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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27 comments on “History of The East London Cockney
  1. Lucy Stedman says:

    My dad was born in Christmas street in 1929. Within the sound of bow bells. It dooexist any more bit I’d love to find out where it was if anyone knows

  2. I was born in The Mother’s Hospital in Mare Street E8
    Eastender maybe but not a Cockney…..

  3. Sam Marshall says:

    I was eighty years old in February this year.
    So St Mary – le- Bow bells were ringing.
    I was born in Bethnal Green hospital E2., in 1938. The bells could be heard from there.
    My father his father and his father were born in either Bethnal Green or Bow.
    My mothers parents were born in Stepney..Her grandfather was born in Soho, you could hear the bells from there.
    So am I cockney.? Yes, but I,m not a stall holder, or wear pearl suits, neither do a drop my aitches. A cockney is more than where you were born, or speak. It’s about being just that bit different. Scousers , Manks etc all feel like that

  4. Michele says:

    I was born in 1963 in the old Charing Cross Hospital that I believe was located on Agar Street, West Strand, WC2N 4JP (before it moved to its current location in 1973). Agar Street is 1.7 miles to the west of the sound of Bow Bells so should I assume I’m a cockney? I’ve always thought I was but would love to know!

  5. Gill Ranson says:

    My father John (Jack) Feacey and his father before him John Charles Feacey had a family butchers shop at 76 Dale Road E16. This was from about 1920s through to late 1970s when the shop was compulsory purchased and the are was developed. Does anyone remember the shop and my family?

  6. carrianne rayner says:

    my nan was born in mile end road old town London and was always known as a cockney

  7. Debbie Sheers says:

    I was born BOW E3 near bow church at st Andrews hospital. Does that make me a cockney?

  8. Dave Fry says:

    Although Im a South Londoner (wrongly referred to as a cockney in some quarters) my paternal great grand parents were from Shoreditch and Hackney, definitely East Londoners but were they cockneys?

  9. Miriam Hollands says:

    My Dad and his family were true cockneys and I was born in Queen Charlotte hospital in London but I am proud to be part of a cockney family and most people do take me for one because of how I talk. After living in New Zealand for the last 43 years I still sound the same.

  10. Peter Berry says:

    My Grandfather was born the east end in 1888, a true cockney, However, my Father was born in Kennington in1910 and claims you could hear bow bell then as their was no traffic at that time

    • I can believe that. I can remember as a kid in the mid ’70s hearing the guns of the salute on remembrance Sunday, we lived in Ilford. There was no traffic and no sound at 11am on the 11th.

      So in 1910 it would have been quiet at times too!

  11. Debz says:

    My mother in law claims to be a cockney she was born in portabello rd in royal borough of chelsea and Westminster in May 1950. Could someone please let me know if shes a wannabe as my father seems to think she is

    • Mark Eustace says:

      I was born in the Golborne ( Top of Portobello Road ) Lived in West London 30 Years & then East London but in No way am I a Cockney – Londoner Yes Cockney No Way – If your Mother in law could hear Bow Bells from W10 she’s pretty amazing – Cockney No Mockney Maybe

    • kevin gordon says:

      hi i was born in chelsea in may 1950 and i am not a cockney londoner yes but not a cockney,also 1n 1950 the royal borough of chelsea and westminster did not exsist it was the metropolitan borough of chelsea 3rd smallest borough.

  12. Kate says:

    I was born in Stepney Green London 1949. Does that make me a Cockney.

  13. i was born in peckham and my mum came from east end and i miss it all is there any bar in pattaya thailand I COULD MEET UP AND RINGH OUT THE BARRELS

  14. 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 !😄

    • peter lobban says:

      any of us in nottingham jim,im now in essex and there aint none here they like to think they are cockneys but these people aint got a clue i tell you.no community spirit what ever,no one speaks to you unless they have to,like oi what you looking at f,,, face,no mate,life out of london is finished,and londons finished,might join you up there mate..

  15. 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.

    • Kate says:

      I was born 1949 in Stepney maternity hospital. Am I a cockney or a Londoner ?

    • dawn says:

      Born within the sound of bow bells no one says born when they were ringing

  16. 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

  17. 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

  18. 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

  19. 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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