Facing the Music:
Mr Rawlins and the Organ Grinding Nuisance



Dancing to the strains of a barrel organ. Thomas Webster / William Finden 19th century. Wellcome Collection.

Noise nuisance, it would appear, is not just a modern problem. The soundscape of Victorian London was shaped by clattering horse-drawn vehicles, bustling railway stations, yelling costermongers, barking stray dogs and incessant street music, all of which, and particularly the last, could drive Londoners like Mr Thomas James Rawlins to distraction.

In 1861 the journalist Henry Mayhew estimated that there were approximately a thousand street musicians plying their trade in London. Given that there were said to be about ten thousand five hundred streets and lanes in the capital, this works out at ten-and-a-half streets per musician, which might explain why there were so many complaints about noise pollution.

Books, newspapers articles and letters on the subject, mostly from the moneyed middle and upper classes, make uncomfortable reading to a modern sensibility. The complaints reveal open hostility to the working classes for playing or encouraging street music, and unashamed xenophobia, as many of street musicians were from Italy, France and Germany and were escaping poverty, war and social upheaval.

Italian street musicians. F. Palizzi / Francesco de Bourcard Usi e costume di Napoli volume 1 1853. British Library.

Few respectable folk

However unpleasantly such sentiments are expressed, it cannot be denied that some people found street music very inconvenient and distressing. The mathematician Charles Babbage, who was a resident of Dorset Square, declared that such noise deprived him of a quarter of his working time. John Leech, illustrator of A Christmas Carol and other books by Dickens, left Bloomsbury for Kensington in the hope of finding peace, but he failed to find any, and noise nuisance was said to have contributed to his death. Thomas Carlyle hid in his sound-proof room, which was actually not that effective. Anthony Trollope battled with a German band when living in Montagu Square.

But let us see how the noise nuisance affected an ordinary resident of Bloomsbury. Mr Thomas James Rawlins lived at 38 University Street, a thoroughfare running between Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street only a stone’s throw from University College London. This was not quite as salubrious an area as it is today. To the south was Mortimer Market, which Mr Rawlins described as ‘a low neighbourhood’ and ‘an area not much frequented by respectable folk’. He also said that some houses opposite his were remarkable for the number of women who lived there — they could be seen at the windows at all hours of the day — and one presumes that he was suggesting that they were brothels.

Charles Babbage. 1860. Wikimedia.

First some background

Records show that Thomas, who was born in Lambeth in 1802, had a varied career. After being in the employ of the East India Company in Calcutta, he variously worked as an artist for a lithographer, as a professor of drawing at St Mark’s College in Chelsea, as Professor of Drawing and Fortification at the splendidly named College of Agriculture and Chemistry and of General and Practical Science at 38-39 Kennington Lane, as an army examinations tutor, as a civil engineer, as an architect, and as co-illustrator of a book by ‘Nimrod’ — The Life of John Mytton Esq. — and maybe of more.

His married life was equally complicated. In India he was both married and widowed before he was thirty. He and his second wife, Martha, had two children who died young, which may have contributed to their marital breakdown. In 1851 a Thomas James Bailey Rawlins bigamously married Susanna Jefferson at St Pancras Church. I can find no records of an ecclesiastical divorce, and civil divorce was only possible after 1857.

Italian organ of monstrous size in a London street. The Illustrated London News 19 December 1846.

Rawlins v. Onzi

Thomas’s first recorded legal skirmish with a street musician took place in November 1857 when he asked Felice Onzi to move away with his organ from No. 38. A neighbour then invited Onzi to come and play the instrument in their house across the street, and, as the door was left open, the music was still audible. When Onzi finished, and was leaving the house, he was arrested for ignoring Rawlins’s original request.

Two female neighbours attended the police court, disrupting proceedings and complaining that Rawlins deprived them of music, as he was always sending organ grinders away. As for Onzi, on being told that he would be fined forty shillings if he repeated the offence, he grinned and declared that he had no money, although he was less cheerful when told that the alternative would be a spell in prison.

Musician playing a hurdy-gurdy. Ludwig Knaus 1869. Hamburger Kunsthalle.

Rawlins v. Facinelli

In November 1859 Rawlins was in court again, and then in 1860 he locked horns with an organ grinder by the name of Giovanni Facinelli, who had frequented University Street every Saturday for four months at the invitation of the neighbours, his stated aim being ‘to have a bit of fun.’

On a Saturday in mid-July Rawlins’s maid went to send the man away using the Italian for ‘Go away!’ and ‘Somebody’s sick!’, the phrases she had been taught precisely for that purpose. Facinelli, who was described as ‘truculent-looking’ by the newspapers, responded by telling her to go away herself. When an angry Mr Rawlins appeared, Facinelli rushed into the hallway of No. 38 and roundly abused the householder, calling him a villain, a robber and a hellish heretic both in English and in Italian. A crowd sixty-strong watched him being taken into custody.

In court Mr Rawlins explained that he suffered from a ‘chronic determination of blood to the head’ that was ‘only relieved by copious bleeding’ as a result of ‘having brain fever in India’. He explained that he was not the only sufferer in his house, it being home to an invalid lady who was ‘rendered both speechless and senseless’ by the incessant music. Facinelli was fined twenty shillings.

Street musicians annoying the neighbours. Lionel Charles Henley 19th century.

Rawlins v. Mersiani

Five months later, in December 1860, a native of Parma by the name of Giuseppe Mersiani, who had been in London for four weeks, was taken to court.

Rawlins explained pitifully that he had already taken out actions against twelve organ grinders, and that his only desire was to be left alone. He claimed that, when it was known that there were invalids in his house, up to twenty men a day would come to play music outside in the hope of being paid to leave. All his neighbours supported him in his campaign against the organ grinders. All, that is, except one group, who were no doubt the good-time girls in the house across the road.

Christmas waits making a racket in the streets of Seven Dials. The Illustrated London News 24 December 1853.

Rawlins v. Bucchieri

On Monday 24 June 1861 Mr Rawlins was ill in bed, his rest having been disturbed for a period of two hours by a steady trickle of organ grinders. Martha Dockerell, his sixteen-year-old maid, was sent to chase the musicians away with her rudimentary Italian, but one of them, who was Giuseppe Bucchieri, refused to budge and continued grinding.

There was obviously nothing for it, so Mr Rawlins dragged himself from his sick bed, got dressed and ordered the man to leave. When arrested and taken to court, Bucchieri said through an interpreter that he had not understood that he was being asked to go away as he did not speak English. His linguistic abilities miraculously improved when asked to pay a five shilling fine. He explained, in English, that he did not have any money, but he managed to find some when the magistrate explained that his organ would be sold to pay the fine.

Italian street musicians in London. Adolphe Smith & John Thomson Street Life in London 1877.

And there were others

In October 1862, having just brought an action against a Luigi Pini for organ grinding, Mr Rawlins was accosted by a neighbour as he was on his way to yet another court appearance. ‘We have made up our minds to annoy you,’ the neighbour declared. ‘I will go on getting these men to play in front of my house.’

In court Giuseppe Francisco’s padrone — his boss or master — was summoned by the magistrate and ordered to stop the musicians annoying Mr Rawlins. He paid the fine of ten shillings on behalf of Francisco.

Entrance to Brompton Cemetery. Edward Walford Old and New London volume 5 1878.

In the end

One might imagine that Mr Rawlins’s luck would change after an Act was passed in 1864 to improve the regulation of street music. But it was not to be, for in 1865 — and skip the rest of this paragraph if you are of a queasy disposition — he had an accident with a cab horse that left him with a ruptured bladder, abscesses, leakage and a twice-burst stomach. He spent the rest of his days an incurable invalid.

But his torments did not end there, for in August 1867 Guillaume Dubois and his twelve-year-old son arrived in University Street. With them came a barrel organ and a large drum in a wheeled frame. The elder Dubois played the organ, and the younger banged to drum, and, when he did so, a wooden figure jiggled up and down to the noisy delight of the neighbourhood children. The Dubois were fined five shillings.

Thomas continued to live in the house until his death in 1873. He was buried in a common or pauper’s grave in Brompton Cemetery.

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