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.
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.
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."
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!