East End Memories


Cockneys have the reputation of being happy-go-lucky, flamboyant and jocular characters; a people of simple needs and an even simpler philosophy of life who talk in rhyme and wear their hearts of gold proudly on their sleeves. They are sometimes thought as dressing in the sequin-decorated finery of pearly kings and queens, feasting on jellied eels and pies ‘n’ mash and being ever-ready for a knees up. However the events of World War II proved that cockneys were more than just friendly figures of fun. The war brought out their bull dogged tenacity and strength and allowed them to resist the might of Hitler and his mates

Tenacious, sentimental, a colourful vocabulary - but who is a cockney? I used to think that this could easily be defined. To me it meant anyone being born within the sound of Bow Bells. Now that sounds simple, doesn’t it? Being born within the sound of the bells of the church of St. Mary-le-Bow in the City of London makes you a cockney – and Bob’s ya uncle – there you have it! But like many things in this life, it is not as simple as that.

St. Mary-le-Bow Church
St. Mary-le-Bow Church

According to the authorities, cockney has both geographical and linguistic associations. Who knew that? Today, being cockney means an association with working class Londoners and in particular those of the East End. And Linguistically, it refers to their spoken English. So now we know!

In 1600 Samuel Rowlands used the word in The Letting of Humours Blood in the Head-Vaine and Fynes Moryson said that all within the sound of Bow Bells are in reproach called cockneys. However, the first recorded use of the word appeared in 1362 where it meant a small misshapen egg. To Chaucer, a cockney was a tenderly raised child – an effeminate fellow or milksop. Now that definition would not go down well in the pubs of the East End: punch-ups would ensue and hooters would get bashed! By the 16th Century, the word was used to insult effeminate town-dwellers and male prostitutes. I can only imagine the response that this would bring out of Phil Mitchell! But it was John Minshew who in 1617 was the first to ascribe the term to those citizens born within the sound of Bow bells. Apparently, this was meant to include anyone born in the City of London – but then, this was a square mile plus the odd acre or two about the river.

The area where Bow Bells may be heard has been the subject of much debate and studies were undertaken to determine their ringing range. Despite this, the area where they may be heard has become associated with the East End of London. Some writers believe this to be as a result of the misconception that the bells in question are in the East End region of Bow and not those of the church of St. Mary-le-Bow. The areas of the East End considered to be within bell-hearing range are Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Hackney, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Bow, Mile End, Polar, Wapping, Limehouse and Millwall. Some authorities include the south London area of Bermondsey in this list.

The Cockney dialect is colourful and has a charm associated with it that is perhaps absent in the more formal language. It is musical and has a sense of fun about it. It has migrated across London and out into other counties and is now heard throughout the country and around the world. Despite this, in Britain the accent and the dialect were thought of as of the lower classes with many members of society turning their noses up when hearing it. In 1909, the London County Council dismissed it, saying with its unpleasant twang, it is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire. Well, the Empire is now a thing of the past, but the dialect continues to flourish. Others at that time defended the cockney way of speaking, with its colourful turn of phrases and rhyming slang, and even sought to legitimize it. But over the years, the dialect has become more acceptable to the average British ear, and in 2008, it apparently was voted equal fourth coolest accent in Britain. Now, I can rest easy! Once unheard on British radio and television, the cockney dialect is now heard and apparently no longer induces the vapours in its listeners.

I was born in Bethnal Green and despite being moved out of the area, and out of London in 1956, still consider myself as an Eastender and a cockney. I am decidedly much more conservative in my definition of who is, and who is not a cockney: I feel that the bell range of the Bells of St. Mary-le-Bow has been exaggerated. Once they may well have been heard at Highgate and so able to persuade Dick Whittington and his cat to turn again and return to London where he went on to make his fortune as well as become the principal character of many a pantomime and junior school play – in fact, I played him myself at one time. But, I am of the mind that the bells have a somewhat limited range and can be heard only in Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Stepney, Hackney and Hoxton! Regarding the acceptance and non-acceptance of the cockney dialect: it is music to my ears and a pleasure to hear, but only when spoken by a real cockney and not by a wannabe. Much as I admired the talents of both Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn, when they affected the accent, it had the same effect on me as fingernails scrapping down a blackboard and I felt acute embarrassment for them both! Am I rigid in my beliefs? Ain’t no doubt about it – you can bet on it!

So then, what is so special about the East End of London and for me, Bethnal Green? When jazz virtuosos are asked to define jazz or the blues or when others are asked to define soul, their answers are always the same: if ya gotta ask, you’ll never know. The specialness of the East End, and in particular Bethnal Green, is more a state of mind – a feeling – a sense of being and belonging to a special place – a place where I feel at home despite having moved some fifty plus years ago – it is this that defines you and makes you unique – it isn’t where you live – it’s where your heart is that matters and my heart is always within the sound of Bow bells.

Listen to the peal of 12 bells of St. Mary-le-Bow ringing Bristol Surprise Maximus.

The Bells of St. Mary-le-Bow did not ring for 21 years (1940-1961).  They were damaged in 1941 when they came crashing to the ground.  In 1956, the Lord Mayor of London launched an appeal to raise money to repair and restore the bells to the church.  He requested help from the Pearly Kings and Queens of London in this appeal.  Click here to see the launch of the appeal.  

In 1961, the Bells of St. Mary-le-Bow were restored to the church.  Click here to see the restoration and to hear them rung for the first time since the start of World War II. 

Pearly Kings and Queens   Pearly Kings and Queens

I am grateful to the people at http://www.pearlysociety.co.uk
for allowing me to reproduce these pictures



Are you aware of the origin of the word Cockney?  Apparently during the 1700s, country folk would tell a story about people they called Cockaignes.  It seemed that the Cockaignes believed that the streets of London were paved with gold and that the houses were made of cake!  As a result, anyone that moved from country to live in London began to be called Cockaignes.  The name became corrupted into Cockneys.  It was either Fuller or Miller, also during the 1700s, who wrote that the definition of a Cockney was related to Bow Bells (the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow).  A Cockney was anyone born within the furthest point where the sound of the bells could be heard plus the length of the Lord Mayor’s mace!

Ron of East Dulwich


Back to Home Page

Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins