How loud was old Norwich?

'I would like to extend my sincere thanks,' says Anna Dyer after a bad fall in Norwich. Picture: Ant

'I would like to extend my sincere thanks,' says Anna Dyer after a bad fall in Norwich. Picture: Antony Kelly - Credit: Archant

You think modern life is loud? Spare a thought for our ancestors, trapped in a world where everything from hammering anvils to bull-baiting were a part of daily life.

Professor Carole Rawcliffe by the Wensum. Now a quiet river, in medieval times it would have teemed

Professor Carole Rawcliffe by the Wensum. Now a quiet river, in medieval times it would have teemed with boat traffic - and noise. Picture: Antony Kelly - Credit: Archant

We don't know the medieval monk's name. But we can guess his mood - and sometime around 1350 he'd had enough.

Driven to distraction by the never-ending sound of hammers coming from the smiths' quarter close to Norwich Cathedral, he decided to write his thoughts down in the margins of a parchment he was working on.

He scribbled:

'Swart Smoky Smiths Smirched with Smoke

The hammering of blacksmiths annoyed a Norwich monk around 1350 so much that he wrote down his compl

The hammering of blacksmiths annoyed a Norwich monk around 1350 so much that he wrote down his complaints in the margins of a manuscript. Picture: Matthew Usher - Credit: Matthew Usher

Drive me to death with the din of their dints

Such noise at nights heard no man never

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Such crooked codgers cry after 'coal, coal!'

And blow their bellows till their brains are all bursting.'

Hailstones like these caused damage in North Yorkshire in 2015. But the Norwich storm of July 20, 16

Hailstones like these caused damage in North Yorkshire in 2015. But the Norwich storm of July 20, 1656 must have been even worse. - Credit: PA

It's a unique and personal insight into a world lost to us, the soundscape of a city before the age of recordings made it possible to document and archive it.

Archaeology could help us find some of the forges of the smiths so we can reconstruct their layout. But excavation can only tell us so much. That's why historians will be forever grateful for this unknown monk for giving us a very special insight into the day to day life of England's second city.

Which rather leads us to the intriguing question: just what DID Norwich sound like in ages past?

In her brilliantly-titled 2007 book Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770, historian Emily Cockayne paints a picture of constant noise in the country's streets, from the cries of the street sellers to the wail of street singers and itinerant musicians, from the ear-piercing squeal of ungreased ox cart axles to the rowdiness of hundreds of alehouses.

Norwich is not one of the examples she gives, but it's hard to imagine that the lives of the thousands of its inhabitants, crammed cheek-by-jowl within its medieval walls, would have been much different from those in other big urban centres.

Take, for example, the question of those smiths. Grouping the blacksmiths in one place (and close to the Wensum) because of the fire risk would have made perfect, if noisy, sense. Coppersmiths beat the metal when it was cold rather than hot, which eliminated the fire risk but meant that they had to hit the copper for longer, and harder. The high-pitched notes would have played havoc with the smiths' hearing in the long term – an industrial injury you suspect was probably shared with the perpetually-hammering flint knappers of Brandon – and being their neighbours would have been a severe test of patience.

As Elizabeth Rutledge observed in the 2004 book Medieval Norwich, 'The discordant sounds of metal working… must have been part of the mental landscape of any child brought up in the city during this period [13th-14th centuries].'

But it wasn't just the hammering. There would have been the shouting, singing, tolling, grunting, squealing, bleating and – every now and then – the fighting and rioting too.

Medieval expert Carole Rawcliffe, Emeritus Professor, School of History, at UEA (and co-editor of that 2004 book), believes the day-to-day reality would have been a mixture of sounds, all depending on where you lived. 'You did have zoning of trades, so the posh folk who lived round the market place would not have had to put up with it,' she explained.

But few people would have been able to avoid the large amounts of sheep, geese and other animals being driven through the streets - plus the large numbers of roaming dogs. 'After the Black Death we know there were lots of problems with the number of them in the streets.'

The area around Ber Street was where livestock met its fate. And it was even worse that you might imagine, thanks to one of the cruellest 'sports' of medieval times. 'They went in for bull baiting,' Prof Rawcliffe explained, 'Bulls had to be baited [pitted against dogs] before being slaughtered as it was thought to improve the quality of the meat.' No wonder it was known as 'Blood and Guts Street' for centuries – a nickname, you'd imagine, local estate agents aren't that keen to revive.

Many people also kept ducks, geese or pigs to supplement their diets and to make a bit of income, even in the heart of a town or city. All would be adding their bit to the soundscape.

No-one was happy with the sound levels – 'A lot of physicians would ask their patients if their stress was caused by noise.' – and civic authorities did their best to pass local regulations to combat the racket. 'We have record of complaints about it in the court proceedings or regulations – this is why we know so much about the animals in the streets.'

The humans added their share, naturally. 'There would have been beggars, and lepers outside the gates, constantly crying out for alms,' she said.

In a pre-electric or gas-lit era you might have thought that when night fell the streets would have quietened. But there were new torments for those unlucky enough to live in the wrong parts of the city. 'The carts were huge, with iron wheels – they would have made an enormous noise at night. There was supposed to be a curfew but...'

And the many, many pubs would have also added to the night-time noise levels. 'It would have been like Prince of Wales Road is now.'

Then there were the 'disorderly houses'. 'These weren't just brothels – there'd be singing past the curfew.'

There would have been no escape on the river either. The Wensum – narrower in those days – would have been crammed with boats of all sizes, all jostling to carry their goods to and from market.

As well as the day-to-day street sounds caused by thousands of people trying to survive and make a living, there were plenty of times in Norwich's history when the decibel level dramatically shot up for other reasons.

And here's where history can help us. Riots and disorder run through the city's story, and from the 1272 Tombland riot - which badly damaged the cathedral and its precinct - to the 19th-century kerfuffles over dodgy elections, street disturbance was never far away.

To take just one century, the 18th, as an example. The city streets echoed with protests in 1714, 1716, 1720, 1740 (twice), 1752 and 1766. The protests could involve a few dozen people up to a reported mob of 10,000 in 1752. The causes? In order: support for the Old Pretender, ditto, protests over cloth imports, food shortages (twice), Methodism, and general disorder.

The viciousness of the fighting was as nothing, though, compared to the bitter street fighting (and subsequent slaughter at Dussindale) during the 1549 Kett's Rebellion – which also featured cannon fire.

But perhaps the loudest noise even heard during civic disorder in the city came in April 1648. The incident, known as 'The Great Blowe', was the most violent and bloody of the Civil Wars.

A rumour had spread through the city that the Royalist mayor, John Utting, was about to be arrested. Two thousand of his supporters took to the streets, marching on the Committee House (at the site of the later Bethel hospital) where Norfolk's guns and armour were kept.

One of the building's defenders fired a gun at the mob, killing a boy. Angered, the attackers broke into the building where a spark set off 80 barrels of gunpowder, destroying the House, killing 40 people and blowing out the windows of nearby St Peter Mancroft and St Stephen's Church among much other damage.

To put this into some sort of context, when Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators planned to blow up Parliament (and bearing in mind they would have really, really wanted to make sure they succeeded) they were going to use 36 barrels of powder – less than half the Norwich total.

Sometimes nature took a hand too. One incident on July 20, 1656 was so extreme it even inspired a pamphlet. It describes what must have been one of the worst storms in the city's history in suitably apocalyptic terms: 'The loud claps from the clouds,' it said, 'so amazed the people that they thought the spheres [planets] came thundering down in flames about their ears.'

Hailstones of an astonishing size – bigger than oranges - were reported. Even allowing for a touch of exaggeration, there is no doubting the storm's effects: every single window in the city facing south and south-east was shattered. It would be interesting to see if there are still any impact traces on surviving buildings from the period.

Lightning strikes were always a potential problem before the 18th century, as it was not until 1749 that Benjamin Franklin demonstrated the efficacy of lightning conductors.

The cathedral spire was always likely to be vulnerable, then, and was damaged by lightning in 1463, which also destroyed the nave roof. Just over a century earlier, the spire had been destroyed by a storm, damaging the presbytery and clerestory.

Devotional sounds would have played their part in the general background hubbub of the cities. Religious processions – a big part of life before the Reformation – would have been an almost daily part of life.

The sound of bells too, from the city's many religious institutions, would have a constant feature. 'Peals were rung for 30 days after someone died to aid their soul's passage through purgatory,' she explained. And 'purgatory' must have been where those souls that were still very much mortal would have felt they were…

From 1715 that sound of bells was taken to a new – and historic – level when on May 2 the world's first true peal was rung at St Peter Mancroft Church. The 5,050 changes of the Gransire Bob Triples method took three hours and 18 minutes to complete.

Simon Smith, Secretary of the St Peter Mancroft Guild of Ringers, pointed out that the historic peal was rung on a lighter set of bells than exists today, but that 'The sound today would probably not have been that different to that heard [then] since our current bells haven't been retuned that much,' he said.

'Our bells today are not very audible at a great distance, since the louvres have been blocked up. It is reasonable to suspect that they would not have done this [in 1715] and also as buildings nearby would have been lower the sound would have carried much further.'

It wasn't just the bells adding to the noise. There were the churches themselves, as there was a vast amount of rebuilding going on in the 15th century. Prof Rawcliffe pointed out: 'Just about all of Norwich's 60 or so churches would have been affected. It would have been a constant cacophony. The city was one big building site.'

And then in the next century, many of them were to be torn down or drastically reduced in size as the Reformation took hold.

We can guess at what all this cacophony of noise must have been like, but for a visual impression, Prof Rawcliffe suggest we look no further than a classic William Hogarth engraving from 1741, The Enraged Musician.

In it, a hapless violinist covers his ears in vain from the bawling, wailing, crying and shouting which is floating up from the street outside.

Norwich would have had all this. And, sometimes, a bit of shrieking too. For many punishments were carried out in public, and designed to be loud so they would be noticed.

'You would have the sounds of people being whipped round the market place and through the streets, particularly in the 16th century,' she explained.

'We may have to bring that punishment back if Norwich City keep on losing.'

• Our thanks to Patricia Day and the Castle Museum learning team.

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