To mark the publication of the Times Atlas of London, we commissioned leading acoustic consultants, 24 Acoustics, to produce a new sound map of London to establish how far the sound of the famous ‘Bow Bells’ reaches in 2012 when compared to 150 years ago.
The analysis reveals that the zone within earshot of the Bow Bells has shrunk significantly since 1851. Back then the famous church bells could be heard from the City of London across Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets and into parts of Camden, Southwark, Newham and Waltham Forest. In 2012, the chimes of St. Mary-le-Bow are only audible across a small patch covering just the City and Shoreditch, in which no maternity wards are located. This map reveals the remarkable difference in audibility levels.
According to tradition, to qualify as a true London Cockney you must be born within the Bow Bells. This map reveals that this is now almost impossible. Even home births are rare as the area around the church has few residential properties, and local Guy’s Hospital houses its maternity wards at St Thomas’ Hospital, near Waterloo Station where the sound of the Bow Bells is inaudible.
However, to celebrate the role of the Bow Bells throughout London’s history and to keep Cockneys alive, you can now download an MP3 recording of the famous Bow Bells. All you need to do is right click on the link to download the chimes, and press play when your baby enters the world to ensure that they are born a true Cockney.
Reverend George Bush, the Rector of St. Mary-le-Bow church kindly granted permission for the Times Atlas team to make the sound of the Bow Bells available online. He comments, “St. Mary-le-Bow is delighted to allow the beautiful sound of its bells to be made available online. There are hundreds of thousands of people of Cockney descent across the world, from Australia to Canada, the United States to South Africa, and I hope that they will enjoy hearing the chimes that were so very familiar to their ancestors. Perhaps this digital initiative will help create a new generation of global Cockneys, and, if so, I hope that in the years to come they will have the opportunity to visit London and hear the remarkable sound of Bow Bells in person.”
The Science behind the Map
24 acoustics determined the current zones of earshot for the Bow Bells using precision sound level measurements taken whilst the bells were tolling and calculations according to the effects of the UK’s prevailing wind, which comes from the south west. The output from the bells is equal in all directions from the church tower, but the wind direction is the reason that the sound of the bells travels eastwards. Most of the Cockneys living in the City of London close to St Mary-le-Bow Church moved east in the 19th century, but they took their devotion to the church and its bells with them – hence St Mary-le-Bow, its bells and the Cockneys all being associated with the east end of London.
The reach of the Bow Bells is affected by the ambient noise level which was significantly lower 150 years ago before the widespread use of motor vehicles (and building developments which further curtail the noise carrying). This explains why the bells could be heard over a much larger area. Without roads or aircraft, the ambient noise levels in London in 1851 would have been similar to those in a rural location today (20 to 25 dBA in the evening). In 2012, the ambient noise levels in London vary across the city, but are typically not less than 55dBA, owing to a combination of road, aircraft and noise from air conditioning plants, all of which was absent 150 years ago.
Download a high-resolution image of the map.
Cockneys and the Tradition of Being Born Within The Sound Of Bow Bells
The earliest recorded use of “Cockney” was in 1362 in The vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman by William Langland. In that instance it is used to mean a small misshapen egg and is derived from the Middle English “coken” (of cocks) and “ey” (egg), so literally “a cock’s egg”.
The term Cockney currently has both cultural and linguistic connotations. Culturally it is often assumed to refer to working class Londoners, because during the Victorian era much of the east end of London was inhabited by the working classes. As London Cockneys die out, the proposition that “we are all middle class now” gains credence.
Linguistically the term is associated all over the world with Cockney rhyming slang, a 650-year-old colloquial dialect including phrases such as “apples and pears” meaning “stairs” and “china” from “china plate” for “mate”. This dialect is also dying out in the capital. Recent research shows that users of this type of speech are moving out of London, east and north towards Essex and Hertfordshire, while its place in the capital is being superseded by “Jafaican”, a hybrid street speech influenced by West Indian patois and Bangladeshi along with a few remnants of the original Cockney dialect.
The History Of St. Mary-le-Bow Church and the Bow Bells
The original bells are said to have made Dick Whittington cancel his plans to leave London and turn back to take up the role of Lord Mayor after he heard them ringing on his way through Highgate.
Archaeological evidence indicates that a church existed on this site in Saxon period England. A medieval version of the church had been destroyed in the late 11th century by one of the earliest recorded tornadoes in Britain, the London Tornado of 1091. During the Norman period, a church known as “St Mary de Arcubus” was built and was famed for its two arches (“bows”) of stone. From at least the 13th century, the church was a peculier of the Diocese of Canterbury and the seat of the Court of Arches, to which it gave the name. The first known reference to the Bow Bells was in 1469 when it was ordered that a nine o’clock bell must ring each evening to sound a curfew. The sound also marked the end of an apprentice’s working day. In modern times the church (and the bells) have been destroyed twice - firstly in 1666 in the Great Fire of London and then again in the Blitz in 1941. They were replaced in 1961 and still ring every 15 minutes. The bells were also mentioned in the English nursery rhyme ‘Orange and Lemons’ in the line: “I do not know, said the great bell of Bow.”
The huge tenor bell of St Mary-le-Bow’s 12 bells, which is named Bow, weighs almost 42 hundredweight or 2135kgs.
Today the church of St Mary-le-Bow is led by the Reverend George Bush and its parish covers a triangle of the City of London stretching between the tube stations of St Paul’s, Mansion House, and Bank.
The Times Atlas of London is an indispensible guide to London, and the ultimate souvenir for Londoners and tourists alike. Buy it now.
For further information, or to request review copies of the Times Atlas of London, please contact Benjamin Webb/ Sophie Morris at Deliberate PR
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