Museum of London releases first ever recorded soundscapes of London alongside new recordings of London in lockdown


The first ever recorded soundscape of London was captured in September 1928 as part of a campaign led by the Daily Mail calling for noise restrictions on London’s increasingly loud streets. Now, almost 100 years later, as part of the Museum of London’s ongoing collecting COVID project, the same five locations were re-captured in collaboration with String and Tins to record, in contrast, the rare sound of an extraordinarily silent London in lockdown. Both the historic and modern recordings are available to listen to on the Museum of London’s website. The 1928 recordings, now digitised, are available to listen to in entirety for the very first time.

The five central London locations recorded in both September 1928 and May 2020 were Whitechapel East, St George’s Hospital (Hyde Park Corner), Leicester Square, Cromwell Road and Beauchamp Place in South Kensington. The 1928 recordings were captured by the Columbia Graphophone Company in collaboration with the Daily Mail and intended to provide objective evidence of the concerning rising noise levels on the capital’s central streets considered to be a ‘real menace to public health’. At one point, the voice of Commander Daniel RN DSO can be heard narrating:

“That was a large lorry with building materials, very noisy. There’s a motor bicycle without a proper silencer!” and “That was the self-starter of a small seven-horsepower car . . . that was an awful vehicle on solid tyres.”

Though considered ‘portable’, the 1928 recording process was laborious with the production team needing a whole room to set up the equipment per location and producing seventeen gramophone records. The modern 2020 lockdown recordings, captured by Will Cohen of String and Tins, are binaural recordings – a method of recording sound that uses two microphones, arranged with the intent to create a 3-D stereo sound sensation for the listener. Alongside the modern recordings, photographs of the areas and the almost empty streets were captured by photographer Damien Hewetson and have also been collected as part of the ongoing Collecting COVID project.

Foteini Aravani, Digital Curator at the Museum of London, said: ‘The 1928 anti-noise campaign occurred when the effects of sound pollution in central London were only starting to be understood. Almost a century later, sound levels in the capital are still an issue despite existing legislation, but the marked reduction in street noise has become a distinct aspect of London in lockdown. We felt it was our responsibility to capture this rare and significant moment to not only contrast the 1928 recordings in our collection, but to also provide a record of London’s rarely ‘silent streets’ for future generations. The 1928 recordings have always been a significant part of our collection as the first ever recorded soundscape of London, and we are very excited to finally be able to share them in response to the modern recordings captured during the lockdown by String and Tins as part of our Collecting COVID project.’

Both the 1928 anti-noise campaign recordings and 2020 lockdown recordings are available to listen to at the Museum of London’s website alongside photography by Damien Hewetson and historic imagery from the museum’s archive.

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