Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sounds of Victorian London

Noise, noise, noise. It didn’t matter which way one turned, Victorian London was awash with noise. Noisy traffic, noisy industry, street musicians, the cries of street-sellers and street collectors echoed through London. From morning till night, the costermongers could be heard crying their wares and music whether just the organ-grinder, or the full brass band seemed to surround one night and day.

Traffic in London was extreme as much of the city was created long before Victoria came to the throne. Streets were narrow and paved with cobblestones. The wheels of the transport were iron-shod since the pneumatic tyre did not come into use until the 1890s. In the streets horses and pedestrians mingled.

A doctor, writing to The Times from Harley Street on 13 August 1869, complained amongst other things, of the way in which Cab drivers would hold long conversations from opposite sides of the road at the top of their voices and scavengers would shout jokes from cart to cart. The letter went on to complain of paper boys yelling out the news, musicians disturbing whole neighbourhoods, and drunks “who choose to sing and holloa up and down our streets and squares.” Then there were “the early organ-grinders, collectors of hares’ and rabbits’ skins, sellers of watercresses, [and] the inevitable dustman” to keep one from sleep.

Noise levels were so intolerable that they might cause or exacerbate illness. When John Leech, the illustrator, died in 1864, his friends believed his death had been hastened by the noise which he so despised. “Dickens called them ‘brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads’.”

But correspondence to The Times and the feelings of artists and writers seemed to have only the most limited impact on noise levels. The Honourable Secretary of the Association for the Suppression of Street Noises, Charles Fox, wrote to The Times on 5 December 1895 to complain that “the general street noises of London are increasing in volume and intensity.”

Street Organs seem to have been the bane of the Victorians’ existence. In part this was because of the noise they created; by the 1860s there were estimated to be over one-thousand organ-grinders in London alone. But there may be more to it than just noise. From the constant harping upon the ethnic characteristics of the Organ-Grinders, one gains the impression that much of the objection was xenophobic.

The Rev. D. Rice-Jones in, In the Slums (1884), described life in Sardinia Street. Located in the Camden area, this was one of the poorest slums in London. By ten or eleven at night, the street came to life with barrel-organs playing sometimes until well past midnight. These, in turn, acted as a kind of magnet for young people who engaged “in the coarsest kind of horseplay, and the coarsest language.”

Small children danced on the pavement “to the mingled accompaniments of jig music, obscene songs, and profane oaths.” While this went on in the streets one could also hear the sounds coming from the public house; “the confused noise of many voices brutalised by drink, and all trying to make themselves heard at the same time.”On Monday, Wednesday and Friday the noise from horses and wagons from the Covent Garden Market often woke one through the night and, of course, on Saturday and Sunday night "it is almost impossible to get any sleep before three or four o'clock. For some hours after the public-houses are closed there is a continuous uproar-singing, shouting, howling, yelling, cursing, fighting; women's voices crying "Murder!" and the voices of little children screaming with terror, while their parents are engaged in a desperate fight with their boon companions, or with each other."

Henry Mayhew, who chronicled lower-class life in London in his great study, London Labour and the London Poor, has much to say of the noisy street life of the Victorian metropolis in the 1850s. He describes life in the streets whether it is the Punch professor (as they were known) or the poorest watercress seller. Often street exhibitors had assistants with a drum or some other instrument to attract the crowds. An exhibitor of mechanical figures told Mayhew that he had “two men beside myself, one plays the organ.” But whether with organ, drum or some other instrument, street performers, thimble-riggers, costermongers and anyone with something to say, show or sell hollered and shouted, banged and whistled to draw a crowd. With so many street performers and beggars, the noise must often have been intolerable.

Then, there were the bands and musicians; the violinist who imitated barnyard animal, the bell ringers, cellists, street bands (according to one of Mayhew’s informants there were around 250 street bands, not including black minstrel bands). There were English bands, German bands an, bagpipers. There were hurdy-gurdy players and harpists and clarinet players. Assisting the organ-grinder one might see a trained monkey or dancing dogs and one could go on almost indefinitely. If it was an instrument that could be played, it was likely to be found on the streets of Victorian London.

If it wasn’t instruments, it was often the sounds of the street vocalists; Black serenaders, glee-singers and balladeers. If a street performer couldn’t sing, he or she might whistle. The street seemed to draw the most bizarre forms of “entertainment.” One found the blind reader or the writer without hands or the blind profile cutter working in London and selling their products with shouts into the infernal din.

Add to all this, the sound of carts on cobble-stones, the neighing of horses, the sound of steam trains and all the ordinary cacophony of the streets and London was noisy indeed!


Evangeline Holland said...

I've always been interested in sounds, being an audio learner. Since I write historical romance, it's easy to describe clothing and mores and such, but sounds! That's a tough one. Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Your site is great; it provies a slice of life view of the era, making it much mrie accessible and intersteing for students.


An Amerian mom of two teenagers.

Anonymous said...

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The Vapour Trailer said...

Have just been reading and blogging about the noisiness of colonial Australian street-life, so this was very timely: thanks.

London Sound Survey said...

That's an excellent post, and the letter to The Times is a good find indeed.

Thomas Carlyle so disliked the noise of London that he had a special cork-lined study built.

Some of the best descriptions of the sounds of early to mid-19th century London are of course from Dickens, who was influenced by Charles Babbage's belief that no sound ever completely vanishes, but lives on in an attenuated form in the atmosphere.