Historical references to London's sounds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: 1770

Sound category: Economic > Workplace cries and signals

Title of work: Westminster Chief Medical Officer's Report

Type of publication: History

Author: Unknown

Year of publication: 1888

Page/volume number: Unknown

The noise of street scavengers

According to Maitland there were 16 scavengers in the parish in 1770, while the payments to the raker amounted to £451. The removal of ashes and other refuse was contracted for by the Commissioners, who were empowered by Statute of 2 Wm. and Mary, 1691, cap. 8, to require the inhabitants to sweep the streets before their respective houses on every Wednesday and Saturday, and to have the refuse ready for removal by the raker, on penalty of 3s. 4d. for each neglect. The scavengers were to cause carts to be brought into all the streets every day by bell, horn, clapper, or other distinct and loud noise. Comparatively little can be gathered from the minute books of the Vestry in relation to this service, owing to the superintendence having been vested in an independent Commission.

Period referred to: 1829

Sound category: Economic > workplace cries and signals

Title of work: Morning Post

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: A Constant Reader

Year of publication: 1829

Page/volume number: 14 August 1829, page 2

A complaint about dustmen’s bells

SIR - The intolerable nuisance of the horn-boys hawking newspapers having been very properly, and to the great relief of the public, put down by Act of Parliament, allow me through the medium of your impartial Paper (whose columns are always open to the reception of any information having for its object the advantage of the community at large), to suggest the abolition of another nuisance, equal to if not greater than that to which I have alluded - I mean the Dustmen's Bells, which are perpetually dinning in one's ears from morning till night. Having recently, Mr. Editor, been an invalid, and confined to my room, I can speak from my own experience of the intolerable nuisance of which I complain - nor can I see the shadow of a reason why its continuance should be permitted. Why should not a stated time be fixed for the operations of these detestable Dustmen?

[From Bentley's Miscellany of 1841, article on bells by Hal Willis: The dustman's bell is, perhaps, the only one among the bell-fry that is discordant to our ears. There is an abrupt coarseness - a harsh clamorousness - in the expression of its large, lolling tongue, that affrights us from our morning dreams. There is as much difference in its "ring" as there is between the "wedding-ring" and the "ring pugilistic."]

Period referred to: 1900s

Sound category: Economic > Workplace cries and audible signals

Title of work: Nights in London

Type of publication: Journalism/social investigation

Author: Thomas Burke

Year of publication: 1915

Page/volume number: An Entertainment Night

Backstage at a London music hall

But let us leave the front of the house and wander in back of a typical hall. Here is an overcharged atmosphere, feverish of railway-station. There is an entire lack of any system; everything apparently confused rush. Artists dashing out for a second house many miles away. Artists dashing in from their last hall, some fully dressed and made-up, others swearing at their dressers and dragging baskets upstairs, knowing that they have three minutes in which to dress and make-up before their call. As one rushes in with a cheery "Evening, George!" to the stage-door keeper, he is met by the "boy"—the "boy" being usually a middle-aged ex-Army man of 45 or 50.

"Mr. Merson's on, sir."


He dashes into his dressing-room, which he shares with three others, and then it is Vesti la giubba.... The dressing-room is a long, narrow room, with a slab running the length of the wall, and four chairs. The slab is backed by a long, low mirror, and is littered with make-up tins and pots. His dresser hurls himself on the basket, as though he owed it a grudge. He tears off the lid. He dives head foremost into a foam of trousers, coats, and many-coloured shirts. He comes to the [Pg 41]surface breathless, having retrieved a shapeless mass of stuff. He tears pieces of this stuff apart, and flings them, with apparent malice, at his chief, and, somehow, they seem to stay where he flings them. The chief shouts from a cloud of orange wig and patchwork shirt for a soda-and-milk, and from some obscure place of succour there actually appears a soda-and-milk. A hand darts from the leg of a revolving pair of trousers, grabs the glass and takes a loud swig. The boy appears at the door.

"Mr. Merson coming off, sir!"

"Right-o! and blast you!"

"No good blasting me, sir!"

From far away, as from another world, he hears the murmur of a large body of people, the rolling of the drum, the throbbing of the double-bass, the wail of the fiddles, sometimes the thud of the wooden-shoe dancer, and sometimes a sudden silence as the music dims away to rubbish for the big stunt of the trapeze performer.

Period referred to: 1900s

Sound category: Economic > Workplace cries and audible signals

Title of work: Nights in London

Type of publication: Journalism./social investigation

Author: Thomas Burke

Year of publication: 1915

Page/volume number: An Entertainment Night

Thomas Burke describes the sounds of a limelight man’s work

The limes man is really the most important person in the show. Of course, the manager doesn't think so, and the stage-manager doesn't think so, and the carpenter doesn't think so, and the band doesn't think so. But he is. [ . . .] The limelight man never sees the show. In his little cupboard, he hears nothing but the hissing of his arcs and the tinkle of the stage-manager's prompting bell at the switchboard which controls every light in the theatre, before and behind. He has to watch every movement of the artist who is on, but what he or she is doing or saying, he does not know. He is, perhaps, the only man who has never laughed at Little Tich.

Period referred to: 1870s

Sound category: Economic > Workplace cries and signals

Title of work: Low-Life Deeps

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: James Greenwood

Year of publication: 1875

Page/volume number: Chapter 6

Bells and cries at Billingsgate fish market

Strange, amphibious-looking individuals are, without much apparent aim, dodging about in the open unoccupied space of the market; but soon we find them doff their coats, and having seized on a coign of vantage, proceed to erect a rampart of baskets round the position they have taken up.

Suddenly a discordant bell rings out with a harsh "cling, clang," the market is opened, and everybody starts into activity, and becomes preternaturally wide awake. Porters rush about frantically with huge loads on their heads, and now you bless your stars that your chimney-pot hat is safe at home. You are hustled on one side by a Colossus with a salmon-box on his head, who imagines that the magic words "By your leave!" give him full license to butt you out of his path. Getting out of his way rather precipitately, you are brought up by an attack of fish-baskets on the stomach; an urchin with a wicker stack on his head is running a muck, and you are the victim.

In much discomfiture you take refuge in a comparatively quiet corner by one of the pillars, and are congratulating your self that you are out of harm's way when a sudden slam on the sloppy pavement about an inch in front of you of a ponderous box, accompanied with the warning shout of "Toes," rudely dispels this belief, and sends you backward with an impetus which probably procures you a volley of oaths both loud and deep from the lips of some unfortunate you have cannoned against. The auctioneers are by this time in their rostrums, selling away with desperate rapidity and wonderful power of lung. "Turbot! turbot! turbot!" is shouted in stentorian tones from one pulpit; loud roars of "Salmon! salmon! salmon!" emanate from the opposite one; the shouts of the auctioneer mingle with the responsive yells of the buyers; the din becomes tremendous, and you feel you would give anything for peace. The leathern-throated auctioneers bellow louder, their men vie with them in the din, the buyers get excited and "bid out" vociferously; the rush of porters gets more bewildering, the general turmoil and burly-burly more wildly confusing.

Period referred to: 1890s

Sound category: Economic > Workplace cries and signals

Title of work: New Grub Street

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Gissing

Year of publication: 1891

Page/volume number: Chapter XXVII

The postman’s knock in New Grub Street

The hours of postal delivery found him waiting in an anguish of suspense. At eight o'clock each morning he stood by his window, listening for the postman's knock in the street. As it approached he went out to the head of the stairs, and if the knock sounded at the door of his house, he leaned over the banisters, trembling in expectation. But the letter was never for him.

Period referred to: Early 1900s

Sound category: Economic > Workplace cries and other audible signals

Title of work: The Cab at the Door

Type of publication: Autobiography

Author: V. S. Pritchett

Year of publication: 1968

Page/volume number: n/a

V. S. Pritchett recalls the voices of station porters at London Bridge

There were no indicators on the platforms [at London Bridge station] in my day and the confusion had to be sorted out by stentorian porters who called out their long litanies of stations in a hoarse London bawl and with a style of their own. They stood on the crowded platform edge, detected the identifying lights on the incoming engine and then sang out. To myself, at that age, all places I did not know seemed romantic and the lists of names were, if not Miltonic, at any rate as evocative as those names with which the Georgian poets filled up their lines. I would stare admiringly, even enviously, at the porter who would have to chant the long line to Bexley Heath; or the man, who beginning with the blunt and challenging football names of Charlton and Woolwich would go on to comic Plumstead and then flow forward till his voice fell to the finality of Greenhythe, Northfleet, and Gravesend; or the softer tones of St Johns, Lewisham, and Blackheath.