Historical references to London's sounds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: 1887

Sound category: Social > Public music and song outdoors

Title of work: Thyrza

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Gissing

Year of publication: 1887

Page/volume number: Chapter 9

Lambeth children dance to the music of a street organ

He turned towards Lambeth Walk. The market of Christmas Eve was flaring and clamorous; the odours of burning naphtha and fried fish were pungent on the wind. He walked a short distance among the crowd, then found the noise oppressive and turned into a by-way. As he did so, a street organ began to play in front of a public-house close by. Grail drew near; there were children forming a dance, and he stood to watch them.

Do you know that music of the obscure ways, to which children dance? Not if you have only heard it ground to your ears' affliction beneath your windows in the square. To hear it aright you must stand in the darkness of such a by-street as this, and for the moment be at one with those who dwell around, in the blear-eyed house, in the dim burrows of poverty, in the unmapped haunts of the semi-human. Then you will know the significance of that vulgar clanging of melody; a pathos of which you did not dream will touch you, and therein the secret of the hidden London will be half revealed. The life of men who toil without hope, yet with the hunger of an unshaped desire; of women in whom the sweetness of their sex is perishing under labour and misery; the laugh, the song of the girl who strives to enjoy her year or two of youthful vigour, knowing the darkness of the years to come; the careless defiance of the youth who feels his blood and revolts against the lot which would tame it; all this is purely human in these darkened multitudes speaks to you as you listen. It is the half-conscious striving of a nature which knows not what it would attain, which deforms a true thought by gross expression, which clutches at the beautiful and soils it with foul hands.

The children were dirty and ragged, several of them bare-footed, nearly all bare-headed, but they danced with noisy merriment. One there was, a little girl, on crutches; incapable of taking a partner, she stumped round and round, circling upon the pavement, till giddiness came upon her and she had to fall back and lean against the wall, laughing aloud at her weakness. Gilbert stepped up to her, and put a penny into her hand; then, before she had recovered from her surprise, passed onwards.

Period referred to: 1867

Sound category: Social > Public music and song outdoors

Title of work: South London Press

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: Unnamed journalist

Year of publication: 1867

Page/volume number: 28 December 1867, page 10

A fracas involving carol singers in Soho

Of all the disreputable shams which are to be found at every turn in great overgrown London, none is worse or more painful than that which is called "Christmas Waits." Instead of sweet, solemn, and yet joyous music, sounds as of "a holy solemnity kept in the night," the streets are infested, from the hours of 1 to 4 in the morning with "beery" musicians, just let loose from the public-houses in which drinking is done to the sound of the fiddle, flute, harp, and accordion. The tunes played are usually popular airs, certainly with no "relish of salvation" in them, and the singing, when any is attempted, is of the same character.

In several districts at the churches therein situate turn out on Christmas morning to compete with the gin and beer musicians above described, and assembling beneath the windows of their respective patrons and admirers, sing carols and hymns. A choir of this sort seems to have got into difficulties in Greek-street, Soho, on Christmas morning; and a row having ensued the choir-master was locked up for disorderly conduct. A girl, sister of one of the singers, was also taken into custody for coming to the rescue with a cabbage stalk. The clergyman of the district complained of the interference of the police with the carol singers; and on Boxing Day the magistrate at Marlborough-street, with some remarks of the same king, dismissed the charges against both the prisoners.

Period referred to: 1870s

Sound category: Social > Music and song in public

Title of work: Low--Life Deeps

Type of publication: Social investigation

Author: James Greenwood

Year of publication: 1875

Page/volume number: Chapter 4

Song and music on a night-time cruise to Gravesend

So it came about that on a certain Saturday night, the moon being at that time near the full, and therefore eminently favourable, a steamer left Greenwich Pier at half-past six for Rosherville, to return therefrom when the sun had sunk to rest in the west, and Luna, Queen of Night, perambulated the starry heavens in her silver car.

Punctual to the moment, the Zephyr steamed gallantly up to the starting-point at Greenwich. It was a brave sight. At the fore part of the vessel a hundred tiny bannerets streamed gaily in the evening breeze, while neatly furled from funnel to fore-peak was the friendly tarpaulin which would unfold its sheltering wings in the event of rain. At the after-part of the vessel there was not so much festive display; but then there was this advantage – the brass band faced in that direction. Discarding lutes and flutes and twanging guitars, the projectors of the trip had provided seven performers on brazen instruments and a drummer, and these sat in a row on the bridge which spans the gulf between the paddle-boxes. It was an experiment, possibly a delicate one, but at a glance, and even before the Zephyr touched the pier, it was evidently worth trying.

As we started, the brass band on the bridge played some selections from "Madame Angot;" while the sun was shining, and the river merrily rippling, the little flags gaily flying, in defiance of melancholy, and all the dull world and its drudgery, and altogether things looked promising. At Blackwall we took in at least a hundred more moonlight trippers, amongst whom were a score or so whose room would have been preferable to their company, for we were getting uncomfortably crowded; and at Woolwich we made a final call and took in some sixty or seventy more.

By half-past eight Rosherville is gained, but we do not land. The captain, seeing that some of his party have become a little too lively to be trusted on shore, will not entertain the idea for a moment, so we turn homeward. It is a disappointment, but there is at least this consolation: it is growing more and more dark, and the moon may be expected at any moment. We do our best to invite her, for in half a dozen different spots there are as many parties singing " Rise, gentle moon," "When the moon is on the waters," "Meet me by moonlight alone," and so forth. Then, all the songs in which the word moon is mentioned having been sung, those who are still in a sentimental mood, continue to serenade her coy ladyship with many melancholy ballads of the " Poor old Jeff" and "Mary Blane" order; but whether the moon is sulky or frightened, she certainly declines to illumine the heavens. It is a pity, and the moon herself can hardly be aware how much she has to answer for in consequence of not shining out that Saturday night. [. . .] As the night grows darker sentiment is thrown overboard altogether, and, as they sit and stand, young men and maidens, fast boys and their female acquaintances, respectable middle-aged women and their husbands, all huddled together in the dark, go in for music-hall ditties of the fullest strength and flavour, and other melodies of the same classical character.

Period referred to: 1890s

Sound category: Social > Music and song in public

Title of work: Nights in London

Type of publication: Autobiography

Author: Thomas Burke

Year of publication: 1915

Page/volume number: Nocturnal

‘Then, as I strutted, an organ, lost in strange lands about five streets away, broke into music’

And my moment was given to me by London. The call came to me in a dirty street at night. The street was short and narrow, its ugliness softened here and there by the liquid lights of shops, the most beautiful of all standing at the corner. This was the fried-fish shop. It was a great night, because I was celebrating my seventh birthday, and I was proud and everything seemed to be sharing in my pride. Then, as I strutted, an organ, lost in strange lands about five streets away, broke into music. I had heard organs many times, and I loved them. But I had never heard an organ play "Suwanee River," in the dusk of an October night, with a fried-fish shop ministering to my nose and flinging clouds of golden glory about me, and myself seven years old. Momentarily, it struck me silly—so silly that some big boy pointed a derisive finger. It somehow ... I don't know.... It....

Well, as the organ choked and gurgled through the outrageous sentimentality of that song, I awoke. Something had happened to me. Through the silver evening a host of little dreams and desires came tripping down the street, beckoning and bobbing in rhythm to the old tune; and as the last of the luscious phrases trickled over the roofs I found myself half-laughing, half-crying, thrilled and tickled as never before. It made me want to die for some one. I think it was for London I wanted to die, or for the fried-fish shop and the stout lady and gentleman who kept it. I had never noticed that street before, except to remark that it wasn't half low and common. But now it had suffered a change. I could no longer sniff at it. I would as soon have said something disrespectful about Hymns Ancient and Modern.