Historical references to London's sounds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: Early 18th century

Sound category: Social > Music and song in theatres

Title of work: The Italian Opera

Type of publication: Essay in The Spectator

Author: Jospeh Addison

Year of publication: 1711

Page/volume number: Spectator 18, March 21, 1711

18th century Italian opera introduced to the London stage

And it was pleasant enough to see the most refined persons of the British nation dying away and languishing to notes that were filled with a spirit of rage and indignation. It happened also very frequently, where the sense was rightly translated, the necessary transposition of words, which were drawn out of the phrase of one tongue into that of another, made the music appear very absurd in one tongue that was very natural in the other. I remember an Italian verse that ran thus, word for word:

“And turned my rage into pity;”

which the English for rhyme’s sake translated:

“And into pity turned my rage.”

By this means the soft notes that were adapted to pity in the Italian fell upon the word rage in the English; and the angry sounds that were turned to rage in the original, were made to express pity in the translation. It oftentimes happened, likewise, that the finest notes in the air fell upon the most insignificant words in the sentence. I have known the word “and” pursued through the whole gamut; have been entertained with many a melodious “the;” and have heard the most beautiful graces, quavers, and divisions bestowed upon “then,” “for,” and “from,” to the eternal honour of our English particles.

The next step to our refinement was the introducing of Italian actors into our opera; who sang their parts in their own language, at the same time that our countrymen performed theirs in our native tongue. The king or hero of the play generally spoke in Italian, and his slaves answered him in English. The lover frequently made his court, and gained the heart of his princess, in a language which she did not understand. One would have thought it very difficult to have carried on dialogues after this manner without an interpreter between the persons that conversed together; but this was the state of the English stage for about three years.

At length the audience grew tired of understanding half the opera; and therefore, to ease themselves entirely of the fatigue of thinking, have so ordered it at present, that the whole opera is performed in an unknown tongue. We no longer understand the language of our own stage; insomuch that I have often been afraid, when I have seen our Italian performers chattering in the vehemence of action, that they have been calling us names, and abusing us among themselves; but I hope, since we put such an entire confidence in them, they will not talk against us before our faces, though they may do it with the same safety as if it were behind our backs. In the meantime, I cannot forbear thinking how naturally an historian who writes two or three hundred years hence, and does not know the taste of his wise forefathers, will make the following reflection: “In the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Italian tongue was so well understood in England, that operas were acted on the public stage in that language.”

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'.

Period referred to: 1780s

Sound category: Social > Music and song in theatres

Title of work: Travels in England in 1782

Type of publication: Travel diary

Author: Karl Philipp Mortiz

Year of publication: 1782

Page/volume number: Not known

A German tourist visits Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens

At length I arrived at Ranelagh [. . .] I had not been here long before I was accosted by a young lady, who also was walking there, and who, without ceremony, offered me her arm, asking me why was I thus walking solitarily?

[. . .]

I suddenly entered a round building, illuminated by many hundred lamps; the splendour and beauty of which surpassed everything of the kind I had ever seen before. Everything seemed here, to be round: above, there was a gallery, divided into boxes; and in one part of it an organ with a beautiful choir, from which issued both instrumental and vocal music.

[Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens stood in Chelsea until 1804. The round building referred to by Moritz was known as the Rotunda.]

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Social > Music and song in theatres

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1663

Page/volume number: 21 August 1663

Samuel Pepys visits a music house in Greenwich

After dinner altered our design to go to Woolwich, and put it off to to-morrow morning, and so went all to Greenwich (Mrs. Waith excepted, who went thither, but not to the same house with us, but to her father's, that lives there), to the musique-house, where we had paltry musique, till the master organist came, whom by discourse I afterwards knew, having employed him for my Lord Sandwich, to prick out something (his name Arundell), and he did give me a fine voluntary or two [. . .]

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Social > Music and song in theatres

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1663

Page/volume number: 8 May 1663

‘There is no hearing of the bases at all, nor very well of the trebles’

Thence to my brother's, and there took up my wife and Ashwell to the Theatre Royall, being the second day of its being opened. The house is made with extraordinary good contrivance, and yet hath some faults, as the narrowness of the passages in and out of the Pitt, and the distance from the stage to the boxes, which I am confident cannot hear; but for all other things it is well, only, above all, the musique being below, and most of it sounding under the very stage, there is no hearing of the bases at all, nor very well of the trebles, which sure must be mended.