Historical references to London's sounds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
 Pub life, music and song   1 3     1 5 3
 City-wide celebrations     3 2   3 3  
 Toasts, dinners and feasts     2 1       1
 Theatre and cinema audiences     2 1 1 1    
 Music and song in theatres     2 2   2    
 Public music and song outdoors     3   1 4    
 Education: Oratory and debate   1            
 Gambling and fairs     1 1 1 2 1  
 Sporting events   1 1 1 1      
 Families at leisure             1  
 Dancing             1  
 Local celebrations           1   1

Period referred to: 1874

Sound category: Social > Music and song in theatres

Title of work: The Wilds of London

Type of publication: Social investigation/satire

Author: James Greenwood

Year of publication: 1874

Page/volume number: Chapter 2

An evening at a Whitechapel ‘gaff’ theatre

It was Mrs Douglas Fitzbruce fully equipped for the 'High Toby game.' She wore buckskin shorts, and boots of brilliant polish knee high and higher, and with spurs to them; her coat was of green velvet slashed with crimson, with a neat little breast pocket, from which peeped a cambric handkerchief; her raven curls hung about her shoulders, and on her head was a three-cornered hat, crimson edged with gold; under her arm she carried a riding whip, and in each hand a pistol of large size. By way of thanking her friends in the boxes and pit for their generous greeting (it is against the law for actors to utter so much as a single word during the performance of a 'gaff' piece), she uttered a saucy laugh (she could not have been more than forty-five), and, cocking her firearms, 'let fly' at them point blank as it seemed; however, the whistling and stamping of feet that immediately ensued showed that nobody was wounded – indeed, that the audience rather enjoyed being shot at than otherwise.

[ . . .]

Now all was ready for the robbery, but it couldn't come off for some unknown reason. The rumbling of wheels had stopped suddenly, though the sound of hoofs had not, and there were heard as well strange muffled 'clucking' noises, of of men urging on a horse disinclined to move. This rather spoilt the scene, for the gentlemen of the audience having a practical knowledge of donkeys and horses, and of the obstinate fits that occasionally seize on those animals, instantly guessed the difficulty, and gleefully shouted suggestions as to the proper mode of treatment to be applied to the quadruped that was stopping the play. 'Hit him on the 'ock!' 'Twist the warmint's tail!' 'Shove him up behind!' Which – if either – of these suggestions was adopted I cannot say, but suddenly the vehicle that contained the highwaymen's booty bolted on to the stage, amid the uproarious plaudits of the spectators.

Period referred to: 1850s

Sound category: Social > Music and song in theatres

Title of work: Saunterings in and about London

Type of publication: Travelogue

Author: Max Schlesinger

Year of publication: 1853

Page/volume number: Not known

A German tourist’s account of a penny gaff theatre in 1853

Just as we enter we see the director, a small curly-headed man, with a red punch face, ascending the stafe by means of a ladder. He makes two low bows, one for the ladies and one for the gentlemen, and delivers himself of a grand oration, to excuse some small deficiencies in his institution. At every third word he is interrupted by the cheers and remarks of the audience.

[. . .]

Three forms issue from the back door; a colossal female, with a trident and a diadem of gilt paper; bearing the legend of 'BRITANNIA'; after her, a pot-bellied gentleman, with a red nose [. . .]

Britannia, heaving a deep sigh, sits down on a stool, adjust a telescope, which is very long and very dirty, and looks out upon the ocean. The gentleman with the red nose, who, of course, represents the Lord Mayor of the good City of London, kneels down at her feet, and indulges in a fit of very significant howlings and gnashings of teeth. The third person is a sailor-boy complete with a south-wester, blue jacket and wide trousers, who dances a hornpipe while Britannia sighs and the Lord Mayor sighs.

Now comes the great scene of the evening! Somebody or something, diving up from the very midst of the pit, makes a rush against the stage. It is the Uncle Tom of the last scene; his face is as black and his hair as woolly as ever; but a cocked hat, a pair of red trousers and top boots, and an enormous sword, brings it home to even the dullest understanding, that this is a very dangerous person! Besides, on his back there is a placard with the inscription: 'Solouque – NAPOLEON – EMPEROR!!'

The monster bawls out 'INVASION!' while, to the great delight of the ladies and gentlemen, he bumps his head several times against the chalky white cliffs of Britain, which, on the present emergency, are represented by the wooden planks of the stage. The very sailor-boy, still dancing his hornpipe, shows his contempt for so much ferocity and dullness. He greets the invader with a scornful 'Parli-vow Frenchi?'

At this juncture, the conqueror becomes aware of the presence of the short ladder, and mounts it forthwith. The boy vents his feelings of horror and disgust in an expressive pantomime, the Lord Mayor howls louder than ever, and the gnashing of his teeth is awful to behold; but just as the invader has gained the edge of the stage, he is attacked by the sailor who, applying his foot to a part of the Frenchman's body which shall be nameless, kicks him back into the pit. The public cheer, Britannia and the Lord Mayor dance a polka, and the sailor sings 'God Save the Queen'.