Hearing the London Slums

Ryan Carless, Debra Chaweresa, David Hambling and Luke Hardy

Mark M. Smith, author of The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege, describes sensory history as ‘low hanging fruit, it does not require any special archives, it does not require any special records.  The history of the senses… is everywhere… you can read pretty much any source and you will find how people heard the world, not just about the way they saw the world.’[1]  The history of sound can be experienced in extraordinary ways; the role of the historian is to distinguish between ‘counterfeit sounds’ (sounds that were written about but never heard) and authentic sounds (those written about and heard).[2]  For example, counterfeit sound can be read in Jonathon Swift’s account of Niagara Falls, where Swift describes the sound as a ‘terrible squash’ despite never having visited.[3] In contrast, authentic sounds can be found in accounts of First World War soldiers of the sound of shells exploding around them followed by the rumble of the guns that fired them.[4]

Fig 1. Dudley Street, Seven Dials. 1872

When exploring the sounds of London, it is important to note the role of population increase or the ‘Great Wen’, as it was described by William Cobbett.[5]  This increase in population (four million) by the late nineteenth century led to increase in cheap housing to accommodate the new industrial boom.[6]  Richard Dennis suggests that slums were identifiable by the noise that they produced, even if it was unintelligible to the listener.[7]  This shows that the rise in population of the slums created more and different sounds, and thus the slums themselves can be characterised by it.

Fig 2. Silvertown Explosion 1917

Identifiable sounds that did exist within the slums include those of industry itself, such as voices of the dock workers, the sounds of machinery loading and unloading cargo.[8]  Before the Dock Strike of 1889, the sounds of the London docks included casual workers crying out to the company owner for work.[9]  Industrial accidents also were a source of sound – sound that was not confined to the slums and could be heard across the city. The Silvertown Explosion of 1917 is a particularly famous example of this.  When a fire caused the Silvertown TNT factory to detonate, the resulting explosion was so loud that it could be heard from anywhere in London.[10]  The event caused a whole multitude of sounds after the initial blast, from windows smashing, residents screaming for help under the debris and the emergency effort to rescue survivors and recover the dead.[11]  As well as sounds of work, sounds of play could also be heard within the slums, for instance the songs and games of  children. This was done in an effort to educate each other by playing games or telling stories. Music also played a large part of the slums, however street musicians were often seen not only as a scourge of the slum but of more wealthy districts, where they were accused of travelling to extort money.[12]  These examples show that the sounds of the London slums were not confined to one area or district, but had an impact across the entirety of the city.


[1] Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press) Using Sensory History to Understand the Past (2014) Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UoY4Sk0TmLA (Accessed: 29 Nov 2016).

[2] Murray Schafer, R.  ‘Soundscapes and Earwitnesses’ in Smith, M. M. Hearing History: A Reader (Georgia: University of Georgia Press. 2004).

[3] Ibid, p.7.

[4] Ibid p.7.

[5] William Cobbet cited in Diniejko, A. & Litt, D. ‘Slums and Slumming in Late Victorian London’ (Oct 2013) Available at: http://www.victorianweb.org/history/slums.html (Accessed: 30 Nov 2016)

[6] Diniejko, A. & Litt, D. ‘Slums and Slumming in Late Victorian London’ (Oct 2013) Available at: http://www.victorianweb.org/history/slums.html (Accessed: 30 Nov 2016)

[7] Dennis, R. Cities in Modernity: Representations and Productions of Metropolitan Space, 1840-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2008).

[8] Unknown. ‘Dock Atmospheres 1935: Dock Atmosphere 1’ Available at: http://www.soundsurvey.org.uk/index.php/survey/radio_recordings/1930s/2539/ (Accessed: 8 Nov 2016).

[9] Webb, B., ‘Dock Life in the East End of London’ cited in London Sound Survey: Historical References to London’s Sounds Available at: http://www.soundsurvey.org.uk/index.php/survey/historical_ec/economic1/161/209/ (Accessed: 8 Nov 2016).

[10] Peterson, Mike. ‘The 1917 Silvertown Disaster’ (19 January 2011) Available at: https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/the-1917-silvertown-disaster/ (Accessed: 07 Dec 2016).

[11] Ibid

[13] Popova, M. When Babbage and Dickens waged a war on noise. (2012) Available at: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/11/28/discord-babbage-noise/ (Accessed: 1 December 2016


Fig 1. Dore, Gustave. ‘Dudley Street Seven Dials’ [Illustration] in Jerrold, D. London: A Pilgrimage (London: Grant & co. 1872 p.158) [Online] Available at: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/dore/london/24.html (Accessed 7 Dec 2016)

Fig 2. Unknown. ‘The Silvertown Explosion’  [Online] Available at: http://oreald.com/picture1787.html (Accessed: 22 Nov 2016)