Thursday, December 03, 2009

'Four tuneful Teutons' (mit dem Kontrabass)*

Nineteenth-century mathematician Charles Babbage is rightly recognised for his pioneering work in what we would today understand as computer science.

But his efforts to purge the London streets of German street musicians have, to my knowledge, been hitherto under-appreciated.

The following comes from a lengthy article in The Times in 1860 which I found referenced in Panikos Panayi's German Immigrants in Britain during the Nineteenth-Century 1815-1914.

I have shortened it somewhat and added some paragraph breaks:

It would be a positive commercial advantage to all Londoners who live by the sweat of their brain to compromise with Mr. Gladstone for an extra penny of Income-Tax if he would undertake to put down the street musicians of London. Why should there not be a tax upon organs, and hurdy-gurdies, and German boys, and cornopeans and a double tax upon those hideous bagpipes which literally poison the air of London with their horrible screeching discord? [...]

What would not a hard-worked Londoner who is compelled to depend for the subsistence of his family upon the condition of his brain give for the blessed privilege of silence? No matter what your work may be—if it be of an intellectual kind, or if it tasks the nervous system—so long as the work must be done in London you are stopped by noise. We must have children, housemaids must carry coal-boxes up and down stairs, and horses must have water; but there is no reason why a parcel of foreign raggamuffins should be allowed to infest our streets, and make the fulfilment of obligations which already task the overwrought brain severely enough tenfold more burdensome and destructive to health and life.

Scarcely is your attention fixed upon your work when an abominable organ intrudes ‘The Power of Love,’ or some such dismal melody, upon your notice; or a parcel of Ethiopian serenaders assume that you are a Buffalo girl, and persist in the inquiry if you can’t ‘come out tonight?’

Go to the window and remonstrate, and see what you will take by your motion. The instant the fellow with the tambourine catches sight of your indignant face, he tosses his jingling instrument up in the air, or bumps it against his smutty face in the fullness of his satisfaction, while the fellow who works the ‘bones’ goes through a series of grotesque antics, which may be highly diverting to the little boys and the idlers, but the noise has spoiled the morning’s work, which is not at all diverting to a hard-working man. [...]

On Wednesday last, Mr. Charles Babbage, the mathematician, who resides in Dorset-street, Manchester-square, summoned four German brass band musicians before Mr. Secker, the police magistrate of Marylebone, upon a charge of annoying him with their noise, after they had been requested to depart from the neighbourhood of his house, and a reasonable cause had been assigned for the request. Mr. Babbage was engaged with his studies, when these fellows came before his door and opened fire with their instruments.

He went out and asked them to go away, but they recommenced playing and refused to move. Mr. Babbage went in search of a constable, and when he came back he found that they had moved to the front of a neighbouring house, but so close at hand that the noise was just the same disturbance as before. The owner of this house, as it appeared, liked their music, and desired them to play on. When the constable came up he ordered the musicians to move off, but this they refused to do, and consequently he removed them to the station-house. [...]

There is an idea prevalent among these people that they are not compellable to move on, unless they are informed that there is actual illness in a house; but it is to be hoped that Mr. Secker’s decision of Wednesday last will go some way towards dispelling this delusion. ‘No one,’ said the Magistrate, ‘has a right to play his noisy instruments within the hearing of persons who are pursuing grave occupations. The street is not to be infested with persons who disturb the inhabitants.’ [...]

The conclusion was that the four tuneful Teutons who had obstructed the thoroughfare—who had annoyed Mr. Babbage—and who had resisted the command of the constable to move on, were fined in the mitigated penalty of 5s. each; but with an intimation that if ever they made their appearance in Marylebone Police-court again the sterner fine of 2l. a head was hanging over them.

There was a subsequent and smaller case disposed of summarily by analogy, the gist of which was that Gatino—probably Gaetano—Circeoni, an Italian, was also fined 5s. for playing an instrument, also to the annoyance of Mr. Babbage, and, in default of payment, his instrument was detained. A musical fanatic who was present in court, being touched with sympathy for the misfortune of the wandering musician, paid the fine, and Circeoni was discharged to the further annoyance of the human race.

The perpetual stress upon the nervous system caused by the unceasing noises of London indeed is a prolific source and aggravation of cerebral disease. Go where you will, or arrange your matters how you will, it is almost impossible to find quiet. [...]

The Times, 2 July 1860, p. 8.

(*Title reference)

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