The sounds of the suburbs: Britain is a quieter place

A new British Library project compares today's street noises with recordings from the 1940s

Andrew McCorkell
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:05

Britain is a quieter place. A study of the sounds of cities and suburbia compiled by the UK public and kept at the British Library from the 1940s to the present day has concluded that pedestrianisation, new technology and the lost art of whistling has rendered the British urban soundscape more peaceful.

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It revealed the chirp of sparrows, cheery whistling and the hiss of steam engines have been replaced by the territorial calls of grey squirrels, the discordant bleep of supermarket tills and the burblings of automated public address systems.

Surprisingly, it concluded that noise levels in Britain, particularly in pedestrianised town centres, have gone down.

The UK SoundMap is a project that encourages the public to record street sounds on smart phones then upload them to the British Library, where they are digitally mapped and compared to recordings made in Britain in the 1940s. The earlier recordings are louder and more "textured", with throatier car engines and newspaper vendors and street sellers proclaiming their wares. They also include more singing and tuneful whistling.

By comparison, modern recordings reveal much quieter streets – characterised by muted voices, quieter car engines, pedestrian-only areas and the widespread use of MP3 players and other technology.

Chris Clark, the British Library's head of digital research, said: "It's especially interesting to hear the ways in which the acoustic landscape has been transformed. The sounds from Britain's streets are surprisingly quiet. Similarly, the workplace is much quieter today, with the muted voices and humming air-con replacing, for most people, the factory din of previous decades," he added.

Ian Rawes, UK SoundMap editor, said: "In the streets of York in 1947 there were more diesel and two-stroke engines compared with 2010, and louder slamming of car doors... The engines had a more throaty, rattling sound. You can also hear a man whistling in the street. I can't think when I last heard a person tunefully whistling in the street. Yet that used to be a big part of popular culture. There was a person called Percy Edwards who was a famous bird impersonator, who, through whistling, could do around 300 birds... Modern-day York is a completely different atmosphere: much more polite and genteel."

Another notable difference is the chime of ice-cream vans. "The modern-day vans use an electronic set-up with an inbuilt memory of more than 100 tunes. The old vans used to use amplified music boxes with pegs on a rotating drum. They would change the drum to make a different tune," he said.

The SoundMap, launched last year to capture and preserve the acoustic landscape and rare sounds such as the cuckoo and woodpecker, already hosts 1,800 recordings.

Key recordings highlighted by curators include sounds of the seaside (, featuring Southend in the 1940s, with the cries of barkers who call out advertisements for businesses. In the contemporary recording from Southwold, a disorienting mixture of electronic sounds in an amusement arcade on the pier can be heard.

In the sounds of sport section, a body can be heard slamming on the canvas in a 1940s wrestling match in Newcastle, in contrast to the camp theatre of modern WWE, and hyped-up commentator of a recent basketball match, for example, in Sheffield.

1. Sounds of the suburbs

The late 1940s 'Home Flash' recording simply entitled 'Newcastle sparrows' has the chirping of several sparrows with what may be industrial sounds in the distance. In recent times sparrow numbers have declined in urban areas, and they are absent from the UK SoundMap recording in September 2010 of a back garden in Moseley, Birmingham. There, the territorial calls of a grey squirrel can be heard. Grey squirrels are among a small number of invasive species which have established an audible presence in parts of Britain. Other examples include the collared dove and ring-necked parakeet.

2. York city centre

The 1947 'Home Flash' recording of a street in the centre of York features the throaty-sounding engines of motor vehicles, bicycle bells and the slamming of lorry tailgates, doors and wooden pallets. A man whistles tunefully in the street: few people nowadays follow the Seven Dwarfs' suggestion that you whistle while you work, or indeed anywhere else. The modern-day UK SoundMap recording from York city centre is of a pedestrianised street with a busker playing genteel-sounding music. Pedestrianised streets and squares are popular recording spots for UK Soundmap contributors wishing to avoid heavy traffic noise. The presence of buskers in such places is sometimes encouraged by local authorities, making buskers almost a civic body in their own right, as the 'town waits' (paid public musicians) were in Medieval and Early Modern times.

3. Sounds from train stations

Train stations are another popular location for UK SoundMap recordings. A modern-day recording from Newcastle Central station captures people speaking in different languages, and the echoing, sepulchral sound of announcements made over the station's PA system. The late 1940s 'Home Flash' recording from Reading train station features the distinctive sound of a steam engine departing.

4. Sounds of the seaside

The 'Home Flash' recording from Southend in the 1940s features the cries of 'barkers', people employed to call out advertisements for a particular business. The first barker may well have been the trader as well, peddling ice cream. The second barker heard works hard to encourage passersby to visit a café. The use of barkers was once widespread, ranging from fairgrounds to clothes shops, but has now vanished almost entirely. A modern-day UK SoundMap recording from Southwold features the delirious and disorienting mixture of electronic sounds in an amusement arcade on the pier.

5. Sounds of shopping

Britain was once as much a nation of stallholders as it was of shopkeepers, and 'the market' then meant a place rather than something all-pervasive. A somewhat indistinct recording of Market Day from York in the 1940s features a hubbub of voices, faint cries of traders, and the sounds of large objects being moved around. Just as machines have largely supplanted human muscle power, so they're also standing in for the human vocal tract. In a UK SoundMap recording from 2010, automated voices tell shoppers what to do at the self-service checkouts of a Glasgow supermarket.

6. Sounds of sport

A wrestling match from Newcastle in the 1940s features sounds of the bell ringing, enthusiastic cries from the spectators, and the occasional thump of a body hurled onto the canvas. Little had changed by the time wrestling was televised in the 1970s. A UK SoundMap recording of a basketball match in Sheffield shows the impact of American-style showmanship on sport, with a hyped-up stadium commentator and thumping background music.

7. Vanishing sounds

One sound for which a modern-day equivalent will be hard to find comes from the 1940s 'Home Flash' recording of a newspaper seller in York, calling out his paper's title and edition. The last newspaper sellers in London fell silent only a few years ago when the Evening Standard became a free newspaper, and the job of selling became demoted to that of distributor.

8. Sounds of the workplace

Present-day workplaces for many people involve the undramatic soundscape of the office environment, and a few UK SoundMap contributors have commented on this ironically through their recordings. The 1940s 'Home Flash' recording of a cake factory in Reading features a noisy environment with the rhythmic sound of cake-mixing machinery, workers calling out to one another over the din, and one man treating the listener to a brief burst of song.

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