From David Vincent in Shrewsbury UK: London Sounds

30 July. The enterprising Museum of London has just made available two sets of recordings of London noise.  The first is a series of gramophone records of street sounds made in 1928.*   The Museum claims that these were the earliest such recordings ever made, and that they have never since been heard in their entirety.  They were commissioned by the Daily Mail as part of its campaign against what it considered to be the unbearable noise of the modern city.  It wrote that:

Those who cannot afford the time to travel about the city to hear for themselves how ear-splitting the traffic din has become will be able to have the noises brought to them so that they may be analysed and studied. It is confidently expected that a surprising proportion of them will be found to be wholly unnecessary and therefore preventable.

The Museum then had the bright idea of organising a parallel set of recordings of the same streets this May, in the midst of the lockdown.**  They are posted on its site as ‘Silent London.’

Much to praise, except the title.  The ten, five-minute recordings, listened to through earphones, are anything but silent.  The recordings were made during weekday afternoons, and almost without exception they are dominated by the roar of street traffic.  It is difficult to calibrate the relative volume of noise in the two sets of recordings.  The 1928 sounds, taken from sometimes scratchy LPs with a voice-over describing what is passing the microphone, seem less invasive than the technically much superior modern recordings in which vehicles pass in stereo from one ear to the other.  Only in Leicester Square, where there is limited traffic in ordinary times, is it possible to pick up occasional birdsong (particularly cooing pigeons at the beginning) and passing conversations. 

By contrast the 1928 soundscape, which so exercised the Daily Mail, presents a wider range of aural events.  The traffic is more varied, with steam lorries and frequent horse-drawn carts amidst the petrol-driven cars, taxis, buses and lorries.  The bells and wheel-flanges of trams can be heard.  And over the background roar there is music – a violinist playing with great clarity at the beginning of one recording, a boy whistling, a band including a clarinettist and a banjo-player, and a barrel organ, the mainstay of later nineteenth-century street players, still issuing mechanical tunes.  There is a newspaper seller barking in a strident monotone.

So was the much-discussed phenomenon of the silent, locked-down city an illusion?   Perhaps the May recordings were just made too late.  My diary entry of April 17 described a 75-mile drive to Manchester where the traffic was lighter than usual but far from absent.  The period of grace in central London, if it existed, may have been over before the Museum of London set up its microphones (it is not clear when in May it did so).  I am told by a friend who daily walked through the streets in the early days of lockdown that birdsong could be heard loud and clear, though not much conversation between people keeping their distance.  And always there were the ambulance sirens.

Perhaps it was and still is seriously much quieter in the side streets.  Perhaps a half-empty thoroughfare, on which the traffic can flow freely, is intrinsically noisier than a near-gridlocked one where cars are mostly at a standstill (I assume traffic engineers know about this).  There are other silences not picked up by road-side microphones.  My son tells me that he remains daily mindful of the absence of planes on the flight-path to and from the City of London Airport which normally pass over his house. 

I would like to imagine the possibility of walking about the capital listening to nothing noisier than birdsong, occasional conversations, and intermittent church bells.  But I fear that at least in the daytime, the streets of London have never been that quiet since the fields were first built over.


**The modern London recordings were made on behalf of the Museum by Will Cohen of ‘String and Tins.’

From David Vincent in Shropshire, UK: The Hissing of Rats

Let me introduce you to Jim, encountered during a tour of Poplar and Limehouse in 1899 by one of the team employed by Charles Booth to investigate the social conditions of London:

He is a navvy or bricklayers labourer & besides being very handy is noted for his strength.  Jim is herculean to look at, enormous chest, arms which looked as if they wd. burst his coat sleeves & huge hands, about 6ft high.  His failing is drink & excess of animal spirits.  He had an attractive manner & pleasant way of speaking but is said to be a “fair terror” in the neighbourhood.  He is now about 38 years of age: was married at 17 or 18, has a grown up son who takes after his father & has just been turned out of the army, also several small children.  He married a wife who was a match for him & tried to bang him about.  He left her, took up with another woman & his wife is now doing 6 months in Holloway jail for having tried to brain No. 2 with an empty champagne bottle.*

The cumulative result of the project was issued in seventeen volumes in 1902/3.  Alongside the prose analysis Booth also prepared a series of maps of all the city streets, colour coded from black (lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal) to yellow (upper-middle and upper classes).  These have just been republished in a handsome, remarkably inexpensive book by Thames and Hudson (Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps 2019, £49 95).  Such a topography of wealth and poverty in what was at the time the largest city in the world, had never previously been attempted.  Now the modern reader can once more traverse the streets of London, many of which still survive, noting then as now the proximity of deprivation and privilege.

Or the reader can go on-line and accompany the investigators as they walk down every road and into every court, usually guided by a local policeman.  Their manuscript notebooks are readily available at  For the most part the rich were unseen behind their front doors, but the poor, living much of their lives on the streets, are a vivid presence.  The details of their world lodge in the memory.  Here, for instance, a policeman describes a fat refinery in Poplar:

“You should come down here of an early summer morning; if possible after a shower of rain: Rats, not in twos or threes or in 10s /35 or twentys, but in thousands and tens of thousands: the street will be covered with them, so will be the yard of the factory; rats, not small rats but big & fat, the size of cats: you knock a [illeg] with your book & away they go with a rush and a hissing sound from their feet upon the pavements that will make your blood run cold.**

At the end of one of the notebooks, the guiding policeman turns his attention to the threat of infectious diseases, particularly with regard to a tenement building in which whole families lived in single rented rooms:

Inspector Pearson thought that all statistics relating to deaths in [Queens] Buildings were one sided because as soon as any one was ill they were sent away to a hospital & not Report at home as they wd. be in a private house.  In his opinion they are much more unhealthy than small houses & the danger of an epidemic spreading much greater – While the hospitals have room, he said, patients can be sent off & there is not much risk but supposing a general epidemic, & and no room in the hospitals, then “buildings” become a death trap to their inhabitants.***

Substitute care home for the “buildings” and you have an exact description of the disaster that has just befallen us.

*Booth/B/346, p. 99-101.

**Booth/B/349, p. 33

*** Booth/B/349, p. 247

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: London. Gloomy, close and stale

Little Dorrit (first edition image in public domain) ‘Damocles’

June 12. The most famous literary description of lockdown is to be found at the beginning of chapter 3 of Dickens’ Little Dorrit.  Arthur Clennam, a middle-aged businessman, has returned to London from Marseilles to close down his late father’s estate.  He is gazing out of the window of a coffee shop, summoning the courage to visit his old family home:

“It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale.  Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick and mortar echoes hideous.  Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look out of windows, in dire despondency.  In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round.  Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people.  No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world – all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again.  Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets.  Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets.  Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up.  Nothing for the spent toiler to do but to compare the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it – or the worst, according to the probabilities.” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857; Penguin 1967), pp. 67-8.

It should be noted that this was the perspective of a particular section of British society.  That symbol of a more secular sabbath, the Sunday newspaper, had recently been invented – Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in 1842, the News of the World in 1843, Reynolds’ News in 1850.  At the time that Dickens was writing, Henry Mayhew, whose surveys of food and flowers we have cited in earlier Friday diaries, was walking the London streets collecting material on the vivid, noisy world of the costermongers, which continued the week round.

Nonetheless it was a vivid account of the experience of the evangelical middle class of the time.  As with the current lockdown, it was an essentially man-made event.  In this case it replicated the response to a pandemic without the medical justification.  And whilst the full observance of a day of church services and Bible reading was confined to a religious sect, their influence on the political process was such that they were able to impose their restrictions on the rest of society.  What most annoyed Dickens was their success in closing the widening range of improving entertainments which had opened in the capital and elsewhere during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.  Working a six-day week for the most part, Sunday was the only time that the bulk of the London workforce could take their families to visit attractions which were both entertaining and instructive.  They both deserved and would benefit morally from the opening of the British Museum and other venues.

In normal times, museums and galleries are now open on Sundays as are a host of more profane entertainments.  But we continue to experience the Sabbatarian legacy, with larger shops closed before 10 and after 4 in order that we might attend a church service.  As we begin to explore a return to a post-pandemic world, Sunday opening has become one of the many issues that were described in yesterday’s diary, where Government proposals are provoking argument rather than consent.  In order to boost the retail sector which has been so badly hit, a Minister has suggested that the Sunday trading laws be suspended for a year.  The British Chambers of Commerce is in favour of the change, but Labour argues that it would favour supermarkets over the smaller shopkeepers, as does the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores.  USDAW, the shopworkers’ trade union, protests that “the last thing the retail industry needs is longer trading hours, there is no economic case for this and it will put extra pressure on the retail workers who have worked so hard throughout this crisis.”  Then there associated disputes about whether any relaxation of social contact should be allowed, and if so, what distance should be kept between people.

We need a Dickens fully to describe the times we are living through.  And we need a basis for agreeing change, without setting interest against interest, class against class.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: fast food …from 1861!

22 May. As part of the hesitant relaxation of the lockdown regulations, some of the fast food chains have been experimenting this week with reopening their restaurants.  McDonalds has unlocked thirty-three drive-through outlets in London and south-east England.  Burger King, KFC and Nandos are said to be exploring the challenge of selling food whilst observing safety measures. 

It’s a glimpse of pleasure, the possibility of going out for a meal, whether or not these particular outlets are entirely to taste.   But in my shielded lockdown, this is still a forbidden promise.   So as last Friday, we must be content with reading about food, again relying on Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861.

After reviewing the markets for fruit, vegetables and fish, he turned his attention to the ‘street-sellers of eatables and drinkables.’  Once more he found a trade of enormous vigour and variety.  He recognised that the demand was not necessarily for the most nutritious food.  ‘Men whose lives’ he wrote ‘… are alternations of starvation and surfeit, love some easily-swallowed and comfortable food better than the most approved substantiality of a dinner table.’  ‘Easily-swallowed and comfortable food’ is a perfect description of McDonalds and their rivals, however much their menus are deplored by nutritionists.  And like the fast food outlets of the modern day, it was essentially cheap, though far more varied.  The following feast was delivered to the penny economy of the London poor in the mid-nineteenth century:

The solids then, according to street estimation, consist of hot-eels, pickled whelks, oysters, sheep’s trotters, pea-soup, fried fish, ham-sandwiches, hot green peas, kidney puddings, boiled meet puddings, beef, mutton, kidney, and eel pies, and baked potatoes.  In each of these provisions the street-poor find a mid-day or mid-night meal

The pastry and confectionary which tempt the street caters are tarts of rhubarb, currant, gooseberry, cherry, apple, damson, cranberry, and (so called) mince pies; plum dough and plum-cake; lard, currant, almond and many other varieties of cakes, as well as of tarts; gingerbread-nuts and heart-cakes; Chelsea buns; muffins and crumpets; “sweet stuff” includes the several kinds of rocks, sticks, lozenges, candies, and hard-bakes; the medicinal confectionary of cough-drops and horehound; and, lastly, the more novel and aristocratic luxury of street-ices; and strawberry cream, at 1d. a glass, (in Greenwich Park). 

The drinkables are tea, coffee, and cocoa; ginger-beer, lemonade, Persian sherbert, and some highly-coloured beverages which have no specific name, but are introduced to the public as “cooling” drinks; hot elder cordial or wine; peppermint water; curds and whey; water (as at Hampstead); rice milk; and milk in the parks.  (p. 159)

That’s Fast Food!  Enjoy the sight.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Fish!

May 15.  My household will not go hungry in this crisis.  We have sorted out the supermarket home delivery system.  The shelves of Sainsbury’s are open to us.  But food lacks surprise.  No meals out.  No entertaining at home.  No takeaways in the countryside (we are two miles outside the delivery radius of the enterprising restaurant in Shrewsbury which is sending out prepared meals). 

One of the benefits of living for many years in the same place is that you get to know the local sources of good things.  The best meat comes from Churncote Farm Shop.  The best vegetables from Pomona at the foot of Castle Hill.  The best fish from Barkworth’s stand in the covered market.  The fish in fact is no better than fresh.  The variety is limited.  It is an abiding mystery to me why markets in France, often hundreds of miles from the sea, are so much better stocked than in those in a country where nowhere is more than fifty miles from water.  All these shops are shut at the moment and were they to open I remain ‘shielded’ from the rest of humanity and unable to go out on a Saturday morning to see what I can find.

So, with food, as with travel and many other pleasures, there is nothing to do but read about it.  This week I have been going through, for a history project, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861.  Mayhew was an ethnographer avant la lettre, fascinated by the rituals and behaviours of the common people.  He also loved to count where he could.  At one point he turns his attention to Billingsgate, the London wholesale fish market on the banks of the Thames.  Its business had recently expanded as the new railway network brought in fresh supplies from the coast.  Mayhew set out to calculate, for the first time, the annual turnover of the market:

Table, Showing the Quantity … of the Following kinds of Fish sold in Billingsgate Market in the Course of the Year

Salmon and Salmon Trout                                  406,000

Live Cod                                                                    400,000

Soles                                                                     97,520,000

Whiting                                                               17,920,000

Haddock                                                               2,740,000

Plaice                                                                   33,600,000

Mackerel                                                            23,520,000

Fresh Herrings                                            1,225,000,000

            [Sprats                                                                    4,000,000 (by measure)]

Eels                                                                          9,797,760

Flounders                                                                 259,200

Dabs                                                                          270,000

Barrelled Cod                                                          750,000

Dried Salt Cod                                                      1,600,000

Smoked Haddock                                             19,500,000

Bloaters                                                           147,000,000

Red Herrings                                                      50,000,000

Dried Sprats                                                             288,000

Oysters                                                            495,896,000

Lobsters                                                                 1,200,000

Crabs                                                                          600,000

Shrimps                                                           498,428,648

Whelks                                                                 4,943,200

Mussels                                                            50,400,000

Cockles                                                                 7,392,000

Periwinkles                                                   304,000,000

You read it correctly.  That’s over a billion fresh herrings consumed by Londoners in the middle of the nineteenth century (with a population of some 2.5m).  Almost five hundred million oysters and shrimps.

That’s fish!  Enjoy the sight.

from Steph G in London, UK: 2 weddings, a funeral and Passover …

April 9. We’ve just had a week of contrast- 2 weddings and a funeral and Passover- all completely governed by the Covid 19 situation. As far as the weddings go, I just hope everyone can get into their good clothes next year.

The funeral was tragic. A cousin died in Leeds (not Covid related). His 2 sons were self isolating in the South and couldn’t attend. The mourning prayers were held remotely – around 50 people signing on to take part. It was surreal and threw up more questions – do you stand when you would normally? It actually felt a bit voyeuristic watching everybody but in the circumstances this was one way to say goodbye.

Passover, on the other hand was almost as chaotic as normal except in 6 different households at once. At least the washing up was manageable. I wonder how the very orthodox are coming to terms with the constraints that we have now? Similarly, with Easter and Ramadan – perhaps it will change religious observances for ever?

Today, was the first time I heard stats on survival and not the death stats. We become more and more cynical about the news we are being fed- from Boris’ condition to the NHS ability to cope and any exit strategy, or not.

from Steph in London: the world has turned upside down.

April 3. Lying in bed reading in the morning – can’t remember when I last did that. The world has turned upside down yet I hope beyond hope that this could be the start of a more healthy, compassionate society that we had sadly lost. In the meantime, my partner, Anne, and I start again with living in the new world, worrying if what we are being told is the truth. My daughter-in-law, a consultant paediatrician in the north tells us tales of no equipment, planning for the as and when and the constant threat of actually getting sick too and infecting others …

Being under house arrest Is simple in comparison – all we have to do is stay away from everyone and not get sick … we veer between being gung ho and we’ll be ok, to wiping every surface with bleach, diluted so as not to run out … and worrying that we get sick and become a burden … would prefer to stay gung ho please …

Our Ladies-who-Lunch group met yesterday on ‘Houseparty’. It was a hysterical half hour- 7 of us aged between 70 and 80 comparing notes. After everybody’s health the one recurring theme was hair- how will we get it cut ( do we trust our husbands and partners to do it? ) and even more importantly for those who are dependant on the bottle to ensure everlasting youth- how long will it take to grow our and what colour is it really? I have visions of our next trip out being a revelation. I bet hairdressers all over the country are quaking at the thought of no more colourings …

Domesticity was not far behind hair – ironing and cleaning … a long-forgotten pastime for some … I have decided to do what I did when the children were small – hope that by the time I got to the bottom of the basket we will have grown out of the clothes so will negate any need to iron! Problem solved unless, of course we are so large we need new clothes. Why is it that when we are home we have elevensies with cake or a biscuit? We don’t when life is normal. Bet the psychologists will have something to say.

There is an eerie calmness along the street and our new communication channels via most things electronic has taken over. Somehow, it’s more exhausting than just sitting chatting but exciting nevertheless. The world happenings seem so huge and out of control the only thing we can do is look local and hope the internet bandwidth holds its nerve …

My thinking is gradually changing and instead of thinking (and hoping) this is just a short interlude I am beginning to re-order my habits of a lifetime. So far, the changes …

  1. Having to think what we really need to buy instead of wandering round the aisles choosing stuff.
  2. Then wondering how we actually get things. Fortunately, my son is close and is shopping between work sessions. But not sure ginger, avocados and Garam masala are essential.
  3. Preparing meals from scratch instead of looking in fridge and winging it …
  4. Really appreciating friends and family and telling them so too …
  5. Being eternally grateful my children are grown up and they are the ones dealing with home schooling, maybe for months and months …

I need to get involved in something other than garden planning and perhaps now is the time to learn another language, or, or!