Historical references to London's sounds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: 1698-1700

Sound category: Social > Music and song in public

Title of work: The London Spy

Type of publication: Social investigation/satire

Author: Ned Ward

Year of publication: 1698-1700

Page/volume number: Unknown

Ned Ward hears the street musicians known as ‘town waits’

We blundered on in pursuit of our night's felicity, but scarce had walked the length of a horse's tether, ere we heard a noise so dreadful and surprising that we thought the Devil was riding on hunting through the City, with a pack of deep-mouthed hell-hounds, to catch a brace of tallymen for breakfast. At last bolted out from the corner of a street, with an ignis fatuus dancing before them, a parcel of strange hobgoblins covered with long frieze rugs and blankets, hooped round with leather girdles from their cruppers to their shoulders, and their noddles buttoned up into caps of martial figure, like a knight errant at tilt and tournament with his wooden head locked in an iron helmet. One was armed, as I thought, with a lusty faggot-bat, and the rest with strange wooden weapons in their hands in the shape of clyster-pipes, but as long, almost, as speaking-trumpets. Of a sudden they clapped them to their mouths and made such a frightful yelling that I thought the world had been dissolving and the terrible sound of the last trumpet to be within an inch of my ears.

Under these amazing apprehensions I asked my friend what was the meaning of this infernal outcry. 'Prithee,' says he, 'what's the matter with thee? Thou look'st as if thou wert galleyed. Why these are the city waits, who play every winter's night through the streets to rouse each lazy drone to family duty.' 'Lord bless me!' said I. 'I am very glad it's no worse. I was never so scared since I popped out of the parsley-bed. Prithee, let us make haste out of the hearing of them, or I shall be forced to make a close-stool pan of my breeches.' At which my friend laughed at me. 'Why, what' says be, 'don't you love music? These are the topping tooters of the town, and have gowns, silver chains, and salaries, for playing "Lilliburlero" to my Lord Mayor's horse through the city.' 'Marry,' said I, 'if his horse liked their music no better than I do, he would soon fling his rider for hiring such bugbears to affront His Ambleship. For my part when you told me they were waits, I thought they had been the Polanders and was never so afraid but that their bears had been dancing behind them.'

Period referred to: 1840s

Sound category: Social > Public music and song outdoors

Title of work: Vanity Fair

Type of publication: Novel

Author: William Thackeray

Year of publication: 1848

Page/volume number: Chapter 6

Sounds of Vauxhall pleasure gardens in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair

And the truth is, that of all the delights of the Gardens; of the hundred thousand extra lamps, which were always lighted; the fiddlers in cocked hats, who played ravishing melodies under the gilded cockle-shell in the midst of the gardens; the singers, both of comic and sentimental ballads, who charmed the ears there; the country dances, formed by bouncing cockneys and cockneyesses, and executed amidst jumping, thumping and laughter; the signal which announced that Madame Saqui was about to mount skyward on a slack-rope ascending to the stars; the hermit that always sat in the illuminated hermitage; the dark walks, so favourable to the interviews of young lovers; the pots of stout handed about by the people in the shabby old liveries; and the twinkling boxes, in which the happy feasters made-believe to eat slices of almost invisible ham—of all these things, and of the gentle Simpson, that kind smiling idiot, who, I daresay, presided even then over the place—Captain William Dobbin did not take the slightest notice.

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.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Social > Music and song by the public

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1664

Page/volume number: 5 October 1664

‘Thence to the Musique-meeting at the Postoffice’

Thence to the Musique-meeting at the Postoffice, where I was once before. And thither anon come all the Gresham College, and a great deal of noble company: and the new instrument was brought called the Arched Viall, where being tuned with lute-strings, and played on with kees like an organ, a piece of parchment is always kept moving; and the strings, which by the kees are pressed down upon it, are grated in imitation of a bow, by the parchment; and so it is intended to resemble several vyalls played on with one bow, but so basely and harshly, that it will never do.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Social > Public music and song outdoors

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1663

Page/volume number: 27 July 1663

Samuel Pepys encounters singers near Epsom

There was at a distance, under one of the trees on the common, a company got together that sung. I, at the distance, and so all the rest being a quarter of a mile off, took them for the Waytes, so I rode up to them, and found them only voices, some citizens met by chance, that sung four or five parts excellently. I have not been more pleased with a snapp of musique, considering the circumstances of the time and place, in all my life anything so pleasant.