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. Linguisticophilical

    Most “accents” come from pronunciations common in other languages spoken by antecedents, or nearby peoples’ languages.
    Has no one tried to trace Cockney”s sounds back to any of Britain’s many earlier languages?

  2. Sandra. 25th October 2020. I was born in Barking, in Essex which as some said earlier is in the sound of bow bells on a quiet day. It’s only 8 miles away and I used to hear the guns on 11th November,Remembrance Day when I was little too.

    1. Hi Stan
      I was born in Stepney 1947…I have recently written and recorded a song called ‘ Let’s go Parker Cockney ‘ is there anywhere I can post it for the Cockney community. Thanks…All the best. Anthony

  3. Stanley Marshall

    Cockneys and the bells of St. Mary Le Bow. Cockneys are described as being born within the sound of the bells of StMary Le Bow. Ringing or not., as one subscriber has noted. The church and it’s bell, are recorded as a being destroyed
    during the great fire of London in1666? New bells cast in White Chapel ?
    Every “ working class” person born within the square mile was called a Cockney. The square mile is north of the River Thames. Any person born south of the river, was therefore not a cockney, neither were those born to the north, east or west, outride of the square mile. Not yet.
    How far could the bells be heard outside the City of London?
    Dick Whittington says he heard the bells Ringing when was leaving London ( meaning the City of London? The City was the only place recorded as London.
    The population grew and expanded mainly to the EAST and they took their Cockney language with them.
    The first boroughs to the EAST were. Bethnal Green, Whitechapel Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping LimeHouse, Poplar, Haggerston, Aldgate,Shoreditch, Millwall, CubittTown, Hackney, Hoxton, Bow. Mile End. Not necessarily in that order. The new arrivals took the title Cockney as including them and past that onto their children. Movement from the north ,west and south. was the same. But if you follow that logic, almost everyone will eventually be a Cockney.Those of us that were born in the East end ( boroughs as above ) is a Cockney. I was born in Bethnal Green in 1938, my Dad was born in Bethnal Green in 1908, my grandfather, his father as far as I can check we’re all born in Bethnal Green. My Mum Was born in 1918 in Stepney as were her several generations, before her. I conclude therefore that any person born in the Boroughs above is a Cockney..If your grandma was born in the boroughs above and married a Scotsman and had a child in Scotland the child is not a Cockney.
    Good fortune to all Cockney or not,
    Regards Stan Marshall

  4. I was born 2 miles west of St Mary le Bow in Dec 61. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered I am not a Cockney as the bells were not replaced later that month. 😣😣😣

    1. Being born in the Mile End Rd.
      Yes you are a Cockney. No contest.
      You need however to work on your back slang , which is not rhyming slang.
      Congrats on your 50 + years of marriage, we had our 55 th last December. And togetherness outways all languages.
      Regards
      Stan

      slang.
      Congratulations

      1. My dad’s people were from Mile End… they came there from Yorkshire in 1820. The family had 22 children quite a number of which survived. 14 to be exact. I grew up in Middlesex but like so many others in my area there were accents from all parts of London and all parts of Britain in those days. Not too many people from other countries though.

  5. Terry Nesbitt Foster

    I was born in Wandsworth in 1931, but my family had a business in Gutter Lane and I spent a lot of time growing up in Cockneydom until the bombs started. I now live in Australia and before I left used to use a pub “The Watling” in Watling Street that was built by Sir Christopher Wren as a coffee house for the workers building St Paul’s. (sister East Minster to St Peter’s in Westminster) Of course learned the rhyming slang but only use bits of it through habit: “minces, mutton, Barnet (my South African wife always uses this), Germans and rory.”

    1. Terry Nesbitt Foster

      Sorry, moderation? I left the UK in 1980. St Paul’s was built as a Minster, St Peter’s was built as a Minster and if your readers know the lingo shouldn’t need translation but this was current when I lived in London: Mince pies -eyes, Mutt and Jeff – deaf, Barnet Fair – hair, German bands – hands,
      Rory O’More – door.

      1. Terry,
        A pub called “Ye Olde Watling” is listed on the internet, could be the same pub you remember.
        I have had a natter with the trouble and strife, she say “ Go up the apples,and look at all those skyscrapers you’ve got, in the cupboard., you have the names of all the rubber dubs you’ve been too, whenyou used to come Brahms and Litz.
        Stay well.
        PS. If I came home Brahmased I hardly think we would have celebrated 55 years of marriage, last
        Stan

      2. All.
        Apart from the rhyming slang there is Cockney back slang, is there anybody out there who can speak this?
        Stan.
        A clue.
        Here is a clue. My mates would call me tansa . It sends the spell check barmy or armyba

          1. Ona amIa otna.
            Were are you from Terry?
            We will have to watch what we are saying, otherwise the scousers will join in with their waygo pago lingo.
            And don’t get the Geordies at it.
            Stan

        1. My husband and his family spoke backslang fluently, As did my mum. It was usually used by tradesmen, shopkeepers etc who didn’t want their customers to know what they were talking about (like upping the price) As a born and bred cockney- born in the Mile End road you’d have thought that id’ve been taught it but I wasn’t.After over 50 years of marriage I have at last got the hang of it. I kniht.

        2. G Day from Melbourne Aus, my grandfather was a Cockney, born in the Minories back in 1904. i am 60 now, but remember as a little bloke, my G/Dad would speak this crazy Lingo with some of his BRS mates, we had no idea what he was on about… great days and fond memories

          Bob

  6. i was born on highgate hill in the whittington hospital in 1949, and i came out talking like a cockney, weird, cos my older sister talks ‘posh’
    across the road from the hospital is a cat surrounded by a metal rail, actually saw it mentioned recently, although for so many people history, especially of london and its real people and their culture, is not important.
    my dad was born in hoxton above a shop and my mum was born in bow in a house.

    to me a cockney is part of a culture – a word not recognised for its importance these days.
    you know, the attitudes and behaviour that were taught to me by my kith and kin – based on what they were taught by their kith and kin – and so on – that’s culture
    experience of life and other people over time is what gives one their culture – but also most importantly their environment, both built and otherwise – the green stuff and other associated creatures.
    country people and town/city people are different with their understanding, although human decency runs through all cultures

    to me rhyming slang was a game of words that people used to entertain themselves – not just about talking in a way that rich and posh people couldn’t understand, and as a child i was constantly told – use your loaf.
    i actually thought loaf was another word for head and i would find it in the dictionary

    let’s not forget that living in cities was and still is a grim place to live and love for poor working people – with little natural romance – the feel of the wind and the sun on the face – the sounds of life and nature – read the great animal orchestra by bernie kraus if you think that built up areas of people with all their damn noise is important or healthy.

    cities – as old cockneys knew – were run by people who thought that they knew better than the rest of us – the aristocrats, the church establishment, the traders of goods made by others!!!

    as a child it was quite obvious to me in london that, although the government made laws, on the ground, ordinary people did what they thought was sensible in that situation (using their culture) and so often did exactly the opposite of what the law said

    this was broken in the 60’s by so-called political people like blair who came to a cockney area and put the indigenous londoner behind the new british immigrants using a term like ‘positive discrimination – even though the indigenous londoner was poor having been targeted by hitlers bombers (he thought he could destroy english people’s moral by bombing the poor areas in all the island’s big cities!!!
    after the war people had little and so when the wicked witch of the west came along with her ‘there are no such thing as communities, we are all individuals’ she made people think they were wealthy by owning their own homes!! and destroying the financial system into fairyland

    i live in essex and the only thing that saves it for me is the fact that there are many creatures (i live on a third of an acre) but both country people and london descent people seem to have lost their way and are mostly money orientated

    cockney people were wonderful when i was small – they were a community and as they saw so many people in their lifetimes they could suss you out with one look in your eyes (seat of the soul)- trustworthy or a con man – and treated you accordingly
    that’s why the kray twins got spat out by the public – they started killing people in public and the public weren’t happy
    shame the present londoners don’t behave that way now!!! but it seems to have become a ‘let’s have a party’ city. london was quiet by nine pm when i was a kid
    don’t think that young people can blame us anymore for the destruction of our world – they are doing a good job all on their own within their own lifetimes!
    all ordinary cultures within this great island were amazingly sensible in the way they treated life and individual people
    there are still some places i have found in my life where people are sound humans – but i shan’t say where cos people will move there and destroy it.
    shame all the cockneys are no longer connected – although i usually know when i meet one – not just because of their language but by their attitude
    long live human decency!!

    1. “Use your loaf”.
      Loaf is short for loaf of bread. Loaf of bread rhymes with head.
      Hence “ Use your loaf “ Use your head,
      I,m up the apples now for a kip

    2. How well put..Yes, they try so very hard to put cockneys off of the map…Constantly belittling them and portraying them in masses as crafty conniving fools……..Depicting them on TV as grabbing thick parasites…..I’m a smart kind reserved Cockney.Was raised with many morals and values ..Empathy was given and installed by my parents. Whom were born,as was I..In the eastend ofLondon. …!

    3. Hello Penny. You’ve just about nailed it here. Decent and in some cases descent. I play with words, accents, keyboards, and reeds and learn other languages easily and fast.

      I was brought up in Peckham, not far from the Old Kent Road. Google maps 2.6 miles. I am almost 80 and remember as it was with fond feelings for the closeness and kindness of past generations. Wealth had not morphed into stealth.

      South “Sarf” in cockney, London was distinguishable from the East End variety by “tonal” inflection. The area was originally meadowland feeding the City, to the “Norf” of the “Riva”. And a stones “Frow” from the Sit-i

      There was a kind of inverted snobbery, but you can see from Michael Caine he is from the “Sarf and locals like me can catch the subtleties. The speed of delivery was a good clue to birthright. And gruffness or softness of tone.

      Rudeness, and Frankness would describe the lurking sarcastic humour, behind for example, Chas and Dave’s Gertcha Cowson Gertcha,

      We woz sometimes seen as posh geezers. And we were responsible for rhetorical phrases such as “ennit?” and dunnit? But there was nowhere to hide behind RP received pronunciation. Cockneys were the salt of the earth and simple truth was paramount to social cohesion.

      Go awry and you will soon find yerself disenfranchised with a direct “Aint yer go- no ‘ome?

      Oh yes, my name is Derek. Mother vaguely thought it was a bit posh. But soon it hurt her ears when everyone began calling me De-w (Del).

      All the best

      Delboy

      1. Hi Del

        Chas and Dave were both born in Middlesex, so “Mockney” is the correct term to use to describe their music.

        Best wishes

        Alex

  7. War damage payments.
    Money paid by Germany for all the damage they caused. This I believe was for property.
    We the suffering population got SFA.
    Stan

  8. Oh !you wonderful cockneys, actual, near or could be.
    St. Mary – le Bow bells is correct.
    The bells may have been silent ( they were not when I was born in 1938) But it is not just the bells, it is a culture a way of recognising a fellow Londoner.
    You want here anybody in or near Liverpool who is not a scouser. Manchs are the same if they support United.
    You are a Brummy if your adenoids are blocked.
    Want mention Norwich, or the whole of east Kent with their Men of Kent or Kentish men.
    Go cockneys .

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