History of The East London Cockney

Although some foreigners and people living in other places in the UK, assume that all Londoners are cockneys, this isn’t technically 100% true.



The East London Cockney.

You can technically only be a Cockney if you were born in the East End of the city. To be really specific, you must have been born within the sound of Bow bells. These are the bells of St Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside. A survey of the bells and how far their ringing might have carried was done in 2000.

This actually gives more scope to be a Cockney than you might think, as they would have been heard six miles to the east, four miles to the west, five miles to the north and three miles to the south. Dick Whittington, according to legend, heard the bells in Highgate in North London before he turned back and came home.

This disputes the fact that Cockneys are all from the East End but few people born outside the area will take their claim to fame.

What does it take to be a Cockney?

It is thought that the word Cockney originates from the Norman word for a sugar cake, cocaigne. The Normans called London the ‘Land of Sugar Cake’ and the name seems to have stuck with some variations over the years. In the 1360s the writer William Langland also used the term ‘cockeney’ to mean cock’s egg.

This phrase was used to describe lazy city dwellers who didn’t have to work hard for a living according to their rural counterparts. Neither explanation may make a whole lot of sense but both tell us that Cockneys have been around for a fair amount of time!

If you ask anyone outside of the East End what defines a Cockney, most will tell you about Cockney Rhyming slang.

This is a language specific to the East End that is actually used by many other regions of the country now. It isn’t clear when rhyming slang started and why and there are various explanations on where it could have come from.

St Mary le Bow in London

Some, for example, think it began in the 1840s and that it was used by costermongers and salesmen as a form of ‘patter’. Others think it was a secret language used by criminals and people skating close to the edge of the law to bamboozle police and outsiders. In either case, if you don’t understand the slang, it can be like listening to a foreign language, but it is fun to try and decipher.

The premise of Cockney rhyming slang is that it switches a word or phrase with another that rhymes with the original. So, for example, stairs become apple and pears, phone becomes dog and bone, wife becomes trouble and strife and hair becomes Barnet fair. Some of the slang dates back for centuries but the language is still evolving.

An Evolving Cockney Language

In recent years, additions to slang have included Tony Blairs for flares, Ruby Murray for curry and Britney Spears for beers. You can hear these phrases all over the country, though they will, ideally, not be delivered in a Mockney accent. Mockney accents are usually adopted by people who want to look working class when they are actually quite posh.

It’s best not to do Mockney when you meet a Cockney because they will laugh and they may get quite irritable if they think you are showing off.

Similarly, don’t take Cockney lessons from Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. That just didn’t work on any level at all and no self-respecting Cockney will ever talk like that. Michael Caine did a much better job than Dick in the film Alfie. Technically, he isn’t a Cockney either as he was born in South London but I guess that is close enough.

East London Pearly Kings and Queens

Many people think that Pearly Kings and Queens are all East Enders, but this isn’t the case. Many of them are, but this tradition covers all Londoners. Pearly Kings and Queens, or Pearlies, are a working-class London tradition – they wear clothes that are intricately decorated with pearl buttons and do a lot of good work for charity.

They are so well known in London that a group of them even made an appearance in the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Of course, not every East Ender can be a Pearly King or Queen – these are special jobs and there are local groups and dynasties operating all over the city.

So, given the original reach of the sound of Bow Bells, you don’t actually need to be born in the East End to qualify as being a Cockney – any working class Londoner near the area may consider themselves one. But, to get a real feel for the Cockney way of life, visit the East End and look for local market traders, shop owners and cabbies. If you’re really lucky, they’ll treat you to some rhyming slang!

East London History - East End Facts

Malcolm Oakley - East London History - A Guide to London's East End.

I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Author by Malcolm Oakley.

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Posted in East End History

8 comments on “History of The East London Cockney
  1. Jim Mersh says:

    I am 67. Born in Westland Place Shoreditch 1949. Very proud to be a true Cockney. Now live in Nottingham but have very fond memories of life in Tsplow Street and school in Hoxton Square.
    I have to laugh when Essex folk talk of being Cockneys but proud they see it as a status. !!!
    Not many of us left !😄

  2. clive says:

    the bells were silent from 1940 to 1961. so anyone born within that period are not true ‘Cockneys’ as they could not have heard the bells.

    • Jim Mersh says:

      Sorry you translate it that way. On that basis only people born at 9 o’clock were ever Cockneys then.
      The reality was being born within the sound of Bow bells not that they were ringing at the time.
      Anyway I trust you are a Cockney so Respect to you.

  3. Les Martin says:

    I was born at Barts. Dad near the Angel and grandad in cloth fair.
    Does that make the 3 of us cockneys then

  4. Tony Scarlo says:

    Cockneys were born within the sound of bow bells, bow bells is in cheapside the same bells that said turn again dick Whittington Lord mayor of London. The bells are called the bells of st Mary let bow, not bow bells in bow, so cockneys originated in the city of london
    This information can be found in the city livery halls I and around the city of London

  5. Tony Scarlo says:

    Cockneys were born within the sound of bow bells, bow bells is in eastcheap the same bells that said turn again dick Whittington Lord mare of London. The bells are called the bells of st Mary let bow, not bow bells in bow, so cockneys originated in the city of london
    This information can be found in the city livery halls I and around the city of London

  6. Terence A. Wright says:

    I am an 87 year old British American. Only this year did I discover that both my parents were Cockneys. They never mentioned this, nor did they speak the lingo. I, on the other hand, enjoy mimicking quite a few dialects. All the best of swan and duck to you . . . Terry

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