St Mary le Bow in London

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.

What is a true 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!

66 thoughts on “History of The East London Cockney”

  1. I was born at home in John Fisher Street E1 in 1951 well inside cockney land. It was just off Dock Street at the end of Cable Street. The Royal Mint and Tower of London were 5 minutes away from home.

    As a boy I grew up around the docks and played in bombed out buildings.

    Lots of memories good and even!

    For our overseas Rhyming Slang fans – a tip – when used in a conversation it is intended to be understood only by fellow cockneys and not those “non believers” in earshot. Therefore you only use the first word in the rhyme. So you would take a “butchers” at something – you wouldn’t say “butchers hook” (normally).

  2. 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

    1. The Mother`s Hospital was in the Lower Clapton road E5.. Pehaps we in “Ackney” were Eastenders but, we were just as good Cookneys as the Mileend buuch!

      1. Stanley Marshall

        If you were born in “Ackney” . You are a Cockney.. The first sixteen Boroughs of east London, are deemed to be an extension to the City of London, square mile, when The City of London become overcrowded.
        New the hospital well, used to ride my bike to work and back past the “ Orspital.
        I lived in the flats in Ferron Rd. Worked in Whitechapel.
        Regards.
        Stan Marshall

  3. 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. 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. 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?

    1. You can claim to be born within the sound of the bells of St Mary and the Holy Trinity at Bow, the only church “in” the Mile End Road. Not the right Bow Bells, but in a survey carried out in about 2000, the Bells of St Mary le Bow, just of Cheapside were heard farther out than St Andrew’s, so you might just qualify as those are the only Bells that count. If you remember seeing it, St Mary’s actually sits in the middle of the road so is, in truth, the only church “in” the Mile End Road.
      There used to be a pub with a similar claim, “The Old Vine” which was up around the old Ggardners Corner area of the Mile End Road. Have a looks the top of the spitalfieldslifecom. The picture at the top is the said pub.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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

    1. 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!

  9. 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

    1. 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

    2. 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.

  10. david delasalle

    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

  11. 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 !😄

    1. 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..

  12. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. Thanks. I was born within the sound but before the bells were replaced in late 61. Hopefully I can still consider myself a true Cockney.

          1. This is not strictly true as many Cockney dads used to play a 1926 BBC recording of the Bow Bells when their kids were born during the 1950s. Alfie Shine’s pawnshop on the Globe Road was one of the places that used to hire out the old reel-to-reel tape recorders.

      1. The bells ringing at the time of a birth. Rather the reference is a generic term meaning that if they could be heard to ring during the time of a birth then the person is considered a Cockney. As mentioned, the bells could not and did not ring between 1940 and 196i as they were down. You obviously understand but just want your 15 minutes to play the Devli’s advocate.
        ‘nuf sed.

    2. Stanley Marshall

      Clive,
      I believe the words are “ Born within the sound of Bow bells.” .Come on Clive, church bells ringIng 24/7 for 400+ years.
      Regards Stan Marshall

      1. Here is an interesting thought. The Bells at St Mary le Bow were cast at the Bow Foundry. In 2002 the City of London commissioned a bell to be made to be presented to the City of New York to commemorate the first anniversary of the devastation to the Twin Towers. Called “The Bell of Hope” it now hangs in the Trinity Church in Wall St. Can any New Yorker born within the sound of that Bow Bell claim to be a Cockney ?

  13. 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

  14. 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

    1. The actual address is 1, Bow Lane which is on Cheapside

      St Mary-le-Bow
      Historic Church
      St Mary-le-Bow
      St Mary-le-Bow is a historic church rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 by Sir Christopher Wren in the City of London on the main east–west thoroughfare, Cheapside. According to tradition a true Cockney must be born within earshot of the sound of Bow Bells.

  15. 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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