AS SOCIETY BECOMES wealthier and better organised, so the sounds of the urban environment grow less varied and dramatic. This mostly reflects developments for which we ought to be grateful.
Town criers and many other kinds of public announcement were made all but redundant by the spread of literacy. Street lighting has lessened the difference in activity between day and night. Improvements in medicine and air quality have made much rarer the sort of coughing which Orwell described in the early 1930s:
The forces of order have also reduced the risk of such mishaps in London as collapsing buildings, serious fires, riots, accidental explosions and lethal stampedes. Here’s a short list of some of the noisiest peacetime disasters to have afflicted London.
At six o’clock on the morning of 16 May 1968, Ivy Hodge struck a match to light her gas cooker. Unknown to her, a faulty pipe had been leaking gas into her kitchen, and the resulting explosion knocked her unconscious. It also blew out a load-bearing wall from Hodge’s 18th-floor flat in the newly-built Ronan Point tower block in east London. A cascade of concrete panels demolished each flat below in turn until an entire corner of Ronan Point had collapsed. Four people were killed.
Seventh-floor resident James Chambers described what he saw and heard:
The risks inherent in how Ronan Point had been built were unknown at the time, and it complied with all the existing regulations and codes of practice. Building collapses in earlier centuries were often due simply to shoddy work or when the structure was overwhelmed by hordes of excited people. Samuel Johnson’s satirical poem London, written in 1738, suggested that such collapses were a common enough feature of the sound environment:
Here malice, rapine, accident, conspire,
And now a rabble rages, now a fire;
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
And here the fell attorney prowls for prey;
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
And here a female atheist talks you dead
One such falling house appears in Hogarth’s Gin Lane to symbolise social disintegration:
A collapse of a viewing stand occurred at the last state-sanctioned beheading in Britain. Lord Lovat, Chief of Clan Fraser, had supported the Stuart side during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. After the Rebellion’s defeat he was captured on a island in the middle of a loch, and executed at Tower Hill in April 1747.
Public executions were always met with intense excitement in London and it is unsurprising that more people than was wise were allowed to swarm onto a viewing platform. The platform gave way, killing twenty.
Such accidents weren’t new even then. In January 1583, a crowd of spectators had clambered onto makeshift scaffolding in Southwark to watch a bear-baiting tournament at Paris Garden. Their combined weight was too much and eight lives were lost.
The kind of gas explosion which triggered the collapse at Ronan Point became less common once relatively odourless town gas had been phased out by 1977. Many of the worst accidental explosions in London throughout history had, unsurprisingly, involved carelessness with gunpowder.
One of the earliest recorded incidents took place in January 1650 near the Tower of London. 27 barrels of gunpowder blew up while being stored by a ship’s chandler, flattening a tavern and dozens of houses. Fireworks factories also made unpredictable neighbours. A fireworks arranger named Madam Coton lost her husband when their home and workshop blew up in Westminster in 1854.
Undeterred, she had the house rebuilt and continued in her trade until July 1858, when another explosion sent rockets and roman candles flying through the streets, setting ablaze another fireworks factory nearby. Madam Coton later died of her injuries.
Only primitive precautions existed in the nineteenth-century when gunpowder and other explosives were transported around London by barge, with the vessel having to fly a red flag. Barge crews still had to warm themselves by an open fire in the cabin, and this unfortunate combination caused an explosion in October 1874 which demolished Macclesfield Bridge on the Regent’s Canal.
The barge Tilbury had been carrying five tons of gunpowder along with barrels of petroleum. At just before five o’clock in the morning, the barge exploded, destroying the bridge and two nearby houses completely. Windows were shattered up to a mile away and, to the cries of people running out of their homes in alarm, were added the screeches and howls of terrified animals in the London Zoo.
It would be nice to think that Londoners are a worldly bunch. Not the sort who’d lose the plot just because some shop had a sale on with beds for £30 and leather sofas for £45.
It would be nice, but it wouldn’t be true. The October 2005 opening of the Edmonton branch of Ikea in north London led to a near-stampede with fights breaking out and a man stabbed at a nearby petrol station. This YouTube video captures some of the highlights:
More serious stampedes must be terrifying. London has never experienced anything as bad as the Khodynka Tragedy in Russia in 1896. Vast crowds had gathered in Moscow for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, encouraged by the news of free gifts for everyone present. They were to include a sausage, a pretzel and a commemorative cup each. Then a rumour sprang up that there weren’t enough to go round, and a stampede followed in which nearly 1,400 people died.
In London in 1322, a crush of people waiting for alms at the gate of the Black Friars’ Priory ended with more than fifty deaths. But a more common cause of stampedes in London has been some threat, real or false, which people have tried to flee. Cries of ‘fire’ in packed public buildings feature in the most notorious cases.
A false fire alarm at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1807 killed eighteen. Another at the Royal Victoria Theatre on Boxing Day 1858 led to fifteen deaths. Six died and thirty were injured in 1856 at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall when someone cried ‘fire’ among a huge crowd who had come to hear the young Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon. It was believed that the cry had been made deliberately to create panic, but the culprit was never found.