Cockney: The Distinctive Accent and Culture of London’s East End

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 has stuck with some variations over the years. In the 1360s, the writer William Langland also used the term ‘cockeney’ to mean cock’s egg.

Pearly Kings and Queens in modern London.
Pearly Kings and Queens of London

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

What does it take to be a Cockney?

What is a true Cockney?

You can technically only be a Cockney if you were born in the city’s East End. Specifically, 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.

How Far Away Can Bow Bells Be Heard?

Historically it was assumed to be a radius of approximately 5 miles from St Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside. This area would have included neighbourhoods such as Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Hackney, and parts of Poplar and Stepney. However, urban development and noise pollution mean that the bells can’t be heard that far today.

It’s also worth noting that in 2012, experts from the University of London conducted a study and found that the bells could only be heard approximately 2 miles away. However, this study was conducted in modern conditions, with all the noise pollution of a busy city.

This 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 that Cockneys are all from the East End, but only some people born outside the area will take their claim to fame.

According to their rural counterparts, this phrase described lazy city dwellers who didn’t have to work hard for a living. Neither explanation may make a lot of sense, but both tell us that Cockneys have been around for a fair amount of time!

Bow Bells and Cockneys: A Unique Connection in London’s Cultural Heritage

The iconic Bow Bells and their association with Cockney culture have been integral to London’s rich history. A true Cockney is said to be born within the sound of these famous bells housed at the St. Mary-le-Bow Church in the City of London. The unique connection between Bow Bells and Cockneys is worth exploring, and this article delves into their history and the cultural significance of this fascinating relationship.

The present ring of bells, with the Great Bell of Bow centre left.
Great Bell of Bow centre left.
Bellminsterboy, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Origin of Bow Bells and St. Mary-le-Bow Church

Located in the heart of the City of London’s Cheapside district, the St. Mary-le-Bow Church dates back to the 11th century. The original structure was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren later rebuilt it. The church now stands as a testament to the resilience and beauty of London’s architectural heritage.

Bow Bells: The Defining Sound of Cockney Culture

The term “Cockney” is typically used to describe the working-class residents of the East End of London, known for their distinctive accents and dialect, including the famous rhyming slang. The sound of Bow Bells has long been associated with Cockney’s identity, as it was traditionally believed that a person could only be considered a true Cockney if they were born within earshot of these iconic bells.

This unique criterion for Cockney identity has led to a deep connection between the Bow Bells and the Cockney community, making them an essential part of London’s cultural fabric.

Bow Bells and Cockneys in Literature and Popular Culture

The influence of Bow Bells and Cockney culture has extended far beyond the boundaries of London’s East End. Famous literary figures, such as Charles Dickens, have featured Cockney characters in their works, highlighting their distinct dialect and the importance of the Bow Bells in defining their identity.

St Mary-le-Bow Church, built 1671-1680, one of Wren's "City Churches" built after the Great Fire of London.
St Mary-le-Bow Church, Cheapside London

In addition, the Bow Bells have been immortalised in nursery rhymes and songs, including the well-known “Oranges and Lemons,” which mentions St. Mary-le-Bow and other London churches.

Preserving the Legacy of Bow Bells and Cockney Culture

As London continues to grow and evolve, efforts have been made to preserve the unique heritage of the Bow Bells and Cockney culture. The St. Mary-le-Bow Church remains a popular tourist destination, allowing visitors to experience the historic bells firsthand and learn more about their connection to London’s Cockney community.

Moreover, various organisations, museums, and events celebrate Cockney’s history and traditions, ensuring that the unique bond between the Bow Bells and Cockneys remains a cherished aspect of London’s cultural landscape.


The Bow Bells and their connection to Cockney’s identity are essential to London’s history and cultural heritage. The enduring legacy of the Bow Bells serves as a testament to the resilience and spirit of the Cockney community, as well as a fascinating element of London’s past that continues to captivate visitors and residents alike.

The East London Cockney.

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

This language is specific to the East End and is now used by many other regions of the country. It needs to be clarified when rhyming slang started and why and various explanations exist for where it could have come from.

Some, for example, think it began in the 1840s and that costermongers and salesmen used it as a form of ‘patter’. Others believe it was a secret language used by criminals and people skating close to the edge of the law to deceive 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, the phone becomes dog and bone, the wife becomes trouble and strife, and hair becomes Barnet Fair. Some slang dates back centuries, but the language is still evolving.

Cockney Rhyming Slang Phrases

Cockney rhyming slang is an exciting and unique way of speaking that has been around since the mid-1800s. Believed to have originated in London’s East End, this style of speech utilises creative wordplay to replace common words with others that rhyme. Think you know all there is to know about Cockney rhyming slang?

Take a look at these examples and see for yourself!

  • Apples and pears – stairs. “I’m heading up the apples to bed.”
  • Adam and Eve – believe. “Would you Adam and Eve it?”
  • Trouble and strife – wife. “The trouble’s been on my back all day.”
  • Dog and bone – phone. “Give me a bell on the dog later.”
  • Butcher’s hook – look. “Let’s have a butcher’s at your new car.”
  • Plates of meat – feet. “My plates are killing me after that walk.”
  • Gregory Peck – check. “Can you give me a Gregory for the bill?”
  • Loaf of bread – head. “Use your loaf!”
  • Boat race – face. “He’s got a very kind boat.”
  • Mince pies – eyes. “She’s got beautiful mince.”
  • Rosie Lee – tea. “Fancy a cup of Rosie?”
  • Jam jar – car. “We took a spin in the old jam jar.”
  • Hank Marvin – starving. “I’m absolutely Hank after that workout.”
  • Barnet Fair – hair. “I’m getting my barnet cut tomorrow.”
  • Bubble bath – laugh. “You’re having a bubble if you think that’s true!”
  • Dustbin lids – kids. “The dustbins are driving me mad.”
  • Rabbit and pork – talk. “She can rabbit for England!”
  • Porky pies – lies. “He’s been telling porkies again.”
  • Bread and honey – money. “I’ve spent all my bread on this boat race.”
  • North and south – mouth. “Watch your north and south!”
  • Currant bun – sun. “Haven’t seen the currant in days!”
  • Half Inch – pinch (steal). “He’s half-inched my wallet!”
  • Dicky Bird – word. “I haven’t heard a dicky bird from him.”
  • Frog and toad – road. “I live down that frog and toad.”
  • Uncle Bert – shirt. “Got a new Uncle for the do tonight.”
  • Sky rocket – pocket. “I’ve got a hole in my sky.”
  • Scooby Doo – clue. “I haven’t got a Scooby where we are.”
  • Khyber Pass – arse. “He’s a pain in the Khyber.”
  • Brass tacks – facts. “Let’s get down to the brass tacks.”
  • Brown bread – dead. “He’s brown bread.”

More Rhyming Slang To Learn!

  • China plate – mate. “He’s my old china.”
  • Derby Kelly – belly. “I’ve got a bit of a Derby after that meal.”
  • Lemon squeezy – easy. “It’s lemon squeezy.”
  • Lady Godiva – fiver. “Lend us a Lady, would ya?”
  • Oxford Scholar – dollar. “I need a few Oxfords for the weekend.”
  • Pen and Ink – stink. “This place pen and inks.”
  • Richard the Third – bird. “Look at that Richard over there.”
  • Tin Lid – kid. “The tin lids are playing in the yard.”
  • Whistle and flute – suit. “I’ve got a new whistle for the wedding.”
  • Tom and Dick – sick. “I feel a bit Tom after last night.”
  • Two and eight – state. “You’ve got yourself in a right two and eight!”
  • Ayrton Senna – tenner (a ten-pound note). “Can you lend me an Ayrton?”
  • Baker’s Dozen – cousin. “My baker’s coming over for dinner tonight.”
  • Battle Cruiser – boozer (pub). “Let’s meet at the battle after work.”
  • Tea leaf – thief. “Watch out for the tea leafs around here.”
  • Bristol City – pretty. “She’s a Bristol city, isn’t she?”
  • Lionel Blairs – flares (as in flared trousers). “Check out his Lionels!”
  • Ruby Murray – curry. “Fancy a Ruby tonight?”
  • Sherbet Dab – cab. “Let’s get a sherbet home.”
  • Tod Sloan – alone. “I’ve been left on me tod.”

One of the most recognisable features of cockney culture is its language. Cockneys speak a dialect of English that is influenced by their East End origins and their diverse ethnic backgrounds. They also use a form of rhyming slang, which involves replacing a word with a phrase that rhymes with it, and then often dropping the second part of the phrase. For example, “stairs” becomes “apples and pears”, and then just “apples”. Rhyming slang is a way of communicating in code, hiding the meaning from outsiders or authority figures. It is also a way of showing off one’s wit and inventiveness.

Some slang is not immediately have obvious to meaning;

Kettle and hob is a cockney rhyming slang term for watch. It comes from the phrase kettle and hob, which refers to the oven range in an old-fashioned house, where a kettle would boil on the hob. The word hob rhymes with fob, a pocket watch attached to the body by a small chain. The word fob is then dropped, leaving only kettle as the slang word for watch. For example, someone might say, “Nice new kettle you’re wearing, mate”, to compliment someone’s watch.

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 nationwide, 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 pretty posh.

It’s best not to do Mockney when you meet a Cockney because they will laugh and 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 didn’t work on any level, 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

Cockneys also have their own alternative royal family: the pearly kings and queens. These cockneys wear suits covered with mother-of-pearl buttons, forming elaborate patterns and symbols. They are the descendants or successors of the costermongers, the street traders who sold fruits and vegetables in London’s markets in the 19th century.

The costermongers had their kings and queens, who their peers elected to represent and protect their interests. The pearly kings and queens continue this tradition by raising money for various charities and causes and celebrating their cockney culture and heritage.

Pearly King and Queen, 1961
Pearly King and Queen
Jack de Nijs for Anefo / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many people think Pearly Kings and Queens are all East Enders, but this isn’t true. 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 intricately decorated with pearl buttons and do much good work for charity.

Pearly Kings and Queens, also known as pearlies, are an organised charitable tradition of working-class culture in London, England. Henry Croft, an orphan and street sweeper, started the practice. He covered his suit in mother-of-pearl buttons to draw attention to himself when collecting money for orphanages and hospitals. The Pearly Kings and Queens have become icons of London life and maintain a lifelong commitment to raising money for charity.

Henry Croft (24 May 1861 — 1 January 1930) was a road sweeper in London and founder of the working class tradition of Pearly Kings and Queens. He was born at the St Pancras Workhouse in Somers Town, London, and baptised there on 5 June 1861. Following his father’s death, Croft was sent to the St Pancras orphanage and, in 1876, began work as a road sweeper at the Barnaby Street department of the St Pancras vestry.

In the mid-to-late 1870s, Croft covered his suit in mother-of-pearl buttons, creating the first pearly ‘smother’ suit. He did this to draw attention to himself when collecting money for orphanages and hospitals, so the pearly mission to support charitable organisations was born.

Pearly Kings and Queens of London
Pearly Kings and Queens of London

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

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

The Role and History of Costermongers in London’s Working-Class Culture

Costermongers, or “costers” for short, were street vendors who sold fresh fruits, vegetables, and other goods in London and other British cities, particularly during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. They were essential to the urban working class, particularly in the East End of London, where many Cockneys lived.

Costermongers typically conducted their trade from barrows or carts, pushing or pulling through the streets and setting up temporary stalls in busy areas or near street markets. They were known for their lively sales techniques, often using loud calls or chants to attract customers and promote their goods.

Coster culture was closely intertwined with the Cockney community, as many costermongers were Cockneys themselves. They contributed to developing and spreading the distinctive Cockney dialect and rhyming slang. In addition, costermongers were often associated with the Pearly Kings and Queens, who were Londoners known for their elaborate outfits adorned with mother-of-pearl buttons, as they often came from costermonger backgrounds.

Although the traditional costermonger trade has disappeared mainly due to modern retail and supermarkets, their impact on London’s working-class culture and history remains significant.

How to Master the Cockney Accent in 5 Easy Steps

Do you want to sound like a faithful East Ender? Then it would be best to learn to speak with a Cockney accent. The Cockney accent is one of the most distinctive and recognisable accents in the English language, and it has a long and rich history. But how can you master the Cockney accent in 5 easy steps? Here are some tips to help you out:

  • Drop the Hs and T’s. One of the most noticeable features of the Cockney accent is the omission of certain consonants, especially H and T. For example, instead of saying “hello”, you would say “ello”. Instead of saying “water”, you would say “wa’er”. This gives the accent a more relaxed and casual feel.
  • Use glottal stops. Another characteristic of the Cockney accent is glottal stops, which are abrupt sounds made by closing and opening the vocal cords. Glottal stops often replace T sounds in the middle or end of words. For example, instead of saying “butter”, you would say “bu’er”. Instead of saying “city”, you would say “ci’y”.
  • Learn some Cockney rhyming slang. Cockney rhyming slang is a form of expression that uses words or phrases that rhyme with other words to replace them. For example, instead of saying “phone”, you would say “dog and bone”. Instead of saying “stairs”, you would say “apples and pears”. Cockney rhyming slang can be creative, fun, and confusing for outsiders. You can find a list of standard Cockney rhyming slang terms further up this page.
  • Imitate some famous Cockneys. One of the best ways to learn any accent is to listen to and imitate native speakers. Many famous people speak with a Cockney accent, such as actors Michael Caine, Jason Statham, Danny Dyer, singers Adele and Lily Allen, and comedian Russell Brand. You can watch their movies, shows, interviews, or songs and try to copy their pronunciation, intonation, and vocabulary.
  • Practice with a friend or online. Finally, the only way to master any accent is to practice it as much as possible. You can find a friend who is also interested in learning the Cockney accent and practise together, or you can join an online community or forum to chat with other learners or native speakers. You can also use apps or websites that can help you improve your accent.

Cockney culture: a proud and vibrant part of London’s heritage?

Cockney culture is a rich and vibrant expression of London’s working-class heritage. It is a culture that celebrates humour, resilience, creativity and community. It is a culture that has its own distinctive voice, style and taste.

Another aspect of cockney culture is its cuisine. Cockneys have a fondness for traditional dishes that reflect their humble roots and their proximity to the river Thames. Some of the most popular cockney foods are pie and mash, jellied eels, stewed eels and liquor (a green parsley sauce). These dishes are often served in pie and mash shops, which are cosy and nostalgic places where cockneys can enjoy a hearty meal and a chat.

Chas and Dave Rockney

Chas and Dave were proud of their cockney roots and celebrated the culture and humour of the working-class people of London in their songs. They used cockney rhyming slang, such as ‘rabbit’ for ‘talk’, ‘apples and pears’ for ‘stairs’ and ‘china plate’ for ‘mate’, to create catchy and witty lyrics that resonated with their fans.

They also sang about everyday topics, such as football, beer, love and family, with a cheeky and upbeat tone. Their music was influenced by the old music hall tradition, which featured songs with catchy choruses that invited audience participation. Chas and Dave’s live performances were often like a pub singalong, where everyone joined in and had a good time.

Cockney culture is an integral part of London’s history and identity. It is a culture that has survived and adapted to the changes and challenges of the city. It is a culture that values loyalty, generosity and solidarity. It is a culture that has a lot to teach us about how to live with humour, dignity and joy.


Whether you’re an English native or just someone who loves wordplay, cockney rhymes can be fun and challenging to learn—which is why they remain popular today even though they have been around for centuries! With these famous examples, you should better understand this unique style of speech, allowing you to add some flavour to your conversations with family, friends, or colleagues! Try out some new rhymes the next time you find yourself in London—they may surprise you!

80 thoughts on “Cockney: The Distinctive Accent and Culture of London’s East End”

  1. The sound from Bow bells…St Mary-Le-Bow Church on Cheapside…to be a true cockney born within the sound of Bow Bells was from Cheapside back into the East End. Don’t matter if you heard it in North, South, West London you are not included. We get offended when non cockney’s try to claim they are…Chas & Dave too! 😁

    • Nice try but no cee-gar. There’s no evidence for the directionality of Bow Bells, just a desire for exceptionalism!! You ere em, yer in!

  2. The term “Cockney” does have a very rich and varied origin. As the author says, one origin was Norman and actually dates from around 1099, by which time the Normans had established their power in England and stamped out much of the old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. The cockenay or cockeney origins are from a misshapen egg. As such it must have been lain by a cockerel as they had no idea how to do it properly, so says one source. It became used as a derisive term describing someone who was a bit effeminate and country folk used it to describe “they soft townies !”.
    Another source is from Middle French “le pays de cocaigne” the land of plenty. Not one that apples to the East End at any stage. But it comes from a 13th Century French poem “The Land of Cocaigne” where streets were paved with pastry and houses made of sugar cake, and shops gave sweet treats away. Not much fun when it rained, then !
    An Irish poem describes a community of rather dissolute Cistercian monks in Inislognat as being in the “Land of Cocaigne”. It’s one of the 14th Century Kildare poems.
    So from a term of derision to a badge of honour. Not a bad transition.
    Oh, when the Bells of St Mary Le Bow lay silent after the Second Workd War, one enterprising East End shop keeper hired out a reel to reel tape recorder with the sound of the bells on the tape. It was then played to the new born so they were duly initiated into the world of the Cockney. Trade fell away when the bells were restored.

  3. Dad was born a cockney, mum’s dad was born a cockney! They met in a cafe just outside Waterloo station where mum worked just after dad was demobbed after the war. He wrote a message on the newspaper asking her out – the rest is history!

  4. I feel like the last of an ancient breed born in 59 to parents one a descendent of the Huguenots & another my ole man of eastern European decent both born 3 /4 generations later Dad was a docker & Mum worked in Lesneys toy car factory. When I say last of a kind I mean people who remember the signs in Petticoat Ln written in Hebrew with the fella and his pet pig selling chickens if you asked him for something more exotic (Like a Kestrel Chick) he would send you to the bird House (The Van Tromp Pub) We would buy 12 chicks for the Xmas dinner most would die but 3/4 would live My Grandad would give 2 away on Xmas eve and inducted me and my sister into the business of helping others in the local community. At our table of 14/16 people on Xmas day my Uncle Len would play piano and sing. We would all be talking at the same time. My Dad and his mates talked dock slang which is different to rhyming slang and was invented so as the dock Police could not understand. Dad was not guaranteed work until the 60s so would subsidise our table with whatever could be pilfered from the docks. he never told us until we were older how much of a struggle life was. I remember that everyone had a nickname & everyone was on the fiddle. The East End still had a lot of bomb damage from WW2 when I was growing up so we used get into bombed building looking for lead, copper or brass to scrap. To me working in markets and selling stuff came as second nature. I to have joined what was termed white flight from the East End. I live in Bristol so f I talk at normal speed no-one understands me. The thing |I miss and some of it is through rose tinted glasses is the sense of community and comradeship that prevailed as a kid. In effect the whole neighbourhood parented you. I reckon n 30 years our tongue will have been replaced by a generic estuary accent.

    • Probably no more than Yiddish on the Cockney accent. Rhyming of names was a great Yiddish tradition so may have influenced rhyming slang in its origins. French did not, of itself just spring out of nowhere. One great influence on the English language of power and government was Norman French which was derived from Latin. Oddly French days of the week stayed with their Latin deities ( mardi from Mars Dies, Miercoles from Mercury. Etc.) whereas English derived from Nordic (Tuesday -Tues Day – God of the laws of war I think. -Wednesday-Woden’s Day etc ). Educated people, the Church, Royalty all spoke Latin as a common language. And Greece and Greek had a great impact on the intelligentsia and powerful in Rome. Much of the coarse language of ordinary people in England was and still is rooted in Anglo Saxon. So no one language has had a singular influence, rather every influx of refugees and invaders has had its impact, as has importing words from Empires.

  5. mum lived in Poplar, Chrisp st, before marriage to an East ‘am man. My accent copied from her i suppose, dropping t’s (bread n bu–er, gu–er etc and h’s enry arry arold etc. but i think the true cockney would claim e never dropped his aitches— may be wrong? When mum died we went to live in East Ham. (i was 10) . I think some of the accent got rounded orf gradually as a kid from then on. Still got a “London” accent and some words give me away. As for back slang we used to knock off the first letter and put it last with an s or a e.g uya otga an unnyfa centa, or usa uya ookinsa atya? (the a’s rhymed with hay) We used to use s endings a lot but cant remember them now– suppose i’ve got posh now.
    More respect those days (Mid 40,s -50’s and before, i suppose)
    Funeral in the street? venetian blinds down. If out in street caps or hats off and stand heads bowed till it went past. Was that just in East Ham? i doubt it.
    John Sansom (born 37))


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