One Sunday morning several years ago, Ian Rawes made his way to Petticoat Lane market, a noisy clothes market on the edge of London’s East End. He went there with a small pocket tape recorder and a microphone, and captured the sounds of an average market day.
“I got home and listened and was taken aback by the novelty of bringing the sounds of the outside world indoors,” Rawes recalls.
Rawes began collecting the myriad sounds of life in London’s street, and a year later launched a website to house them. The London Sound Survey now contains 2,000 recordings that adds up to around 60 hours of audio. Among the highlights:
- The ambiance in an East End greasy spoon cafe
- The “mind the gap” announcement on the city’s subway
- The Christmas Eve meat auction at Smithfield meat market
- The clatter of plates in a decades-old Italian coffee bar in Soho
- Traders and buyers at the Sunday flower market on Columbia Road (“I’ll do ya three bunches for a fiver”).
The quality of the audio is vivid and crisp. In this clip of a busker playing bagpipes at one of the city’s busiest train stations, the music mixes in with the familiar sounds of rushing footsteps, conductors’ whistles, snippets of conversations, and the murmur of trains as they roll in and out.
The site has grown from a place to store field recordings to a broader project that houses vintage recordings and written historical accounts of London’s sounds. There are various maps that visitors can click on to explore the sounds from an area—including the surprisingly tranquil ambiance around London’s extensive urban waterways.
Rawes’ interest was sparked while working in the sound archives at the British Library. There he came across tapes made by amateurs and enthusiasts, from recordings of birdsong to one man’s collection of the sound of every bus journey in Yorkshire.
Besides satisfying his own curiosity, Rawes’ project is an attempt to preserve the street life of a city as it goes through rapid changes. “[It’s] partly in reaction to what was then a common perception that London was becoming not just gentrified but more bland and corporate,” he says, adding:
Where you previously had an old man’s pub or a greasy spoon it was being turned into flats. Something with London’s individualism and quirkiness was being eroded. When you become aware of that, you feel there is something of that to capture and preserve.
That said, “nostalgia must always be balanced by curiosity into the new,” he notes.
Why focus on sounds? “It pulls you into a sense of place more effectively than a photograph does,” he says, and audio can be better at “conveying subtle emotions that are hard to put into words.”