10 November 2009
Past sounds of Lambeth Walk and London Bridge station
TWO EXCELLENT DESCRIPTIONS gleaned recently of early twentieth-century London sounds from the reformer Maud Pember Reeves and the writer V.S. Pritchett.
Pember Reeves was a Fabian socialist and co-author of the 1913 social investigation Round About a Pound a Week, which revealed to its readers the lives led by working-class women in Lambeth Walk. Here she describes the now-vanished auditory scene of children’s games in the street:
Questions are often asked as to how these children amuse themselves . . . Girls sometimes pooled their babies and did a little skipping, shouting severe orders as they did so to the unhappy infants. One party of soldiers, whose uniform was a piece of white tape round the arm and a piece of stick held over the shoulder as weapon, marched up and down a narrow street for hours on the first day of the August holidays, making such a noise of battle and sudden death that the long-suffering mothers inside the houses occasionally left their work to scream to them to be quiet.
V.S. Pritchett wrote the autobiographical A Cab at the Door in 1968, and from it comes this lyrical passage about the cries of station porters at London Bridge, around the time of the First World War:
There were no indicators on the platforms in my day and the confusion had to be sorted out by stentorian porters who called out their long litanies of stations in a hoarse London bawl and with a style of their own. They stood on the crowded platform edge, detected the identifying lights on the incoming engine and then sang out. To myself, at that age, all places I did not know seemed romantic and the lists of names were, if not Miltonic, at any rate as evocative as those names with which the Georgian poets filled up their lines. I would stare admiringly, even enviously, at the porter who would have to chant the long line to Bexley Heath; or the man, who beginning with the blunt and challenging football names of Charlton and Woolwich would go on to comic Plumstead and then flow forward till his voice fell to the finality of Greenhythe, Northfleet, and Gravesend; or the softer tones of St Johns, Lewisham, and Blackheath.