Street Musicians in the Slums – Ryan Carless

During the 1860s there were multiple ways in which people tried to make their money on the streets. These jobs, such as stall holders, shoe shiners and street musicians, saw members of the working class walking and peddling their goods on the streets to earn a living.1 This multitude of jobs created a lot of noise which, even if it was unintelligible to the individual, was often identified with ‘slums’. Noise during this time was looked upon negatively as it was seen as a factor in many nervous illnesses. The streets of London, in particular, were often loud and were characterised by many different sounds. These included cock-crowing, children playing, howling dogs and the music of organ grinders.2 Noting that excessive noise was seen as a problem by members of the middle class, in particular, this section will examine the case of street musicians and the campaign to stop them making noise in nineteenth-century London.

Street musicians were  commonly seen as a nuisance and a problem that needed to be rectified. This is because they were accused of playing only to cause a nuisance and to extort people into paying them to stop.3 This would be done by playing loudly outside fancy establishments or by playing directly across the street from people’s houses. This was seen a major problem originating from the slums, where street musicians lived, that bled into the rest of London.

One man who tried to get street musicians banned was Charles Babbage who did everything he could in an attempt to purge the streets of street musicians. He made multiple court appearances and collected data on all the interruptions that occurred within 80 days. During this period he was listed as being interrupted 165 times and had apparently had his work output decreased by a quarter.4 Charles Babbage saw himself as at war against ‘encouragers of street music’, who mostly came from the lower classes.5 He also saw street musicians as a problem that was growing in the capital. He wrote:

Fig 1. A quote from Charles Babbage on the increase of Street Musicians

This shows that many people, Babbage included, believed that the street musicians were a major problem spawning from the working class that was slowly spreading throughout London.

Another notable campaigner against street musicians was former Derby MP Michael T Bass. Bass saw Street musicians as a detriment to society and sought to get the laws updated so further action could be taken against them. Similarly to Babbage, he claimed that “the licence at present extended to street music in the Metropolis has grown into an intolerable grievance.”6 Bass delineated four major problems with the law that needed to be addressed . Firstly street musicians had be playing in a thoroughfare and near the house however distressing it may be for the residents. These areas included alleys, cul-de-sacs, and gardens. Secondly, they could play in any thoroughfare no matter how annoying to the residents unless a resident is ill or there was other reasonable cause. He notes that ‘reasonable cause’ can be interpreted differently by different people. Thirdly, no person but the home owner can request street musicians to leave even if that persons partner or child could be seriously ill. Lastly he writes that the law requires the offence to be committed “within view” of the constable for him to be able to reprimand the offenders. This, he observed, made it almost impossible to arrest the offenders as street musicians would not often commit crimes in front of them.7

One woman suffered from a severe nervous illness and frequently had a street musician across the street who played the organ. She had asked the musician to leave due to her illness multiple times but the musician would not stop. She eventually had to seek a policeman to get rid of this musician but before the policeman could respond, the musician had left. She wrote a letter to Bass which she stated “I am thus perfectly helpless, and caused much pain and serious interruption by the present imperfect state of the law.”8 To try to remedy this problem, Bass took evidence from the public to the House of Commons. He received a large volume of correspondence and support, including from including support from Charles Babbage. The support he received came from a vast range of people including leading composers and professors of music in London. This group sent a letter with over 200 signatures that said “We, the undersigned members of the Musical Profession, heartily approve of your Bill before the House of Commons for the prevention of the above nuisance, by which our professional duties are seriously interrupted and, should the measure be carried, it will confer an inestimable boon upon us.” 9 These letters from the public were compiled into a book called Street Music in the Metropolis.

Fig 2. A picture portraying Italian Street Musicians

The impact that these people had on the street musicians was minimal at best. Michael Bass was able to get the House of Commons to pass an updated version of The Metropolitan Police Act in 1864 which gave the police more power to remove and arrest street musicians but this was had limited effect.10 It was not until the formation of the Anti-Noise League in 1934 that noise pollution started being recognised as a real problem.

Ryan Carless


Figure 1. de Troyes, C. (1864) Street noise. Available at: (Accessed: 1 December 2016).

Figure 2. Italian street musicians (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 5 December 2016).


Dennis, R. Cities in Modernity: Representations and Productions of Metropolitan Space (Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 141


Trower, S. Senses of vibration: A History of the Pleasure and Pain of Sound (Bloomsbury, 2012), p. 110


3Popova, M. ‘When Babbage and Dickens waged a war on noise’. Available at: (Accessed: 1 December 2016).


4Popova, When Babbage and Dickens waged a war on noise.


5 de Troyes, C. (1864) Street noise. Available at: (Accessed: 1 December 2016).

6 Bass, Michael, Street Music in the Metropolis’ (London: John Murray, 1864), p. viii


7 Bass, Street Music. pp. 2-5


8 Bass, Street Music, p. 11


9 Bass, Street Music, p. vi


10 ‘Charles Babbage’s fight against street music’ (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 1 December 2016).