Who Are London Cockneys?
Cockneys - Londoners Through and Through
When you hear of Londoners, you probably think of Cockneys but not everybody who is born or lives in the capital city is a Cockney. The tradition has been that it only applied to somebody born within the sound of Bow bells.
There are traditions and activities associated with Cockneys: the Pearly Kings and Queens, rhyming slang, a great sense of community and neighbourliness, quick humorous repartee, sense of humour, market trading, taxi drivers, criminals, stock exchange traders...
Born within the Sound of Bow Bells
The traditional definition of Cockneys is that they should be born within the sound of Bow bells. There is one big problem with that: when the Second World War broke out, church bells no longer rang except as a warning. Another problem is that the bell tower of St Mary le Bow in Cheapside, London, that housed Bow bells, was hit by a German bomb in 1941. It wasn't rebuilt until 1961. Does this mean no Cockneys were born in those 20 years because nobody could hear Bow bells?
In fact, nowadays, there is very little residential property around St Mary le Bow and it's unlikely there are many babies born within earshot of it. The church itself says it is "...serving all who work in and visit the City of London. The church opens at 7.00am each weekday..." rather suggesting it has few local residential parishioners.
There still seems to be plenty of Cockneys in London and they aren't all over 67 years old either, so there must be some other definition.
Rag Fair in Petticoat Lane
So Who is a Cockney?
It seems that anybody born in the East End of London can consider him or herself a Cockney. This can include people of any race or religion too. There are Muslims, Afro-Caribbeans, and many others of non-English descent, who sound and act as much like a Cockney as any white Londoner born next door to St Mary le Bow and who sat in an air raid shelter during the Blitz in World War Two.
Maybe being a Cockney depends more on a state of mind and an attitude rather than any geographical or racial condition.
A Cockney is usually thought to be a bouncy, humorous character, somebody who can and will stand up for themselves and others they care about. They have the gift of the gab with an opinion on everything. Just ask your Cockney taxi driver his opinion on anything at all and he'll have one and give it to you at length.
Traditionally they lived in places like Bethnal Green, Bow, Poplar, Wapping, Whitechapel and Mile End.
When I lived in London, my neighbours were typical Cockneys and I found them a bit shocking sometimes but, when I was ill, they did everything they could for me, far more than anyone could reasonably expect. That is also in line with their reputation for being good neighbours.
My neighbours owned a petrol station and workshop in Mile End (London) and they told me the story of the day the notorious Kray Twins (see below) came to their business. These were literally murderous thugs who ended up in prison. They were renowned for their gratuitous violence. The mother of my neighbour (the husband) told them in no uncertain terms to get out of her business and they went. That's just typical of the Cockney attitude to bullies.
London Market - Trader Calling his Wares
What Do Cockneys Do for a Living?
Traditional Occupations for Cockneys
Nowadays you can find a Cockney in any job or career but traditionally they were often market traders or costermongers. This is probably where their reputation for having the gift of the gab and for quick repartee comes from.
If you go down to Petticoat Lane Market (Middlesex Street, nearest tube station Aldgate East) on a Sunday, you will usually find over 1000 stalls, many of them run by genuine Cockneys of all religions and racial backgrounds. The market has been in existence for centuries and got its name from the petticoats and lace sold here by Huguenots in the late 17th and 18th century.
You'll still hear the kind of sales 'patter' that I heard when I was taken there occasionally as a child. "'Ere look, missus. I'm not asking you for £20, I'm not asking for £15, I'm not even asking for £10, you can 'ave the lot for just a fiver." If people looked away and started moving, he'd add, "AND I'll give you this and this and this as well, all for a fiver. I can't say fairer than that, can I?" As he said this, he'd start putting more things on top of whatever he's trying to sell. You'd usually get somebody holding up a £5 note and then more people would buy as well.
You'll hear them 'calling their wares', that is shouting out, almost chanting, what they've got but you'll probably have trouble understanding them because they've done it for so long that the words run into each other. It's probably something like "Bananas, lovely, ripe bananas."
Typical London Black Cab
Black Cab Drivers
The black cab drivers are licensed taxi drivers and this is another job that traditionally Cockneys have done.
To drive a black cab, they have to pass the 'knowledge'. This is a very difficult examination, taken over months or years. You'll see men and women going round London on low-powered motorbikes with a clipboard stuck on the handlebars. They are doing the 'knowledge', ie learning every street and landmark in Central London and the routes between them. They are tested on their knowledge of Central London. It sounds impossible but that is what they have to do to get their licence.
It means if you get a black cab in London, you will almost never have to give directions to the driver if your destination is in Central London. Not only do they know the main routes, they know the shortcuts and alternative ways to go if there are traffic jams or other problems. They usually know all the hotels, restaurants, pubs and ofther places of interest.
Stock Market Traders
When the London Stock Exchange abandoned tradition and embraced technology, it also opened the door to what are often described by envious people as 'East End barrowboys' (barrowboys means market street traders). They had the street smarts to do well in the cut throat business of buying and selling stocks and shares and many of them made a great deal of money.
Learn about two of London's most violent and famous criminals.
The East End of London has spawned many criminals probably because, over the centuries, it was an area with high levels of severe poverty. The River Thames is tidal into London and the Docks here in the East End were once very important to the economy of the city. Imported and exported goods lead to theft unless security is very good and in the early years of the British Empire, London didn't even have a proper police force. It was also an area with high numbers of prostitutes and consequent crime including the infamous Jack the Ripper murders.
The Notorious Krays and their Gang
In the 1960s, it was the London criminal gangs that ruled the East End. Most famous were the Kray Brothers (mentioned above). There were three brothers, the eldest was Charlie and then the twins, Ronnie and Reggie. Reg was later said to be a paranoid schizophrenic and it is definitely known he was the more vicious and violent of the three. They ran protection rackets, nightclubs, armed robberies and all manner of criminal activities.
The police had problems getting witnesses to testify because of fear of reprisals. In 1968 the police rounded up the three brothers and 16 gang members and arrested them all. They were all held on remand without bail so allowing witnesses to come forward which they did.
Charlie Kray was sentenced to just 10 years imprisonment while Ron and Reg were sentenced to life without the option of parole for a minimum of 30 years. Reggie Kray was released from prison in August 2000 and died on October 1st 2000 from cancer. Ronnie Kray had died in prison from a massive heart attack five years earlier in March 1995. He had served the last years of his sentence in Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane.
Guess the Meaning of Some Cockney Rhyming Slang
Cockneys vs Zombies - a Movie
This is a fun movie showing the battle between Cockneys and Zombies who are trying to take over London.
Cockney Rhyming Slang
Most people with any interest in London have heard of Cockney rhyming slang and may know several examples even if they have never set foot in the city. It is said to have started as a way for costermongers (street and market sellers) to communicate without letting their customers know what they were saying. There is another school of thought that maintains it originated amongst London's criminals.
The slang usually consists of two words, e.g. butcher's hook = look but sometimes only the first word is used in conversation. For example, someone might say "I had a butchers at her barnet and her titfer" meaning I had a look at her hair (barnet fair) and her hat (tit for tat).
You have to know, though, when to use the whole phrase and when to abbreviate. Another example: "Would you Adam and Eve it? I was on me Jack Jones when I saw me old china half inching a whistle from the market. Well, I ain't no grass and he's borassic, so I kept me north and south shut." Translation:"Would you believe it? I was on my own when I saw my old mate (friend) pinching (stealing) a suit from the market. Well, I'm not a nark (informer) and he's skint (got no money, hard up) so I kept my mouth shut."
New phrases are added all the time and you can even make up your own!
If you are going to use rhyming slang, get the pronunciation right. Tit for tat is pronounced titfertat, shortened to titfer. Joanna is pronounced joanner. The letter H is usually dropped from the beginning of words eg ham becomes 'am, half becomes 'alf which, in turn sounds more like 'arff'. You've got to listen to Cockneys to hear the accent and don't use the slang in front of a Cockney unless you're sure you can say it properly otherwise they'll laugh their almonds off (socks).
Two Pearly Kings
The History of Pearly Kings and Queens
The tradition of Pearly Kings and Queens is said to have begun with one man, Henry Croft, a poor boy raised in a London orphanage. Like other orphans at the time, he left the orphanage aged 13 and he began work as a road sweeper. He got to know costermongers (market traders) whose custom was to sew small pearl buttons along the seams of their clothes.
Henry admired the costermongers and the way they supported each other in times of need. When he found pearl buttons, as he swept the streets, he saved them, learned to sew and then sewed the buttons on his own clothes - first, on his cap and then on his suit.
He went on to become a Pearly King and to raise money for charity. He died in 1930 at the age of 68 having raised about £5000 for London's hospitals, workhouses and orphanages, the equivalent today of £200,000.
Other men and women joined him and became Pearly Kings and Queens and the tradition has been carried on through generations of many of the original families.
Because Henry Croft sewed the pearl buttons on his clothes himself, it is now traditional for the men to design the patterns made by the buttons and to sew them on their own clothes.
There are a number of traditional patterns too, many passed from one generation of a family to the next. The designs have meanings, eg horseshoe means luck, doves for peace, a heart for charity, an anchor for hope and a cross for faith.
There are two kinds of Pearly King and Queen suit. One is a smother suit where it is literally smothered in pearl buttons so very little of the original fabric is visible. The other is a skeleton suit where the buttons are sewn on showing quite a lot of fabric.
There were originally 28 Pearly families, one for each London borough plus the City of London and the City of Westminster and some still continue the tradition of raising money for charity.
There are certain foods that are particularly associated with the East End of London and Cockneys. Here are some of them.
Pie and Mash
This is pie and mash and you can still find pie and mash shops in the East End of London although they are not as numerous as they were once.
It's just a meat pie, maybe made on the premises, maybe made commercially, mashed potato (could be instant mash) and green parsley sauce or liquor - non alcoholic, it just means liquid. I've eaten pie and mash like this and it can be OK if the pie is good.
Jellied Eels - Yum!
This yummy looking stuff is the world famous Jellied Eels. Doesn't it look good?
Oddly enough, most people won't even try them. I think you probably have to be given them when you are too young to be repulsed by the look of them. People who do like them say they are delicious. If you don't believe them, you could always taste some for yourself.
Cockles - a shellfish - are good if eaten with vinegar and a side order of bread and butter.
From a London stall, or at the seaside, they are traditionally served in these little shallow dishes. You either eat them with a small wooden fork or your fingers.
Ready to Eat Mussels
Whelks are not the prettiest shellfish but they are popular. I will eat them but don't like them as much as cockles. They have a rubbery texture which I find off-putting.
These are just three of the foods that are traditionally popular in the East End of London. You can find jellied eels, cockles and whelks in seaside resorts too but rarely find a London style pie and mash shop outside the capital.
© 2008 Carol Fisher