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In Celebration Of Cockneys

March 5, 2022
by the gentle author

Thank you to everyone who has so far contributed to my crowdfund to launch a COMMUNITY TOURISM PROJECT in Spitalfields as a BETTER ALTERNATIVE to the serial killer tours that monetise misogyny. We have raised over three-quarters of our target now and there are nine days left, so please spread the word.




Portrait by James Pearson-Howes


In popular lore, being born within earshot of the bells of St Mary-Le-Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London –  known as the Bow Bells –  is the defining quality of a true cockney. It is a charismatic myth that possesses its own quirky appeal, yet also reveals the elusive quicksilver nature of cockney identity.

Lexicographers propose multiple origins for the word, each of which reveals aspects of its meaning and timbre as a term that has never been far from derogatory. Yet cockney offers the only authentic piece of vocabulary we have to describe the indigenous culture of the people of the East End and, as such, its historical usage is commonly a measure of their standing.

The first recorded use of the word “cockney” is by William Langland in 1362, meaning a “cock’s egg”, an abnormality, and it crops up again in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, meaning a spoilt child or effeminate man, dated to around 1386 when Chaucer was an East Ender dwelling above the gatehouse to the City of London at Aldgate. Both usages imply an antipathy to urban dwellers who were spared the labour of agricultural work and it is an equivocation about the status of the cockney that persists to this day.

Culturally, the identity of the cockney is inextricably bound up with the East End and the costermongers – roving vendors of fruit and vegetables who developed their own tribal code and practices that became formalised at the end of the nineteenth century as Pearly Kings & Queens. Rhyming slang is the braggadocio of the cockney, a flowering of the wit and theatre of street trading, while pies and mash and jellied eels are the cuisine of choice. There is also an aura of criminality that cannot be denied, yet it is perhaps merely indicative of our centuries-old collective anxiety over the morals of the poor.

Regrettably, the over-familiarity of these cockney tropes in popular culture has come to mask the sophistication and subtlety of this culture, just as the well-worn narratives of sensational crime and poverty have obscured the social complexity of the East End itself. But in all the interviews I have undertaken, I have never come across any of the feckless cockneys of popular lore.

“People like to think that we were all drunks who dropped their ‘h’s, and we were dirty,” said Mavis Bullwinkle, nonagenarian resident of Spitalfields and proud cockney, speaking to me in contempt at the common misrepresentation of her kind. Sacrificing a career in the City for a less-well-paid job as a secretary at the Royal London Hospital where she worked for forty years, Mavis exemplifies the best of the cockney East End – of those who grew up in modest circumstances within a close-knit community and developed a strong sense of social responsibility as a result.

To tell the story of the cockney is to recount the history of poverty in the East End, yet in my work I propose a parallel history of resourcefulness as the definitive trait of the region. To me, the cockney embodies this quality as one who has the moral courage and wit to invent a means of living out of nothing, creating employment for themselves and others. And it is a sensibility that still prevails in the streets and markets of the East End, where today we have Scots cockneys, Sikh cockneys, Italian cockneys and cockneys of every nationality and race to be found in the territory.

Being a cockney is not simply about being born within earshot of Bow Bells. To me, cockney is a state of being and a relationship to existence. Cockney embodies the virtues of self-reliance and magnanimity that are characteristic of these unjustly misrepresented people. Let us celebrate the commercial nous, the independence of spirit and the egalitarianism of the cockney – because, God knows, we need them now.


Click to learn about the series of COCKNEY CONVERSATIONS happening this month



Victorian scrap of a costermonger

Lithograph of a Costermonger by H W Petherick, 1874 (courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute)

Costermonger and child from Wonderful London  by Donald McLeish published in the twenties (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

Costermonger by William Nicholson, 1898 (courtesy Desmond Banks)

Engraving of a Costermonger by Marcellus Laroon, 1687 (courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

You may also like to read about

Jukebox Jimmy, The Scots Cockney

Suresh Singh, The Cockney Sikh

The Cockney Alphabet

6 Responses leave one →
  1. March 5, 2022

    As someone who enjoys History of Costume traditions and backstories, I look forward to someday learning more about the Pearly Kings and Queens…….and their regalia. I can only imagine the richness of the stories, legends, and lore.

    Stay safe, all.

  2. March 5, 2022

    I *love* these portraits — both the photographs and the lithographs and engravings. I fully agree that there is a particular spirit here, one that we as a (universal) society need to get back in touch with!

  3. Andy permalink
    March 5, 2022

    Evocative, and the photos take me back.

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 6, 2022

    Love your definition of a Cockney. Spot on!

  5. Ian Silverton permalink
    March 6, 2022

    Just too let you know, we as Kids from the 1950s, East End that was,where always told by our parents, that these people where always well fed and healthy,and lived in Chingford, say no more. BETHNAL GREEN born and bred. Hope your well GA.

  6. Jude Rosen permalink
    March 7, 2022

    love the way you extend the definition of Cockney to the social and cultural heart of local people, improvising and innovating through social solidarity and mutual support – not just getting by or getting on at the expense of others…. how the area has renewed itself by being open to newcomers and migrants from different backgrounds, their talents and skills….

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