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      Many readers will be familiar with the sound of a London Bobby police whistle, but may be surprised to learn that this is a relatively new innovation. When the London Metropolitan Police Services (MPS) were established in 1829, a standard item issued to officers to summon aid was a wooden rattle, as shown in Picture 1. This MPS rattle dates from about 1840, and has an unusual folding handle so as to fit into a sleeve or holster. It has two lead weights at the end, which make it easier to rotate, and can also serve as a weapon if the need should arise. Picture 2 shows a wooden rattle issued to the Baltimore Police around the same time. It has a fixed handle, as was standard on most police rattles. It also appears to have a weighted end. Most police rattles are around 7” long.

      Operating on the principle of the ratchet device, a gearwheel and a stiff board is mounted on a handle, which can be freely rotated. The handle is held and the whole mechanism is swung around, the momentum causing the board to click against the gearwheel, making a loud clicking and rattling noise. One popular design consists of a thick wooden cog wheel, usually with 6 or 8 teeth, attached to a handle and two wooden flanges which alternately hit the teeth of the cog when the handle is turned. Some rattles, such as the MPS below left, only have a single flange. Most are bidirectional so they can be rotated in either direction, but some are unidirectional.

      In 1883 the London Police were seeking a replacement to the wooden rattle. They chose the Acme whistle made by Joseph Hudson, of Birmingham. This whistle produces a sound with two high pitches and a lower third pitch, which is a good example of the production of subjective tones. Within the compact whistle are two short pipes which produce two separate high frequencies when blown. These two high frequency tones interfere with each other and produce a beat frequency. The beat frequency is equal to the difference between the frequencies of the two tones and is perceived by the human ear as a third tone, called a “subjective tone” or “difference tone”. Hudson later invented a “pea” whistle, the Acme Thunderer, which is standard equipment for sporting events. These are shown in Picture 3.

      Many readers will be familiar with, and may own, an Air Raid Precaution (ARP) bell, as shown in Picture 4. During the Second World War, ARP Wardens were the cornerstone of London’s Civil Defence. In addition to the bell, to be used for air raid warnings, they were also issued a wooden rattle (unidirectional, 10.5” long) Picture 5. This is stamped “A.R.P / W. CLEMENTS & SONS / 1939”. A whistle and lapel badge are shown in Picture 6. The wardens were trained to detect gas and would sound a rattle such as this one as a warning signal for people to put on gas masks. Holding the handle and spinning the rattle would emit a very loud clacking sound. Wardens were often stationed at designated Warden’s Posts, which would hold other items of equipment such as an ‘All Clear’ signal bell, a first-aid box, anti-gas clothing and a telephone. ARP wardens were almost all unpaid part-time volunteers who also held day-time jobs.

      Wooden rattles were also popular with spectators at football (soccer) and rugby matches. Picture 7 shows one from the 1920s period. Picture 8 shows one to commemorate the Tottenham Hotspurs championship of 1950. Both are bidirectional and have additional handles at the top so that these can be manually rotated instead of swung. Rattles have since been banned from stadiums because they made so much noise that it could be impossible to hear the referee’s whistle. These football rattles are often in the 9″ – 11″ range.

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