began, there's been about twenty arrests, but they've all come to nothing."

Period referred to: 1709

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street sellers

Title of work: A Description of the Morning

Type of publication: Poem

Author: Jonathan Swift

Year of publication: 1709

Page/volume number: n/a

Street sellers’ cries in early 18th century London

Now hardly here and there a hackney-coach
Appearing, showed the ruddy morn's approach.
Now Betty from her master's bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own;
The slip-shod 'prentice from his master's door
Had pared the dirt and sprinkled round the floor.
Now Moll had whirled her mop with dext'rous airs,
Prepared to scrub the entry and the stairs.
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace
The kennel-edge, where wheels had worn the place,
The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep,
Till drowned in shriller notes of chimney-sweep:
Duns at his lordship's gate began to meet;
And brickdust Moll had screamed through half the street.
The turnkey now his flock returning sees,
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees:
The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands,
And schoolboys lag with satchels in their hands.

Notes: kennel-edge: the curb; small-coal man: charcoal seller; duns: debt collectors; brickdust Moll: brickdust was sold to clean knives.

Period referred to: 1840s

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

Title of work: London Labour and the London Poor

Type of publication: Social Investigation

Author: Henry Mayhew

Year of publication: 1851

Page/volume number: Volume 1, Chapter 11

Henry Mayhew on Victorian street-sellers of conundrums

When a clever patterer "works conundrums" – for the trade is in the hands of the pattering class – he selects what he may consider the best, and reads or repeats them in the street, sometimes with and sometimes without the answer. But he does not cripple the probable quickness of his sale by a slavish adherence to what is in type. He puts the matter, as it were, personally. "What gentleman is it," one man told me he would ask, "in this street, that has –

`Eyes like saucers, a back like a box,
A nose like a pen-knife, and a voice like a fox?'

You can learn for a penny. Or sometimes I'll go on with the patter, thus," he continued, "What lady is it that we have all seen, and who can say truly –

`I am brighter than day, I am swifter than light,
And stronger than all the momentum of might?'

More than once people have sung out `the Queen,' for they seem to think that the momentum of might couldn't fit any one else. It's `thought' as is the answer, but it wouldn't do to let people think it's anything of the sort. It must seem to fit somebody. If I see a tailor's name on a door, as soon as I've passed the corner of the street, and sometimes in the same street, I've asked – `Why is Mr. So-and-so, the busy tailor of this (or the next street) never at home?' `Because he's always cutting out.' I have the same questions for other tradesmen, and for gentlemen and ladies in this neighbourhood, and no gammon. All for a penny. Nuts to Crack, a penny. A pair of Nutcrackers to crack 'em, only one penny."

Sometimes this man, who perhaps is the smartest in the trade, will take a bolder flight still, and when he knows the residence of any professional or public man, he will, if the allusion be complimentary, announce his name, or – if there be any satire – indicate by a motion of the head, or a gesture of the hand, the direction of his residence. My ingenuous, and certainly ingenious, informant obliged me with a few instances: – "In Whitechapel parish I've said – it ain't in the print, it was only in the patter – `Why won't the Reverend Mr. Champneys lay up treasures on earth?' – `Because he'd rather lay up treasures in heaven.' That's the reverend gentleman not far from this spot; but in this sheet – with nearly 100 engravings by the first artists, only a penny – I have other questions for other parsons, not so easy answered; nuts as is hard to crack. `Why is the Reverend Mr. Popjoy,' or the Honourable Lawyer Bully, or Judge Wiggem, – and then I just jerks my thumb, sir, if it's where I know or think such people live – `Why is the Reverend Mr. Popjoy (or the others) like two balloons, one in the air to the east, and the 'tother in the air to the west, in this parish of St. George's, Hanover-square?' There's no such question, and as it's a sort of a `cock,' of course there's no answer. I don't know one.

But a gentleman's servant once sung out: `'Cause he's uppish.' And a man in a leather apron once said: `He's a raising the wind,' which was nonsense. But I like that sort of interruption, and have said – `You'll not find that answer in the Nutcrackers,' only a penny – and, Lord knows, I told the truth when I said so, and it helps the sale. No fear of any one's finding out all what's in the sheet before I'm out of the `drag.' Not a bit. And you must admit that any way it's a cheap pennorth." That it is a cheap harmless pennyworth is undeniable.

The street-sale of conundrums is carried on most extensively during a week or two before Christmas; and on summer evenings, when the day's work is, or ought to be, over even among the operatives of the slop employers. As the conundrum patterer requires an audience, he works the quieter streets, preferring such as have no horse-thoroughfare – as in some of the approaches from the direction of Golden-square to Regent-street. The trade is irregularly pursued, none following it all the year; and from the best information I could acquire, it appears that fifteen men may be computed as working conundrums for two months throughout the twelve, and clearing 10s. 6d. weekly, per individual.

Period referred to: 1900s

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

Title of work: Nights in London

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: Thomas Burke

Year of publication: 1915

Page/volume number: A Worker's Night

Sales patter at a night-time market on the Isle of Dogs

As the stalls clear out the stock so grows the vociferousness of their proprietors, and soon the ear becomes deadened by the striving rush of sound. Every stall and shop has its wide-mouthed laureate, singing its present glories and adding lustre to its latest triumphs.

"I'll take any price yeh like, price yeh like! Comerlong, comerlong, Ma! This is the shop that does the biz. Buy-buy-buy-uy!"

"Walk up, ladies, don't be shy. Look at these legs. Look at 'em. Don't keep looking at 'em, though. Buy 'em. Buy 'em. Sooner you buy 'em sooner I can get 'ome and 'ave my little bath. Come along, ladies; it's a dirty night, but thank God I got good lodgings, and I hope you got the same. Buy-buy-buy!"

"'Ere's yer lovely bernanas. Fourer penny. Pick 'em out where yeh like!"

In one ear a butcher yells a madrigal concerning his little shoulders. In the other a fruit merchant demands to know whether, in all your nacheral, you ever see anything like his melons. Then a yard or so behind you an organ and cornet take up their stand and add "Tipperary" to the swelling symphony. But human ears can receive so much, and only so much, sound; and clapping your hands over your ears, you seek the chaste seclusion, for a few minutes, of the saloon of "The Black Boy," or one of the many fried-fish bars of the Lane.

Still later in the evening the noise increases, for then the stalls are anxious to clear out their stock at any old price. The wise wife—and Johnnie's missus is one—waits until this hour before making her large purchases. For now excellent joints and rabbits and other trifles are put up for auction. The laureates are wonderful fellows, many of them, I imagine, decayed music-hall men. A good man in this line makes a very decent thing out of it. The usual remuneration is about eight or ten shillings for the night and whatever beer they want. And if you are shouting for nearly six hours in the heavy-laden air of Salmon Lane, you want plenty of beer and you earn all you get. They have a spontaneous wit about them that only the Cockney possesses. Try to take a rise out of one of them, and you will be sadly plucked. Theirs is Falstaffian humour—large and clustering: no fine strokes, but huge, rich-coloured sweeps. It is useless to attempt subtleties in the roar of a Saturday night. What you have to aim at is the obvious—but with a twist; something that will go home at once; something that can be yelled or, if the spirit moves you, sung. It is, in a word, the humour of the Crowd.

At about eleven o'clock, the laureate, duly refreshed, will mount on the outside counter, where he can easily reach the rows of joints. Around him gathers the crowd of housewives, ready for the auction. He takes the first—a hefty leg of mutton.

"Nah then!" he cries challengingly, "nah then! Just stop shooting yer marth at the OOlans for a bit, and look at this 'ere bit o' meat. Meat was what I said," with a withering glance at the rival establishment across the Lane, where another laureate is addressing another crowd. "Meat, mother, meat. If yer don't want Meat, then it ain't no use comin' 'ere. If yer wants a cut orf an animal what come from Orstralia or Noo Zealand, then it ain't no use comin' 'ere. Over the road's where they got them. They got joints over there what come from the Anty-Podeys, and they ain't paid their boat-passage yet. No, my gels, this what I got 'ere is Meat. None of your carvings orf a cow what looks like a fiddlecase on trestles. You—sir—just cast yer eye over that. Carry that 'ome to the missus, and she'll let yer stay out till a quarter to ten, and yeh'll never find a button orf yer weskit long as yeh live. That's the sort o' meat to turn the kiddies into sojers and sailors. Nah then—what say to six-and-a-arf?"

Period referred to: 1880s

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

Title of work: The Secret Agent

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Joseph Conrad

Year of publication: 1907

Page/volume number: Chapter 9

Newsboys’ cries in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent

The newsboys never invaded Brett Street. It was not a street for their business. And the echo of their cries drifting along the populous thoroughfares, expired between the dirty brick walls without reaching the threshold of the shop.

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

Title of work: Coming up for air

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Orwell

Year of publication: 1939

Page/volume number: Chapter 4

A newspaper boy shouts the evening editions

Outside the door a newsboy yelled 'Starnoosstannerd!' I saw the poster flapping against his knees: LEGS. FRESH DISCOVERIES. [. . .] Outside the newsboy shoved the Standard into my face and yelled, 'Legs! 'Orrible revelations! All the winners! Legs! Legs!'

Period referred to: 1850s

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

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

A watercress girl

'I go about the streets with water-creases, crying, "Four bunches a penny, water-creases." I am just eight years old – that's all, and I've a big sister, and a brother, and a sister younger than I am.'

Period referred to: Early 1400s

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

Title of work: London Lickpenny

Type of publication: Satirical poem

Author: Anonymous

Year of publication: c. 1410

Page/volume number: Not applicable

‘Hot peascods!’ one began to cry,
‘strawberry ripe!’ and ‘cherries in the rise!’

Then unto London I did me hie –
  Of all the land it beareth the prise!
'Hot peascods!' one began to cry,
  'Strawberry ripe!' and 'cherries in the rise!'
  One had me come near and buy some spice;
    Pepper and saffron, they gan me beede;
    But for lack of money I might not speed.

Then to the Cheap I gan me drawn,
  Where much people I saw for to stand;
One offered me velvet, silk, and lawn;
  Another he taketh me by the hand,
  'Here is Paris thread, the finest in the land'.
    I was never used to such things in deed,
    And, wanting money, I might not speed.

Then I went forth by London Stone,
  Throughout all Canwike Street:
Drapers much cloth me offered anon;
  Then comes me one, cried 'Hot sheep's feet!'
  One cried 'Mackerel!'; 'Rishes green!' another gan greet,
    One had me buy a hood to cover my head;
    But for want of money I might not speed.

['A lickpenny is someone or something that soaks up money. In this satirical poem the narrator, an out-of-towner (probably from the Midlands), comes to London to seek restoration for fraud but finds that without money it is impossible to get justice in London. And any money he might have he is relieved of.' – Jon E. Lewis in London: The Autobiography.]

Period referred to: Early 1700s

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

Title of work: Amusements Serious and Comical

Type of publication: Satire

Author: Thomas Brown

Year of publication: 1700

Page/volume number: Amusement III

‘One draws his Mouth up to his Ears, and Howls out, Buy my Flawnders

One Tinker Knocks, another Bawls, Have you Brass Pot, Iron Pot, Kettle, Skillet, or a Frying-Pan to mend: Whilst another Son of a Whore yells louder than Homer's Stentor, Two a Groat, and Four for Six Pence Mackarel. One draws his Mouth up to his Ears, and Howls out, Buy my Flawnders, and is followed by an Old Burly Drab, that Screams out the Sale of her Maids and her Sole at the same Instant [. . .] followed with the Vocal Musick of Kitchen-Stuff ha' you Maids.

Period referred to: 1850s

Sound category: Economic > Costermongers and street traders

Title of work: London Labour and the London Poor

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: Henry Mayhew

Year of publication: 1851

Page/volume number: pp. 11-12, Volume 1

Henry Mayhew: The London street markets on a Saturday night

Little boys, holding three or four onions in their hand, creep between people, wriggling their way through every interstice, and asking for custom in whining tones, as if seeking charity. Then the tumult of the thousand differerent cries of the eager dealers, all shouting at the top of their voices, at one and the same time, is almost bewildering. 'So-old again,' roars one. 'Chestnuts all 'ot, a penny a score,' bawls another. 'An 'aypenny a skin, blacking,' squeaks a boy. 'Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy, buy – bu-u-uy!' cries the butcher. 'Half-a-quire of paper for a penny,' bellows the street stationer. 'An 'aypenny a lot ing-uns.' 'Twopence a pound grapes.' 'Three a penny Yarmouth bloaters.' 'Who'll buy a bonnet for fourpence?' 'Pick 'em out cheap here! three pair for a halfpenny, bootlaces.' 'Now's your time! beautiful whelks, a penny a lot.' 'Here's ha'p'orths,' shouts the perambulating confectioner. 'Come and look at 'em! here's toasters!' bellows one with a Yarmouth bloater stuck on a toasting-fork. 'Penny a lot, fine russets,' calls the apple woman: and so the Babel goes on.