Posts Tagged ‘Street cries of London’

I sat on an outdoor balcony during lunch yesterday, editing some work and eating a salad, and was struck by the sounds of the city – the traffic whizzing by, the rattling chain of an old bicycle, the siren of a distant firetruck, the buzz of a lawn mower, the chirps and tweets of birds, and … almost no human voices. It was late and I was practically alone, and the heat was keeping pedestrians indoors.

Rowlandson's "Buy a trap, a rat trap, buy my trap"

London in the 18th 19th centuries was famous for its noises. The rattling of carriage wheels, the sounds of animal hooves as they were driven to market, and the cries of the street vendors competing with each other created a daily assault to auditory nerves. On hot days, people propped their windows open to capture the slightest breeze, thereby letting in the noise. In Richmond yesterday all I heard was the hum of air conditioners and fans, for windows were kept firmly shut allowing no city sounds in.

Jane Austen moved from the quiet rural life in Steventon to Bath, and I wonder how much the noise and dirt of city life affected her creativity. Some people cannot abide noise while they are writing. I wonder if this was the case with Jane?

Cries of London, "Buy my rat trap," Rowlandson

Captured in many illustrations by a number of artists over the centuries, the street Cries of London are still famous today, though the voices have died down. This illustration by Rowlandson illustrates the cry for rat traps. (My favorite rat trap is my terrier, Cody.) Color illustrations were expensive, much like color printing is today. Even fashion illustrations in ladies magazines came in two forms, color for those who could afford the cost and black and white for the frugally minded.

Today promises to be another scorcher. I will keep my windows shut again and the city noises out.

Click here to read my post about London Street Noises: The Enraged Musician by William Hogarth

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Vendors of fruit and flowers, of milk and muffins are not agreeable visitors when they roar for a living, and the poor organ-grinder little knows, let us hope, the anguish he inflicts upon sensitive nerves. – Street Noises, The Illustrated London News, 1882

the musicianWilliam Hogarth’s famous 1741 etched engraving of ” The Enraged Musician” visually described the cacophony of sounds heard all over the city of London: the shouts of vendors, clattering of wagon wheels and clopping of horses’ hooves, impromptu concerts from street musicians, clackety-clack of ladies’ pattens (which protected delicate shoes from mud), and the clapping of hooves and bleeting of animals as drovers guided them to Smithfield Market. Laws were enacted to control these noises, but the change did not occur overnight, nor did these laws completely eliminate all irritating sounds for city dwellers. In 1841, 100 years after Hogarth engraved his famous scene, Charles Knight described London’s noises (London, Vol 1, Charles Knight, 1841):

Enraged_musician William Hogarth

In this extraordinary gathering together of the producers of the most discordant sounds we have a representation which may fairly match the dramatist’s description of street noises …

street musician and vendor

Here we have the milk maid’s scream, the mackerel seller’s shout, the sweep upon the house top, to match the fish wives and orange women; the broom men and costar mongers …

chimney boy

The smith, who was ominous, had no longer his forge in the busy streets of Hogarth’s time, the armourer was obsolete, but Hogarth can rival their noises with the pavior’s hammer, the sow gelder’s horn, and the knife grinder’s wheel…

drummer and knife sharperner

The waits of the city had a pension not to come near Morose’s ward, but it was out of the power of the Enraged Musician to avert the terrible discord of the blind hautboy player.

Bellman, Book of Days

The bellman who frightened the sleepers at midnight was extinct, but modern London had acquired the dustman’s bell. The bear-ward no longer came down the street with the dogs of four parishes, nor did the fencer march with a drum to his prize …

Hogarth, Bear-Ward, Bear and Monkey

…but there was the ballad singer with her squalling child, roaring worse than bear or dog, and the drum of the little boy playing at soldiers was a more abiding nuisance than the fencer Morose, and the Enraged Musician had each the church bells to fill up the measure of discord…

crying baby

In our own days there has been legislation for the benefit of tender ears, and there are now penalties with police constables to enforce them against all persons blowing any horn or using any other noisy instrument for the purpose of calling persons together, or of announcing any show or entertainment, or for the purpose of hawking selling distributing, or collecting any article or of obtaining money or alms…

bell horn and shouts

These are the words of the Police Act of 1839, and they are stringent enough to have banished from our streets all those uncommon noises, which did something to relieve the monotony of the one endless roar of the tread of feet and the rush of wheels…

peeing in the road

The street noise now is deafening when we are in the midst of it, but in some secluded place, such as Lincoln’s Inn Gardens, it is the ever present sullen sound of angry waves dashing upon the shingles. The horn that proclaimed extraordinary news running to and fro among peaceful squares and secluded courts was sometimes a relief…

hornmen great news

The bell of the dustman was not altogether unpleasant. In the twilight hour, when the shutters were not yet closed and the candles were not yet burnin,g the tinkle of the muffin man had something in it very soothing…

muffin man 1841

It is gone, but the legislators have still left us our street music…

street music 1789

There was talk of its abolition, but they have satisfied themselves with enacting that musicians on being warned to depart from the neighbourhood of the house of any householder by the occupier, or his servant, or by a police constable, incur a penalty of forty shillings by refusal. De la Serre, who came to England with Mary de Medici when she visited the Queen of Charles I, is enthusiastic in his praises of the street music of London In all public places … – London, Vol 1, Charles Knight, 1841

Addendum: Compared to the noises of the City, the West End’s new neighborhoods were comparatively quiet.

buy a broom 1881 cries of london

An interesting aside: To add insult to injury, one closeup of Hogarth’s etching shows a young boy relieving himself in the middle of the street. The sour smells of London added greatly to the din as well.

More on the topic:

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Chairs to mend, old chairs to mend, Rush or cane bottomed chairs to mend, If I had the money that I could spend, I never would cry old chairs to mend, Rush or cane bottomed chairs to mend, chairs to mend old chairs to mend

Imagine London during Jane Austen’s time, a loud and brash city, filled with the stench of horse manure and sewage in the summer, and the smell of coal and wood smoke during the winter. Fog, thick as cotton, crept up from the Thames, snaking its tendrils and engulfing pedestrians and carriages alike. The rattle of wheels and horse’s hooves on cobblestones and the click click click of the pattens that protected a lady’s delicate slippers from mud were the ordinary sounds people were accustomed to. Above all this din, they could hear the cries of the street vendors.

Cries are phrases which, beginning in the 15th century, were called out in the streets by itinerant sellers of food and other commodities and by people offering their trades. They were especially prevalent in large towns and advertised for sale such diverse products and services as strawberries, fish, brooms, muffins, printed ballads and chimney sweeping. The criers were poor, and apparently loud and annoying. In 1711 Joseph Addison wrote an essay in The Spectator complaining of the noise at night and the loud, unpleasant manner in which the cries were uttered. “Milk” he writes “is generally sold in a note above high E, and in sounds so exceedingly shrill that it often sets our teeth an edge. (From Cries of London, see below).

Ripe Strawberries ripe, Ripe Strawberries ripe. Six-pence a pottle fine strawberries ripe strawberries…only six-pence a pottle… I have ripe Strawberries ripe, Ripe Strawberries ripe.

Who will buy a new love song? Only a ha’-penny a piece…Who will buy a hew love song? Only a ha’-penny a piece.

Find out more about London’s Street Vendors in these links:

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