The sounds of Whitechapel almost a century ago v the supposed silences of lockdown today

Whitechapel©DA14: Whitechapel market Muslims / Sylhetis…. London 130814 © david.altheer@gmail,com

CLATTERING HOOVES, clanging tram bells and the revving of motor vehicles…  East London streets were a riot of sounds in the Roaring Twenties. And even during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown the noise was greater than you might think.

Recordings made now and then at the busy Whitechapel area (photograph above shows high street pre-Covid-19) around Commercial and Whitechapel roads offer a glimpse into the two dramatically different periods of the area’s history.

The Museum of London had the bright idea of putting on its website soundscapes of five London streets from more than 90 years ago, alongside recordings made at the same locations in May this year 2020.

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The 1928 recordings, part of a national newspaper’s campaign against rising noise levels in the capital, are believed to be the first of London streets. Stored on 78rpm gramophone records, they have been digitised and for the first time made available to the public.

The clamour of engines, horses and crowds on the early recordings should not be a surprise but a bonus is the commentary — by a chap (or should that be “chep”?) with a time-warp upper-class accent. The Cholmondeley-Warner soundalike tells us that the junction was even then “a very busy thoroughfare … practically all traffic going east from London north of the Thames passes by” and adds helpful descriptions, such as “That was a large lorry with building materials; very noisy… there’s a motor bicycle without a proper silencer”. He adds: “That was the self-starter of a small seven-horsepower car… an awful vehicle on solid tyres!”

It’s a reminder that noise pollution is not just a contemporary problem, even if some of the din-makers are gone. Whitechapel’s tram tracks were taken up in the late 1930s and horse-and-cart transport was gone from the roads by the late 1980s.

Whitechapel©DA14: Whitechapel market Muslims / Sylhetis…. London 130814 ©
Down the market: a stall in Whitechapel High Street (pre-coronavirus)

The contemporary recordings, by String and Tins, a sound studio in Aldgate, not far from the soundscape locale, aim to show the large reduction in street noise caused by the capital’s coronavirus lockdown. Two digital microphones were used to create a surround sound stereo effect.

Museum of London digital curator Foteini Aravani said it was the institute’s responsibility to “not only contrast the 1928 recordings in our collection but also to provide a record of London’s rarely silent streets for future generations”.

“Silent” is a bit of an overstatement for the 2020 Whitechapel recordings, in which you can hear engines, emergency-vehicle sirens and lots of shouting. The daytime noise level at the junction usually averages more than 75 decibels.  

Clara Murray 110820 

* Listen to the recordings at the museum website, which offers sounds and silences modern and old also of Hyde Park Corner; Leicester Square; Cromwell Road, Kensington; and Beauchamp Place, South Kensington.

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