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The Origins of a Cockney Londoner

Updated on January 8, 2015

London 2014

"Where is your accent from?"

It's a common enough question and one that I get asked on a daily basis. Some more brazen personalities attempt at locating my speech pattern, while others easily and quite correctly identify the origins of my either posh British or cheeky cockney accent. I'm no longer flattered nor offended, but perhaps quietly tired by the question on some days. On others i'm completely baffled however, by the conclusions that people have drawn by listening to me talk, some of their bright ideas incorrectly placing me as nearby as the shores of France or as far away as down under (that's Australia for those of you that are far less traveled.) What I do find interesting is the odd true cockney Londoner weeding out that i'm not a true cockney Londoner at all, but perhaps the more modern version of the term. They soon realize that I sound far too upper class to be the genuine article, but I can claim to have been recently forgiven for this tiny transgression by a direct descendent of a pearly king and queen who were indeed the true definition of what an East Ender is.

My Fair Lady

Origins of a Cockney

Growing up in London in the 1980s the term "Cockney' referred to those Londoners that originally and strictly hailed from the East End of London. The rest of us were considered downright posh and not nearly working class enough, tough enough, or authentic enough to claim such a title. I used to read many a tale about the infamous and notorious Kray twins, saw pictures of old boxers such as George Walker and was presented with images of Pearly Kings and Queens. For a child's mince pies (eyes) it was pretty bright and breezy (easy) to tell the difference between a true cockney versus a posh bird who was really a bubble and squeak (Greek). My parents were immigrants and I was a first generation born north Londoner, but it didn't stop me from being enamored with what I grew up believing to be the real deal. They were hard as nails, true working class people that you never questioned and never crossed. People were so enamored with them, they were even given life in popular myth through George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and later adapted into the film My Fair Lady, with images of Audrey Hepburn indelibly marked in our minds and musical stirrings of "Wouldn't it be Loverly?" forever echoing in our heads.

So what does cockney mean?

Well it's simple really. It was a term that began with it's reference being strictly applied to Londoners, yet eventually and more specifically it became people who lived in East London's cheap side district. You may only know its definition however in it's linguistic form. There are a few varying versions of it's linguistic origins ranging from a language created by the local market traders to assist their communication without being interpreted by the local police, to prison inmates who created the slang simply for communicating with each without being understood by their guards. Well either way, thanks to the local bobbies a new language was born and with it a new and more interesting way to have a conversation.

Jack the Ripper

Sinister Times

Even though the perception of East London grew from images of the impoverished working class Londoner trying to seek out a better life by mucking through with hard work and a sense of community, the truth of it's inhabitants and their struggles through commonly overcrowded surroundings aren't always recalled by the outsider. Large ominous factory buildings cast a shadow on it's streets, and violence was the more common day to day environment for most it's original inhabitants back in the 1800's. It eventually became known as the Abyss, a place to be feared and escaped from by any means necessary. Sadly the escape usually concluded with a visit to the local morgue and no other incident is better used to illustrate it's depth into the pits of darkness more so than Jack the Ripper's attacks on local prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of East London during 1888. The Ripper was never caught and never named, remaining a timeless nightmare for the East End's residents and still stirring our curiosity to this day.

Map of East London

The Modern Era

However just as time marches on, so did the scenery of East London change with the departure of industry at the docks and the factories and with the arrival of council estates, more middle class inhabitants and more money. Jobs were created in Dagenham thanks to Ford, and the old cockney Londoner became the new more prosperous. Unless you've visited London, you simply can't fathom the rapid and remarkable pace of change in the city and even these new, more stable inhabitants were soon replaced by the wave of immigrants that entered the country and soon called East London 'home'. Those people who would eventually have children and who would also be the new first generation of Londoners just as I had once been. The beautiful Pearly Kings and Queens of old slowly disappeared, the working class soon expanded well beyond the East End thanks to the rising cost of living in London, and those of us who could never have been termed cockney in the past, slowly became so. We became Norf Londoners, Saith Londoners and cockney enthusiasts with memories of fish and chips being eaten out of newspapers and hard men who wore suits and drank whiskey, always to be feared, but who never hurt old ladies, babies and animals. Those images soon faded.

Pearly Kings and Queens

Canary Wharf

I simply cannot end my adventurous ramblings of the East End of London without mentioning Canary Wharf. When the fisherman were forced to abandon the West India docks in 1981, a new breed of European Gordon Gecko emerged from the ashes, creating an English Wall Street ready to firmly place it's financial stamp on London. From it's new hub, the financial industry managed to carve out a comfortable and modern home for itself, forever changing a major part of the East End landscape. It almost completely eradicated the distant sounds of dock workers calling out to each other at 4am and complaining about the bitter cold they would have to endure out on the water that morning.

What's a Cockney anyway?

Our educational journey through the Origins of a Cockney is soon nearing it's end. It's been an emotional one for me, as even though by ethnicity i'm not a Londoner - or even a cockney Londoner - by birth, by childhood memory and by definition, I truly am. My history was forged in the city and my heart and pride remain there. This is the precise reason why I shall never be offended by your questions, your misplacement or even your questioning of my accent. The only matter that hurts my soul when discussing my home land and how cockney I really am, is when i'm forced to tell you that i'm not always able to visit. My weekly dose of English cockney soap opera in the form of East Enders is never once missed - even after 30 years of viewing and many dramatic happenings repeating themselves.

Thanks to imports becoming easier to acquire, i'm also able to relive some of those memories through food even when I don't get the chance to jump on a plane and go home.

With each year that passes, more change takes place in the city and the memories of the past get replaced by modern high rises, growing populations and ever changing scenery in a city that can't stand still.

Cheers big ears! Watch yer loaf on yer way through the Roger Moore, and don't fall on yer arise, you daft bugger!

Trapped in a Phone Box


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