Historical references to London's sounds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: 1805

Sound category: Social > Gambling and fairgrounds

Title of work: The Prelude

Type of publication: Poem

Author: William Wordsworth

Year of publication: 1805

Page/volume number: Book VII

Wordsworth describes Bartholomew Fair

For once, the Muse's help will we implore,
And she shall lodge us, wafted on her wings,
Above the press and danger of the crowd,
Upon some showman's platform. What a hell
For eyes and ears! what anarchy and din
Barbarian and infernal, – 'tis a dream,
Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound!
Below, the open space, through every nook
Of the wide area, twinkles, is alive
With heads; the midway region, and above,
Is thronged with staring pictures and huge scrolls,
Dumb proclamations of the Prodigies;
And chattering monkeys dangling from their poles,
And children whirling in their roundabouts;
With those that stretch the neck and strain the eyes,
And crack the voice in rivalship, the crowd
Inviting; with buffoons against buffoons
Grimacing, writhing, screaming, – him who grinds
The hurdy gurdy, at the fiddle weaves,
Rattles the salt-box, thumps the kettle-drum,
And him who at the trumpet puffs his cheeks,
The silver-collared Negro with his timbrel,
Equestrians, tumblers, women, girls, and boys,
Blue-breeched, pink-vested, and with towering plumes.
All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
Are here – Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
The Horse of all knowledge, and the learned Pig,
The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft
Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
All out-o'-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man; his dulness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together to make up
This Parliament of Monsters, Tents, and Booths.

Period referred to: 1870s

Sound category: Social > Gambling and fairgrounds

Title of work: Esther Waters

Type of publication: Novel

Author: George Moore

Year of publication: 1894

Page/volume number: Chapter XXXIII

A Victorian fairground ride at the Epsom Derby

The crowd shouted. She looked where the others looked, but saw only the burning blue with the white stand marked upon it. It was crowded like the deck of a sinking vessel, and Esther wondered at the excitement, the cause of which was hidden from her. She wandered to the edge of the crowd until she came to a chalk road where horses and mules were tethered. A little higher up she entered the crowd again, and came suddenly upon a switchback railway. Full of laughing and screaming girls, it bumped over a middle hill, and then rose slowly till it reached the last summit. It was shot back again into the midst of its fictitious perils, and this mock voyaging was accomplished to the sound of music from a puppet orchestra. Bells and drums, a fife and a triangle, cymbals clashed mechanically, and a little soldier beat the time. Further on, under a striped awning, were the wooden horses. They were arranged so well that they rocked to and fro, imitating as nearly as possible the action of real horses.

[. . .]

Round and round they went, their steeds bobbing nobly up and down to the sound of fifes, drums and cymbals. They passed the winning-post many times; they had to pass it five times, and the horse that stopped nearest it won the prize. A long-drawn-out murmur, continuous as the sea, swelled up from the course—a murmur which at last passed into words: "Here they come; blue wins, the favourite's beat." Esther paid little attention to these cries; she did not understand them; they reached her indistinctly and soon died away, absorbed in the strident music that accompanied the circling horses.

Period referred to: 1920s

Sound category: Social > Gambling

Title of work: The Water Gipsies

Type of publication: Novel

Author: A. P. Herbert

Year of publication: 1930

Page/volume number: Chapter 7

Bookmakers at the Epsom races in the 1920s

They gazed in silence at the historic scene, the classic lunacy of the English race. The bookmakers snarled like animals in the rain; the caped policemen stood glistening in the rain, like rows of wet seals; the merry-go-rounds swung round merrily in the rain, and from across the dip came the blare of their wild, pathetic music [. . .]

They walked along the line of yelling bookmakers, the girls pointing and exclaiming as if the worthy gentlemen had been so many monsters in the Zoo [. . .] The happy Fred chose Bill Oates, of Wandsworth, a fatherly gentleman in a pink top-hat. He had white whiskers, a pale blue sash, a scarlet banner, and a smile which spelt goodness and loving-kindness, and in hoarse tones he constantly repeated that he was the 'Old Firm' and must not be deserted. Jane felt that it was a good action to be with this frail and deserving old man.

"Come along lady! Bless your pretty eyes! What's your fancy, lady? Lemonora? Thirty-three to one, Lemonora. Five shillings each way, Lemonora, thank you, lady. The Old Firm, the Old Firm, don't desert the Old Firm!"

Period referred to: 1860s

Sound category: Social > Gambling

Title of work: Notes on England

Type of publication: Travelogue

Author: Hippolyte Taine

Year of publication: 1861

Page/volume number: 28 May 1861

A Frenchman visits the Epsom Derby

It is a carnival, in fact; they have come to amuse themselves in a noisy fashion. Everywhere are gypsies, comic singers and dancers disguised as negroes, shooting galleries where bows and arrows or guns are used, charlatans who by dint of eloquence palm off watch chains, games of skittles and sticks, musicians of all sorts [. . .]

[ . . .] after three false starts they are off; fifteen or twenty keep together, the others are in small groups [. . .] It turns; one perceives the first group approach. 'Hats off!' and all heads are uncovered, and everyone rises; a repressed 'hurrah' runs through the stands.

Period referred to: 1660s

Sound category: Social > Gambling

Title of work: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Type of publication: Diary

Author: Samuel Pepys

Year of publication: 1668

Page/volume number: 1 January

Samuel Pepys visits a gaming house

By and by I met with Mr Brisband, and having it in my mind this Christmas to go to see the manner of the gaming at the Groome-Porter's [. . .] they began to play at about eight at night, where to see how differently one man took his losing from another, one cursing and swearing, and another only muttering and grumbling to himself, a third without any apparent discontent at all [. . .]

And mighty glad I am that I did see it [. . .] for their heat of play begins not till about eleven or twelve o'clock; which did give me another pretty observation of a man, that did win mighty fast when I was there. I think he won £100 at single pieces in a little time. While all the rest envied him his good fortune he cursed it, saying, 'A pox on it, that it should come so early upon me, for this fortune two hours hence would be worth something to me, but then, God damn me, I shall have no such luck.'

Period referred to: Early 18th century

Sound category: Social > Gambling

Title of work: London in 1710

Type of publication: Published travel account

Author: Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach

Year of publication: 1710

Page/volume number: Not known

A German traveller witnesses a London cockfight

The people, gentlefolk as well as commoners (they all sit together), act like madmen and go on raising the odds to twenty guineas and more. As soon as one of the bidders calls 'done', the other is held to his bargain.

As soon as the cocks appear, the shouts grown even louder and the betting is continued. [. . .] There is nothing so amusing as when one cock seems quite exhausted and there are great shouts of joy and terrific bets and then, though he seems quite done for, he suddenly recovers and masters the other. When one of the two is dead, the victor never fails to start crowing and jumping on the other and it often happens that they sing their song of triumph before victory is assured and the other wins after all.

[. . .]

If a man has made a bet and is unable to pay he is made, as a punishment, to sit in a busker tied to the ceiling and is drawn up in it amidst mighty laughter.