Historical references to London's sounds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: 1864

Sound category: Social > City-wide celebrations

Title of work: Diaries

Type of publication: Private diaries

Author: A. J. Munby

Year of publication: 1864

Page/volume number: 11 April 1864

Garibaldi’s reception in London in 1863

All the afternoon, the neighbourhood of Whitehall was in a bustle; bells ringing, music playing, everyone getting ready to witness the entry of Garibaldi into London.

[. . .]

Then at last the rest of the procession struggled up: more banners of Odd Fellows and the like, more carriages and cabs, filled with working men and foreigners, who looked all unused to the luxury of riding; more trades unions on foot, from all parts of London; a young lady on horseback (who was she?) riding calmly alone; a small bodyguard of Garibaldians; and the General himself, seated on the box of a barouche, in brown wideawake and what looked like a blue blouse. The excitement had been rapidly rising, and now, when this supreme moment came, it resulted in such a scene as can hardly be witnessed twice in a lifetime. That vast multitude rose as one man from their level attitude of expectation: they leapt into the air, they waved their arms and hats aloft, they surged and struggled round the carriage, they shouted with a mighty shout of enthusiasm that took one's breath to hear it: and above them on both sides thousands of white kerchiefs were waving from every window and housetop.

There was an ardour and a sort of deep pathetic force about this sound that distinguished it plainly from the shouts of simple welcome which I heard given last year to the Princess Alexandra.

Period referred to: 1766–67

Sound category: Social > City-wide celebrations

Title of work: A Tour to London

Type of publication: Travelogue

Author: Pierre Jean Grossley

Year of publication: 1766–67

Page/volume number: 183–4

Butchers’ boys mark the Duke of Cumberland’s birthday

Setting aside a few exceptions [. . .] melancholy prevails in London in every family, in circles, in assemblies, at public and private entertainments, so that the English nation, which sees verified in itself the populum late regem of Virgil, offers to the eyes of strangers only populum late tristem. The merry meetings even of the lower sort of people are dashed with this gloom. On the 26th of April the butchers' boys celebrated the anniversary of the Duke of Cumberland's birthday. Being about fifty in number, they, in uniforms, that is to say, in caps and white aprons, paraded the streets of London by break of day, having each a great marrow-bone in his hand, with which they beat time upon a large cleaver: this produced a sort of music as sharp as dissonant. The air of those who played in this manner, being as savage as their music, made them appear like a company of hangmen marching in ceremony to some great execution.

[NOTE: Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, was given the nickname of 'Butcher' by his English Tory opponents for his suppression of the Jacobite rising at Culloden in 1746. A letter from Horace Walpole, dated August 1746, relates how a City aldermen proposed that the Duke be given the freedom of the Butchers' Company.]

Period referred to: 1704

Sound category: Social > Citywide celebrations

Title of work: The Observator

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: Unnamed journalist

Year of publication: 1704

Page/volume number: 23 August 1704, page 2

A Jacobite is imagined dying from the sound of victory bell-ringing

The poor Fellows get to the Coffee-House, and there they Rattle, Chatter, and Grin against the Government. But if the Bells begin to Ring for a Victory, they run away like so many Dogs at the Sound of a Whip and Bell.

One High Flying, Tory-rory, Jacobite Monster, the Evening when the Honest People rejoyc'd for the great Victory obtain'd by the Duke of Marlborough, went home to keep Company with his Dear Spouse, which being something extraordinary, she ask'd him the Reason thereof. But, alas! the poor Mortal was Speechless, he walk'd about the Room, like the Apparition of Judge Jeffries, and Sobbing and Sighing, made a noise like that of the famous Groaning-Board, but at the repeated Solicitations of his Wife, he open'd his mouth, and said, That all the People in London were Mad, stark Mad as any March-Hares: His Wife ask'd him the Cause of their Madness, he had no further Utterance, but ascending into his Chamber, Groaning, and Wringing his Hands, he threw himself on the Bed, and wrapp'd his Head in the Blankets, to keep the Noise of the Bells out of his Ears. I am afraid the poor Fellow is Dead of the Ding-Dongs.

Obs. 'Tis not one Half-penny matter; if he be unwilling to hear the Jubilee sounds of Bells and Great Guns, he had best run his Head into the Earth; for I hope to have occasion of such Rejoycings before Quarter-Day.

[The victory referred to was likely that of the Battle of Blenheim, fought on 13 August 1704 in Bavaria.]

Period referred to: 1550s

Sound category: Social > Citywide celebrations

Title of work: The Diary of Henry Machyn

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Henry Machyn

Year of publication: 1552

Page/volume number: January-June 1552

The Lord of Misrule appears as London celebrates Twelfth Night

The iiij day of Januarii was mad a grett skaffold [in Ch]epe hard by the crosse, agaynst the kynges lord of myss[rule] cumyng from Grenwyche; and landyd at Towre warff, [and with] hym yonge knyghts and gentyllmen a gret nombur on [horseb] ake sum in gownes and cotes and chynes [1] abowt ther nekes, every man havyng a balderyke of yelow and grene abowt ther nekes, and on the Towre hyll ther they [went in] order, furst a standard of yelow and grene sylke with Sant Gorge, and then gonnes and skuybes [2] and trompets and bagespypes, and drousselars and flutes, and then a gret compeny all in yelow and gren, and docturs declaryng my lord grett, and then the mores danse dansyng with a tabret, and afor xx of ys consell on horsbake in gownes of chanabulle lynyd with blue taffata and capes of the sam, lyke sage (men); then cam my lord with a gowne of gold furyd with fur of the goodlyest collers [3] as ever youe saw, and then ys . . . and after cam alff a hundred in red and wyht, tallmen [of] the gard, with hods of the sam coler, and cam in to the cete; and after cam a carte, the whyche cared the pelere, the a . ., [the] jubett, [4] the stokes, and at the crose in Chepe a gret brod s[kaffold] for to go up; then cam up the trumpeter, the harold, [and the] doctur of the law, and ther was a proclamasyon mad of my lord('s) progeny, [5] and of ys gret howshold that he [kept,] and of ys dyngnyte; and there was a hoghed of wyne [at] the skaffold, and ther my lord dranke, and ys consell, and [had] the hed smyttyn owt that every body mytht drynke, and [money?] cast abowt them, and after my lord('s) grase rod unto my lord mer [6] and alle ys men to dener, for ther was dener as youe have sene [7]; and after he toke his hers [8], and rod to my lord Tresorer at Frer Austens, and so to Bysshopgate, and so to Towre warff, and toke barge to Grenwyche.

1 chains. 2 squibs. 3 colours. 4 gibbet. 5 genealogy. 6 mayor. 7 i.e. as great a dinner. 8 horse.

Period referred to: 1900s

Sound category: Social > Citywide celebrations

Title of work: Nights in London

Type of publication: Journalism/social investigation

Author: Thomas Burke

Year of publication: 1915

Page/volume number: A Lonely Night

Thomas Burke wanders the streets on Christmas Day

That was a ghastly Christmas. Through the whole afternoon I tramped – from Hackney to Homerton, thence to Clapton, to Stoke Newington, to Tottenham, and back. Emptiness was everywhere: no people, little traffic. Roofs and roads were hard with a light frost, and in the sudden twilight the gleaming windows of a hundred houses shone out jeeringly. Sounds of festivity disturbed the brooding quiet of the town. Each side street was a corridor of warm blinds. Harmoniums, pianos, concertinas, mouth organs, gramophones, tin trumpets, and voices uncertainly controlled, poured forth their strains, mingling and clashing. The whole thing seemed got up expressly for my disturbance.

Period referred to: 1620s

Sound category: Social > City-wide celebrations

Title of work: Prince Charles his Welcome from Spaine

Type of publication: Pamphlet

Author: John Taylor

Year of publication: 1623

Page/volume number: n/a

London celebrations as Prince Charles Stuart returns from Spain

[A day spent] in mirth, triumphs and thanksgiving, wherein the people of all degrees, from the highest to the lowest, both rich and poor, in London, Westminster, and the suburbs, to their powers expressed their loves. [The air] was filled with the shouts and acclamations of people, with the rejoicing noises of instruments, ordnance, muskets, bells, drums, and trumpets . . . The day was commanded to be kept a holiday, so that no shops were opened, no manner of work was done from morning to night, but carrying and recarrying of wood to make bonfires, ringing, filling, and emptying of pots, that all seemed as if the world was newly preserved from some second flood.

[As quoted in David Cressey's Bonfires & Bells, 1989.]

Period referred to: 1880s

Sound category: Social > City-wide celebrations

Title of work: The Nether World

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Gissing

Year of publication: 1889

Page/volume number: Chapter XII

August bank holiday at Crystal Palace

Thus early in the day, the grounds were of course preferred to the interior of the glass house. [. . .] Here already was gathered much goodly company; above their heads hung a thick white wavering cloud of dust. Swing-boats and merry-go-rounds are from of old the chief features of these rural festivities; they soared and dipped and circled to the joyous music of organs which played the same tune automatically for any number of hours, whilst raucous voices invited all and sundry to take their turn.

[. . .]

So they made their way to the 'Shilling Tea-room.' Having paid at the entrance, they were admitted to feed freely on all that lay before them. With difficulty could a seat be found in the huge room; the uproar of voices was deafening. [. . .] Shrieks of female laughter testified to the success of the entertainment.

[. . .]

As the dusk descends there is a general setting of the throng towards the open air; all the pathways swarm with groups which have a tendency to disintegrate into couples; universal is the protecting arm. [ . . .] On the terraces dancing has commenced; the players of violins, concertinas, and penny-whistles do a brisk trade among the groups eager for a rough-and-tumble valse; so do the pickpockets. Vigorous and varied is the jollity that occupies the external galleries, filling now in expectation of the fireworks; indescribable the mingled tumult that roars heavenwards. Girls linked by the half-dozen arm-in-arm leap along with shrieks like grotesque maenads; a rougher horseplay finds favour among the youths, occasionally leading to fisticuffs. Thick voices bellow in fragmentary chorus; from every side comes the yell, the cat-call, the ear-rending whistle; and as the bass, the never-ceasing accompaniment, sounds myriad-footed tramp, tramp along the wooden flooring. A fight, a scene of bestial drunkenness, a tender whispering between two lovers, proceed concurrently in a space of five square yards.—Above them glimmers the dawn of starlight.

Period referred to: End of World War 2

Sound category: Social > Citywide celebrations

Title of work: Diaries, 1943–1954

Type of publication: Diary

Author: James Lee Milne

Year of publication: 1945

Page/volume number: 8 May 1945

VE Day remembered by diarist James Lee-Milne

At midnight I insisted on our joining the revels. It was a very warm night [. . .] We walked down Bond Street passing small groups singing, not boisterously. Piccadilly however was full of swarming people and littered with paper.

We walked arm in arm into the middle of Piccadilly Circus which was brilliantly illuminated with arc lamps. Here the crowds were yelling, singing and laughing. They were orderly and good-humoured. All the English virtues were on the surface. We watched individuals climb the lamp posts, and plant flags on the top amidst tumultuous applause from bystanders. We walked down Piccadilly towards the Ritz. In the Green Park there was a huge bonfire under the trees [ . . .] One extraordinary figure, a bearded, naval titan, organised an absurd nonsense game, by calling out the Navy and making them tear around the bonfire carrying the Union Jack; then the RAF; then the Army; then the Land Army, represented by three girls only; then the Americans; then the civilians.

Period referred to: Start of the 20th century

Sound category: Social > Citywide celebrations

Title of work: Daily Mail

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: Daily Mail

Year of publication: 1900

Page/volume number: 18 May 1900

The night of the relief of Mafeking

Mafeking is free! . . . At 9.30 last night the announcement came that the Boers had abandoned the siege . . . London simply went wild with delight.

Fleet Street, which, on ordinary nights, contains only its usual number of pedestrians, was, as if by magic, transformed in a thoroughfare crowded and jammed with an excited throng of cheering, shouting, gesticulating, happy people. Whistles were blown, even the innocent shovel that is used to stoke the May-Day fireplace was utilised for demonstrative purposes.

[At the Mansion House] the Lord Mayor received the news, and the two footmen, in their wild desire to display 'BP' [a large picture of Baden-Powell] to the empty streets, nearly dropped it on the head of an unsuspecting passer-by. One of them shouted excitedly: 'Mafeking is relieved'.

Instantly the cry was taken up on the omnibuses and the people came clmabering down in hot haste to hear the news repeated over and over again. Most of them stopped still as if it were too good to be true. Others rushed off into the byways, carrying the tidings further and further away, and all the time the streets became thicker with people cheering, shouting and singing.

Within five minutes of the announcement so unconventionally made by the Mansion House footman to the policeman below, the historic home of the Lord Mayor was surrounded by a crowd of no fewer than 20,000 madmen, all yelling: 'Mafeking is relieved!' or singing 'God Save the Queen' in all the notes possible to music.

Period referred to: 1860s

Sound category: Social > City-wide celebrations

Title of work: The Penny Illustrated Paper

Type of publication: Newspaper

Author: Not known

Year of publication: 1861

Page/volume number: 9 November 1861

Firemen’s parade on Guy Fawkes Night

An extraordinary demonstration was made by the Fire Brigade. A procession started from the chief fire station in Watling-street [. . .] In front of the horse were some firemen wearing helmets, dressed in their usual uniform, and carrying branches of engines in their hands [. . .] By repeated blowing through the pipes, they made a noise such as that which in former times was made at Bartholomew fair.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Social > City-wide celebrations

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1660

Page/volume number: February 1660

General George Monck’s troops enter London

And indeed I saw many people give the soldiers drink and money, and all along in the streets cried, "God bless them!" and extraordinary good words. [. . .] In Cheapside there was a great many bonfires, and Bow bells and all the bells in all the churches as we went home were a-ringing. Hence we went homewards, it being about ten o'clock. But the common joy that was every where to be seen! [. . .] The butchers at the May Pole in the Strand rang a peal with their knives when they were going to sacrifice their rump.