Magonia 66, March 1999
There have been some interesting reports of a mysterious hum in the Penketh and Great Sankey areas of Warrington. The story first came to public notice in a short piece by reporter Steve Rylance in the Warrington Guardian for November 27th 1998, which reported that environmental health officers had failed to track down, after a year’s investigation, the source of a mysterious humming noise which was affecting Mrs Anne Heesom of Maliston Road, Great Sankey and some of her neighbours.
Described as a high pitched droning sound, it could only be heard by women, one of whom said that the noise was so loud that it drowned out her TV set. Mrs Heesom and some of the other witnesses were claiming that the sound came from a nearby North West Water plant and other local industrial premises, but the council Environmental Protection Team were noncommittal. A similar, shorter story appeared in the next days Manchester Evening News.
There the matter seemed to rest until New Year’s Eve, when the story appeared in many of the national newspapers. The most detailed reports were in the Daily Express and the Liverpool Daily Post. These stories reported that up to a dozen women in the Great Sankey and Penketh areas had been affected, only women could here it, and that their husbands and male noise pollution monitors were unable to hear it. Mrs Heesom was quoted, in more or less identical terms, saying “Its been going on for 18 months and its had such an effect on my life I’m going to move house. Its a high pitched pulsating humming noise and it turns me into a nervous wreck. Its very bad in the front bedroom, but my husband can’t here it all”. She claimed to be hearing three noises and that “The noise abatement officer drove me around the area to try and isolate the noise and we stopped outside a North West Water treatment works”
The local environmental health officer explained that only women had reported the noise or noises which ranged from intermittent droning and humming to high pitched whining, and which according to diaries kept by the women for the noise officers were worst in their bedrooms and on cold frosty nights. There was speculation that physiological and psychological differences between the way men and women react to noise may underlie the selectivity. It seems, though this is not clear, that the sounds had not been recorded or registered on instruments.
Forteans will recognise that these Warrington sounds are not unique, the hum has been heard on many previous occasions, and is by no means always confined to women. I was in fact haunted by this hum in my childhood in the 1950′s, a sound like an insect buzzing perpetually around the room. Explanations offered then ranged from the distant sounds of Trafford Park factories, to the sound of wind in the wires.
In their book Modern Mysteries of Britain, Janet and Colin Bord refer to the hum (see chapter 20) describing it as a constant throbbing hum, heard loudest in the early hours, and refer to cases in Poole, Hereford and Worcester, Bognor Regis, Bristol, Worlingham and Aldershot. In the Worlingham case, as with Warrington, only women seemed to be able to here the “low key pulsating sound that seems to go right through you”. There are accounts in Fortean Times, 29 and 19, pointing out the prevalence of this hum. William Corliss has some pieces on it (Strange Phenomena GI pp.236-7; Earthquakes, Tides etc. pp.178-9 and Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena, p.383-6). A summary of reports and speculation appears in an article by John Billingsley in Fortean Times 115.
One of the most extensive discussions of the hum, given the name hummadruz, appeared in the pages of the notes and queries column of the Manchester City News for 1878, where a correspondent reported hearing the sound of a low drone or humming noise on calm days, particularly in the east of Manchester around Gorton, Rusholme and Longsight, mainly in the early morning and evening. This was 50 years before the 1870′s, when these areas were still semi-rural. He first thought they were the drone of Manchester factories but did not see how the actual sound could carry that far.
A lengthy discussion ensued, and the original correspondent came back with a quotation from Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne:
‘Humming in the air. There is a natural occurrence to be met with upon the highest part of our downs in hot summer days which always amuses me without giving me any satisfaction as to the cause of it; and that is the loud humming as of bees in the air, though not one insect is to be seen. The sound is distinctly to be heard the whole common through. Any person would suppose that a large swarm of bees was in motion and playing above his head’.
As unexplained today as then, explanations range from as the above factory sounds, distant insects, the sound of frogs, wind in electricity wires, electromagnetic stimulation of the auditory cortex, the sound of the jet stream, secret projects, interference patterns of sound, all the way through the sound of the Dero’s machinery in the inner earth. From the Manchester City News, May 18th, 1878:
"THE HUMMADRUZ – here is a query for your readers. Is the term known? If so, what does it mean, and has it any application apart from the phenomena I now relate? These inquiries I put because I never saw in print any allusion either to the term or the remarkable sounds which have been so euphoniously named, and being familiar with them from my childhood it is clear that they were known to a past generation at least. The phenomena itself I have heard and listened to hundreds of times, and in common with my neighbours, with whom it was a sort of village wonder, vainly attempted to get at a solution of the mystery."The sounds in question were simply a low drone, or humming noise, which on calm days, particularly in clear weather, could be heard over the entire districts east and south of Manchester; the neighbourhoods of Gorton, Rusholme, and Longsight being places where I have noted them most frequently."Commonly speaking, the sounds were continuous, but at times the crescendos and diminuendos partook much of the character of the Aeolian harp, and were quite as musical. My solution of the mystery was that it proceeded from the whirl of machinery in Manchester, which, favoured by a still atmosphere, travelled through the air and was toned down by distance to the musical cadences this so often assumed; but on following this notion up, when in the vicinity of any busy factory I never could conceive such a volume of sound being thrown off as would travel a distance of over two to four miles; nor could I ever reconcile this theory with the fact that the hummadruz could be heard in early morn and also late in the evening’s twilight (as I have often noted in the quietude of my angling expeditions), when we must suppose all mechanical operations would be at rest; but as those days, now half a century ago, were long prior to the Ten Hour Act, this supposition may not hold good. Whether the phenomenon was ever heard on other sides of Manchester I have no recollection. – R.E.Bibby, Denton.”
In response to this request for information the issue of the Manchester City News of June 1st 1878, found two correspondents who offered explanations for Mr Bibby’s observations:
“The term “hummadruz” is one which in a long series of years I have never heard used, nor did I ever see it in print till I read R. E. Bibby’s query in the City News. But as to the remarkable sounds which the term is intended to represent, I have often heard them when passing along the footpath through the fields which lie between Blackley Church and Lichford Hall. Like Mr. Bibby I was much surprised when I first heard them; but after hearing them on several occasions, being desirous to ascertain the cause, I left the footpath and proceeded through the fields in the direction from which the sounds seemed to come.”Presently I stood on the borders of a large pit, the surface of the water in which was covered by a multitude of frogs, whose croaking produced the strange sounds that had previously puzzled me. – Samuel Hewitt““Nearly two years ago, in the very height and heat of summer, I was on the tops of Penrhos, Llanrychwyn, which is above and on the east side of Llyn Geirionydd. Everything was beauty and repose in that wild mountain solitude. It was about for o’clock in the afternoon when my attention was attracted by a continuity of musical minor murmuring strains, resembling the minor notes produced by the rain-wind playing sadly through the window sashes, and sometimes like the musical tones of the telegraph wires played upon by a whistling north-easter or south-wester. Being busily engaged at the time I did not pay that attention I might otherwise have bestowed had I been performing a quiet ramble. Now and again I looked round about me, expecting to see myriads of insects on the wing; but no, the air to all appearances was empty, not a fly was to be seen.“The crescendos and diminuendos of the plaintive murmurings I noticed particularly, and was much impressed by them. In a while, after listening, my curiosity grew a little excited, and I wondered where on earth these musical cadences could proceed from. Wherever I moved the sounds were still heard; as they grew piano I was reminded of the large sea-shells which in my childhood I used to place to my ear, recalling the low, sad, distant moaning of the ocean waves.“At length, having finished what I was engaged in, I packed up my traps and directed my steps homeward. Still this “humadruzz” or humabuzz never left me until I left the moorland top. Before doing so I stooped and examined the dry wiry grass of the mountain, and to my surprise I found an infinitude of life everywhere, in the shape of small winged insects, producing these wild, weird, minor Eolian-harp kind of strains. – Arlunydd Glan Conway, Trefriw, North Wales.”
In a subsequent issue (June 29th 1879) Mr Bibby of Denton returns to the pages of the City News with the Gilbert White passage that I quote, along with other literary references. He is not impressed by the explanations offered by the two earlier contributors:
“For years I have had quite a colony of frogs almost under my windows, and am thoroughly familiar with their by no means unmusical croak; but under no stretch of the imagination could these humming sounds be attributed to them. the supposition of Arlunydd Glan Conway is more plausible, as many insects give off humming noises; but any such sounds would be easily traceable to a centre, even by a half-tutored ear, and the source at once detected. Moreover so close an observer and profound a naturalist as Gilbert White would not long remain in doubt.“Indeed the fact that the humming described in my first notice was heard at all hours of the day as well as of the night will be held to refute altogether the theory that insects gave rise to it, particularly as all creation has its periods of repose in some part of the twenty-four hours, whereas in favourable states of the weather I have had ample opportunities of concluding that the hummadruz never ceased [...]“Again, the humming generally appeared to me to fill the heavens to an almost illimitable degree, and anyone looking for its source would certainly look upward, never on the ground. This ‘music of the spheres’ may, with some degree of certainty, be attributed to electrical currents, which, under certain circumstances, are known to give audible sounds, and as the sound commonly appeared to me to flow from north to south it lends some degree of support to the theory.”
A surprisingly modern-sounding theory which seems to foresee contemporary speculation about electromagnetic effects. On July 6th the final contribution to the correspondence appeared in the City News:
“Mr. R. E. Bibby’s Note acted magically on me. It transported me into the past and distant. Many years ago, on a hot still day in summer, I was walking with a peasant, accustomed to field sports, on a mountain table land, an ocean of purple heath extending as far as the eye could reach. We stopped for a few moments to load a gun, and my companion, for the first time in his life, became aware of the hummadruz. He was certain that a swarm of bees was somewhere near, and went in all directions seeking for it. But finding that, go where he would, the sound never became nearer or nor remote, he gave up the quest with wonder not unmixed with fear, as if he had witnessed something supernatural.”I was quite familiar with the sound, but I find that I erred in two respects concerning it. I thought that its `local habitation’ was the mountain, and that it had no name. I did not know until to-day that anyone had noticed it but myself. I had been accustomed to hear it for years, always on the mountain and in hot weather, and supposed it to be the blended hum of innumerable solitary bees and other insects scattered over a wide space in a resonant atmosphere. Even now I am not certain that the invisibility of the insects – for I never saw any – invalidates this explanation, because there is a parallel phenomenon in which the agency is generally unseen and yet indubitable.“One evening I perceived that the downs above Freshwater Cliffs [Isle of Wight? - JR] were covered with spiders’ threads running, as the wind blew, from east to west. they were visible only as the rays of the setting sun glanced off them. the ground was dark and commonplace when viewed in any direction but one, but when viewed in that one direction a long pathway of glistening silver webs led towards the sunset. Now here is the fact to which I draw attention. I could not see, though I searched long and carefully, a single spider. Hundreds of acres were netted over with webs, but not one of the little weavers could be seen. – W. A. O’Conor“
This contribution reinforces Arlunydd Glan Conway’s (could a Welsh-speaking reader confirm my suspicion that this is a pseudonym?) suggestion that the hummadruz is the collective noise of insects, but it would seem unlikely that this could be the case in modern, urban cases, such as Warrington. It also adds a suggestion as to the origin of present day UFO ‘angel hair’ cases.
The hummadruz phenomena appears in many parts of the world under different names. Some are described in the Fortean Times articles mentioned above. A related American phenomenon is the ‘Taos Hum’. There is an Internet website devoted to the Hum, with news, information and discussion forums, as well as links to many related sites. Topics discussed range from secret weapon testing to medical aspects and tinnitus. It is well worth a visit at: http://www.eskimo.com/~billb/hum/hum.html