SHARE THIS PAGE

Historical references to London's sounds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.

 SUB-CATEGORY 1st to
10th
11th to
15th
16th to
17th
18th Early
19th
Late
19th
Early
20th
Late
20th
 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: 1974

Sound category: Social > Pub life, music and song

Title of work: Soft City

Type of publication: Popular sociology

Author: Jonathan Raban

Year of publication: 1974

Page/volume number: Chapter 8

Jonathan Raban describes a gay pub in 1970s Earls Court

Just as the leather men determine the character of one pub, so a few men in full drag dominate the other, whose upper room exudes a frumpish air of naughtiness. Besides the transvestites, it is full of boys with dyed blonde bouffant hair, sleeveless knitted pullovers and adenoidal camp voices.

'Ooh! Never been felt up that way before. Ooh, both sides!'

Men dance with each other cheek to cheek, between groups of trim, over-youthful looking pickups, fresh from the gymnasium, who bay and squeal like goats [. . .] Here are the same cruising grey bachelors, shyly affable, reaching deep for drinks all round. They have cars and flats – 'my place, just round the corner' – and are solicitously interested in everybody.

'Been to see again, Terry?'
'How's your mother, my dear?'
'How nasty for you . . .'
'Oh, dear.'

The bespectacled student who sells Gay News gets rapturously booed.

Period referred to: 1974

Sound category: Social > Pub music and song

Title of work: Soft City

Type of publication: Popular sociology

Author: Jonathan Raban

Year of publication: 1974

Page/volume number: Chapter 8

Jonathan Raban describes a late-night bar in 1970s Earls Court

And for the very temporary, the commercial travellers and small businessmen here for one night, there are correspondingly bizarre entertainments. In the Austrian Bier-Keller, bored English girls in fishnet tights and peasant tops serve drinks at 75 pence a time with stale frankfurters (to beat the licensing regulations), while an elderly accordionist squeezes out old Beatles tunes. 'No touching, no dancing, no nothing,' says the girl, automatic as a speak-your-weight machine. By 2 a.m. the place has sucked in the overflow of drunks and scrubbers . . . 'On your own, dear? Mine's a scotch and soda –' Men with paunches slouch about on the dance floor holding fluffy tarts in a bear-hug, and someone is noisily sick in the hallway. They have a brutish doorman to take care of that. A party of people who look suspiciously like schoolteachers sing 'Auf Wiedersehen' in Birmingham accents, and the accordionist puts on a face of ghastly jollity, exposing a jaw full of gold-capped teeth. Outside, there is a policeman, taking notes.

Period referred to: 1974

Sound category: Social > Pub music and song

Title of work: Soft City

Type of publication: Popular sociology

Author: Jonathan Raban

Year of publication: 1974

Page/volume number: Chapter 8

Sounds of an Irish-Caribbean pub in 1970s Islington

The local pub was carefully demarcated into symbolic territories. The public bar was the West Indian province, with a smattering of white girls of catholic tastes and inclinations. The saloon was for the Irish. There was one black, in a shiny felt hat, who ambled leggily round the saloon bar picking up empty glasses; and in the spade bar of the pub there was a single, very sodden Irishman. These two hostages strengthened the division. In the public bar, the juke box hammered out Reggae records; in the saloon on Friday nights Bridie the Singing Saxophonist carolled about the Mountains of Mourne and the Rose of Tralee through an amplifying system which made her sound like Frankenstein's monster.

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Social > Pub life, music and song

Title of work: Hangover Square

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Patrick Hamilton

Year of publication: 1941

Page/volume number: Fourth Part, Chapter One

An Earl’s Court pub in the 1930s

Half-way down this they came to a small pub into which George led him. They got beer at the counter, and then sat at a table covered with green linoleum near the door.

The long, warm, bright days still persisted, and the door of the pub was flung and fastened back. It was cool, dark, and restful inside and pleasant with the peaceful beginnings of the little house's evening trade – two men talking quietly, another reading a newspaper, the flutter of a canary in a cage, the barmaid vanishing into other bars and returning, the occasional oily jab of the beer-engine and the soft spurt of beer.

Period referred to: 1920s

Sound category: Social > Public life, music and song

Title of work: The Midnight Bell

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Patrick Hamilton

Year of publication: 1929

Page/volume number: Chapter XI

An automatic piano plays in a 1920s London pub

By this time they were half way down Wardour Street. She led him into a little alleyway leading therefrom, and into a little public house situated therein. They went up into a little room on the first floor, where there was a bar, tables, chairs and sofas, some with people on them, and an automatic piano sort of instrument, which was susceptible to pennies, but brief in its susceptibility, and dumb at the time of their arrival.

He obserbed in passing, quite uncritically, that whereas she had invited him to, he was paying for, the drinks, and when he came back to her she had already bribed, with a penny, the piano, which responded with a brisk rendering of 'So Blue' – which clamoured uproariously in the ears of all present, many of whom (including himself) would have eagerly given it a penny (or even sixpence) to have done nothing of the sort.

Period referred to: 1920s

Sound category: Social > Pub life, music and song

Title of work: The Midnight Bell

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Patrick Hamilton

Year of publication: 1929

Page/volume number: Chapter 2

A 1920s pub in Patrick Hamilton’s The Midnight Bell

In here and in the Saloon Bar 'The Midnight Bell' did most of its business – the two other bars (the Public and the Private) being dreary, seatless, bareboarded structures wherein drunkenness was dispensed in coarser tumblers and at a cheaper rate to a mostly collarless and frankly downtrodden stratum of society. The Public Bar could nevertheless be glimpsed by a customer in the Saloon Bar, and as the evening wore on it provided the latter with an acoustic background of deep mumbling and excited talk without which its whole atmosphere would have been lost – without which, indeed, the nightly drama of the Saloon Bar would have been rather like a cinematograph drama without music . . .

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Pub life, music and song

Title of work: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Orwell

Year of publication: 1936

Page/volume number: Chapter 4

The sounds of London pubs in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying

In Camden Town the pubs were full and noisy, though this was only Thursday. Three women, red-armed, squat as the beer mugs in their hands, stood outside a pub door, talking. From within came hoarse voices, fag-smoke, the fume of beer. Gordon thought of the Crichton Arms. Flaxman might be there. Why not risk it? A half of bitter, threepence halfpenny. He had fourpence halfpenny counting the Joey. After all, a Joey is legal tender.

He felt dreadfully thirsty already. It had been a mistake to let himself think of beer. As he approached the Crichton, he heard voices singing. The great garish pub seemed to be more brightly lighted than usual. There was a concert of something going on inside. Twenty ripe male voices were chanting in unison:


'Fo–or ree's a jorrigoo' fellow,
For ree's a jorrigoo' fellow,
For ree's a jorrigoo' fe–ellow
And toori oori us!'

At least, that was what it sounded like. Gordon drew nearer, pierced by a ravishing thirst. The voices were so soggy, so infinitely beery. When you heard them you saw the scarlet faces of prosperous plumbers.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Social > Pub life, music and song

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1661

Page/volume number: 27 March 1661

Music at the Dolphin tavern in Tower Street

To the Dolphin to a dinner of Mr. Harris's, where Sir Williams both and my Lady Batten, and her two daughters, and other company, where a great deal of mirth, and there staid till 11 o'clock at night; and in our mirth I sang and sometimes fiddled (there being a noise of fiddlers there), and at last we fell to dancing, the first time that ever I did in my life, which I did wonder to see myself to do.

[The Dolphin was one of London's larger taverns and was situated in Tower Street. See the discussion at www.pepysdiary.com. A 'noise' was a non-pejorative term for a group of musicians. - IMR]

Period referred to: 1850s

Sound category: Social > Pub music and song

Title of work: Bleak House

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Charles Dickens

Year of publication: 1853

Page/volume number: Chapter XXXII

Music at a Lincoln’s Inn pub described in Bleak House

But they have something to say, likewise, of the Harmonic Meeting at the Sol's Arms, where the sound of the piano through the partly opened windows jingles out into the court, and where Little Swills, after keeping the lovers of harmony in a roar like a very Yorick, may now be heard taking the gruff line in a concerted piece and sentimentally adjuring his friends and patrons to "Listen, listen, listen, tew the wa-ter fall!"

Period referred to: 1930s

Sound category: Social > Pub life, music and song

Title of work: London Belongs to Me

Type of publication: Novel

Author: Norman Collins

Year of publication: 1945

Page/volume number: Chapter XVI

Norman Collins conjures up the noise inside a 1930s London pub

Inside, the Duke of Marlborough was pretty high-class [. . .] The lounge was full to-night because it was Sunday. And it was hot. Almost as hot as in the cinema. And noisy. Between sixty and seventy people were crushed in there, all talking at the tops of their voices. Above the noise they made was the constant chink of glasses, the rattle of the cash-register madly recording the shillings and pennies, and the tinkle of a small bell, like a fire alarm in a doll's house, as someone scored a lucky shot in one of the pin tables.

Period referred to: Early 1400s

Sound category: Social > Pub song and music

Title of work: London Lickpenny

Type of publication: Satirical poem

Author: Anonymous

Year of publication: c. 1410

Page/volume number: Not applicable

‘Pewter pots they clattered on a heap;
there was harp, pipe, and minstrelsie.’

Then I hied me into East Cheap.
  One cries 'Ribs of beef and many a pie!'
Pewter pots they clattered on a heap;
  There was harp, pipe, and minstrelsie.
  'Yea, by cock!' 'Nay, by cock!' some began to cry.
    Some sung of Jenken and Julian for their meed.
    But for lack of money I might not speed.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Social > Pub song and music

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1660

Page/volume number: February 1660

Songs with Lock and Pursell

After dinner I back to Westminster Hall with him in his coach. Here I met with Mr. Lock and Pursell, Masters of Music, and with them to the Coffee House, into a room next the water, by ourselves, where we spent an hour or two [. . .] Here we had variety of brave Italian and Spanish songs, and a canon for eight voices, which Mr. Lock had lately made on these words: "Domine salvum fac Regem," an admirable thing.

[The 'Pursell' mentioned here cannot have been the composer Henry Purcell, who had only been born the previous year. Purcell's father, however, was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and sang at the coronation of King Charles II of England.]

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Social > Pub song and music

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1660

Page/volume number: January 1660

‘Very merry and drawn on with one song after another till it came to be so late’

Then wrote letters to Hinchinbroke and sealed them at Will's, and after that went home, and thence to the Half Moon, where I found the Captain and Mr. Billingsly and Newman, a barber, where we were very merry, and had the young man that plays so well on the Welsh harp.

[ . . .]

Thence we went to the Green Dragon, on Lambeth Hill, both the Mr. Pinkney's, Smith, Harrison, Morrice, that sang the bass, Sheply and I, and there we sang of all sorts of things, and I ventured with good success upon things at first sight, and after that I played on my flageolet, and staid there till nine o'clock, very merry and drawn on with one song after another till it came to be so late.