Death of the cockney

Rightly fêted as the world's most multicultural city, London lacks only one thing – the culture of its original indigenous population. Time Out goes in search of pearly kings and jellied eels, and asks: whatever happened to the cockney?

  • Death of the cockney

    T Cribb & Sons, family-run for five generations, lays on a funeral procession in grand cockney style

  • It was the closure of Goddard’s that did it.

    When Greenwich’s venerable pie and mash shop, opened in 1890, was turned into an upmarket burger joint earlier this year, it appeared to be another boot in to the battered body of the cockney. His language was being usurped, his pubs, cafés and markets closed, his culture mocked or ignored; even the sparrow had forsaken him. So, is the cockney dead? Has 150 years of tradition and culture gone to the great pie shop in the sky?

    But first, what is a cockney? Nobody even knows for sure where the name comes from. The most popular theory is that it’s from ‘cock’s egg’ – ‘an unnatural object, a freak of nature’ as Peter Ackroyd points out – and the term was originally used as an insult to distinguish the effete city dweller from his hardened country cousin. The label soon turned from slight to proclamation, and the defiant, self-reliant, confident cockney was born. Cathy Ross of the Museum in Docklands explains: ‘In the nineteenth century there had been a lot of fear of the working class but then he was reinvented as the cockney, standing very much for empire and almost part of the establishment. He became allied with the chauvinism of the Edwardian era and was the acceptable face of the British urban working class. ’

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    The Lord Nelson, Whitechapel Road

    So what is a cockney? VS Pritchett believed the cockney had the ‘hard-chinned look of indomitable character’ while Roy Porter expands the theme in ‘London: A Social History’. ‘The true cockney was smart, wearing flash attire, perhaps a battered silk hat… bright, sharp, never-say-die, streetwise, sturdy optimism in his unwavering determination not only to make the best of things as they are, but to make them seem actually better than they are by adapting his moods to the exigencies of the occasion and in his supreme disdain of all outside influences.’

    Our northern cousins believe the term cockney applies to any Londoner, which is piffle. Tourists and some cabbies still maintain that it’s anybody born within the sound of Bow Bells (the ‘cock-shaped weathervane’ on the belfry of St-Mary-le-Bow, incidentally, is said to be another progenitor for the term ‘cockney’), but before the arrival of cars and tower blocks, the bells would have been heard as far as Hampstead; time and progress have rendered that definition obsolete. Although cockneys should be from the inner city and are often East Enders, they are not exclusively so and can be found in Fulham, Battersea, Tottenham, Camden, Catford and Golders Green, as well as throughout Essex and Kent. Although they are traditionally white, working-class and theoretically Christian, many cockneys are Jewish, black or Indian.

    Michael Collins, author of ‘The Likes of Us’, a social history of the Walworth working class, sees cockney simply as ‘a localised culture based around market and pub and the cockney language that came out of the costermonger culture’, but the best definition is that you know one when you see one. And you don’t see them as often as you used to.

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    The Lord Napier, now defunct

    You can’t miss Jimmy Jukes, though. The pearly king of Camberwell, Jukes is ‘proud to be a pearly, proud to be a Londoner, proud to be a cockney’, but his kids have no interest in following the tradition – ‘They’re embarrassed by it all’ – and he doesn’t expect to pass on the suit when he retires. ‘It’s gone down the drain,’ he laments. ‘It’s very rare you’ll find a young pearly. I was over in Spitalfields and a kid there – about 35, from Mile End – saw me in my suit and had no idea what I was about. If your own people can’t understand your culture, why should anyone else?’

    The main problem, he feels, is the pubs. ‘The pubs are dying out. Everywhere you go there’s a pub closed, turned into a wine bar or flats. It’s hard to find a good pub these days, with a piano. And if you can find a pub with a piano, you won’t find anyone who can play it. Take out the pubs and you lose the heart of a place.’

    The cockney pub was always a place for the family, but families no longer socialise together. This is partly through choice and partly because all the pubs are being turned into places for 30-year-olds, where the old and the young aren’t welcome. Families no longer work together either, as they once did on market stalls in the staunchest cockney areas. The fact that pubs and markets are so closely related is apt given that cockney is also said to derive from ‘Cockaigne’, a Celtic myth of a land of excess and gluttony, drink and gambling. Like Jukes, writer Michael Collins is from Elephant & Castle, where East Street Market still thrives, although in an altered form. ‘The market has changed a lot, not just demographically,’ says Collins. ‘The thing that was very crucial to the market was that there were rules to adhere to – things like every third stall had to sell something different – and that kept a certain order. It almost meant that stallholders were branded. That’s completely changed and it’s more of a free-for-all; there’s less cohesion.’

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    Ron's seafood shack on Hoxton Street, which has been in the family for 80 years

    Jukes picks up this theme: ‘It’s hard to live in London now. All my family have moved out and I always thought I wouldn’t, but it’s got to the point where financially and mentally I’ve got to. It’s a 100mph city and you don’t want to live like that. It’s hard to find a pearly king who lives in his borough now. The pearly king of Hornsey lives in Shepherd’s Bush, the pearly king of King’s Cross lives in Arnos Grove, the pearly king of Peckham lives in Epsom and the pearly queen of Newham lives in Jersey!’

    This cockney diaspora has been going on for centuries and accelerated with the relocation of Blitzed Londoners into Essex exile. But the process dates back to the 1840s and 1850s, with the obliteration of the Rookeries, a knot of fiercely working-class streets around St Giles-in-the-Fields. ‘The streets were narrow; the windows stuffed up with rags, or patched with paper; strings hung across from house to house, on which clothes were put out to dry,’ wrote journalist and snob Thomas Beames in ‘The Rookeries of London’ in 1832 of this maze of cockney-Irish tenements. It was a notorious hotspot for thieves, beggers and prostitutes, but also the heart of cockney London, where rhyming slang was born, and home to ‘shopkeepers, lodging-house keepers, publicans, street dealers in fruit, vegetables, damaged provisions and sundries, sweeps, knife-grinders, doormat-makers, mendicants, crossing sweepers, street singers, persons who obtain a precarious subsistence and country tramps.’ In 1842, St Giles was knocked down to make way for New Oxford Street. Between 1830 and 1880 an estimated 100,000 working-class Londoners were evicted during the building of Shaftesbury Avenue and the Holborn Viaduct. Although they were able to settle nearby, in Covent Garden and Whitechapel, a policy of social sifting had begun.

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    Petticoat Lane still going strong

    The firestorms of the Blitz allowed another sweep. Regional planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie dreamed of a new London, that involved moving the residents of Bethnal Green out to Woodford, while funnelling the bombed-out communities of Lambeth into Brixton’s Loughborough Estate. Stevenage, Harlow and Basildon appeared in the ’40s, luring cockneys from their derelict city into a bright suburban future. Many were happy to get out. ‘A lot moved when they got the chance but regretted having lost what kept them together,’ says Collins. At the same time, the docks – a key employer for working-class Londoners that, along with the influence of Jewish Londoners, resulted in a more politicised breed of cockney – were closing, and new communities were moving into working-class areas.

    During this great post-war social upheaval many things were left behind, some of which – like pie and mash shops and greyhound racing – cling on, despite regular, premature obituaries. ‘Goddard’s of Greenwich was very successful, but they were two brothers with young families and it was too demanding,’ explains Nick Evans, founder member of the Pie & Mash Club, over a bowl of stewed eels at Clarke’s on Exmouth Market. ‘They got a tasty offer from a burger company and it would have been silly to say no.’

    The Pie & Mash Club was formed in 1994 at Cooke’s on The Cut, where the huge cockney street market lives on as just a few stalls on Lower Marsh, and the pie shop has long since closed. It offers social history with a competitive eating element; members meet in different pie shops over the course of the season (September-May) to see who can eat the most pie and mash. Today’s two large pies, with mash, liquor and eels would not cut it at a competitive fixture, Evans warns, and if you leave anything on the plate, points are docked.

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    Maries Café on The Cut offers eggs 'n' chips and Thai food

    One of the other supposed roots of ‘cockney’ is coquina, Latin for cookery, in reference to the fact that medieval London had so many cook-shops, and the pie shop remains the most cockney of London foods, cropping up as cockney shorthand in motifs at DLR stations and on GLA literature. There has been a recent trend towards upmarket pies, but Evans reckons that ‘if it doesn’t sell liquor and eels, it isn’t authentic’, and lists around 50 of that stripe on his website. (The eel, incidentally, is also in trouble: stocks have been in decline since the 1970s and pie shops regularly run out, which partly explains the slow demise of the traditional cockney seafood stall.)

    ‘The trend is downwards,’ says Evans. ‘But I couldn’t say for sure how it’ll go. There were probably four times as many shops before the war and, of the 50 or so on our website, only half are in London. So there is a general decline.’

    The reason is simple. ‘London is much more multicultural than it used to be,’ says Evans, ‘and your average working-class kid is not white, so they have no background in pie and mash. You do get schoolkids in some, but you’d only get that from your parents and if your parents are Somali, there’s no reason for them to go there when you could go to KFC. It’s on the decline simply because of the change in population in London.’

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    HW Anderson & Son bakery, Hoxton Street

    Demographic changes are also having a huge and increasingly documented impact on the traditional cockney accent of ‘whining vowels and ruined consonants’ (Pritchett). Cockney speech has always assimilated – ‘From Dutch and Spanish, Arabic and Italian, French and German; the cant of thieves and argot of prisons,’ according to Ackroyd in a particularly rich chapter of his ‘London: The Biography’ – but the latest borrowings are of inflection as much as vocabulary, and as such are almost d unrecognisable as cockney. A survey of London accents among teenagers by Queen Mary College in 2005 found: ‘It is certainly different to the traditional cockney model, and it is an accent that seems to be influenced by Jamaican, Indian subcontinent and west African English.’ While some of the words lifted from Caribbean and Bengali patois chime happily with rhyming slang’s numerous borrowings, the real difference comes when the long vowels of cockney become shortened – ‘face’ was ‘faice’ but is now ‘fehs’ – creating what some have imaginatively dubbed ‘multicultural London English’. The change in inner-London language was first captured back in 1985 in Smiley Culture’s single, ‘Cockney Translation’, which – while ostensibly about slang – highlighted the fact that young London-born black men and women no longer looked to the cockney for their accent. Now, 20 years later, the cockney looks to them. ‘The “the” falls off the front of Carnival and the “t” falls off the end of respect,’ says Collins.

    While cockney migration has Londonised accents in Suffolk, Wiltshire and even Liverpool, the purest form of cockney spoken by youngsters can now be heard on the city’s outskirts where Londoners resettled after the war. Dr Laura Wright, a senior lecturer in English language at Cambridge, explains: ‘Their descendents continue to speak in east London dialect with east London accents, although that has changed over years as language is changing, and so such speakers today would not sound identical to their antecedents.’

    ‘Kids have their new street talk; it’s a form of what we had, but it’s not rhyming slang,’ says Jukes, resigned but not resentful. ‘Obviously the culture of London has changed over the past 50 years, especially with it being multicultural. People who move here have their own culture, so they’re not interested in ours and nobody bothers to teach it in schools. It’s dying.’

    But Cathy Ross of the Museum in Docklands has some good news for Jukes: ‘I know from enquiries we get to the museum that there is an interest in pearly kings and queens. Local children do school projects on them. I wouldn’t say it’s the most popular enquiry subject, but people do write and ask.’

    Ross, who lives in Bethnal Green where she still hears the occasional pub knees-up in full swing, claims, worryingly, that the most thriving cockney tradition is the extravagant funeral, ‘a status symbol among established cockney families, especially since the Krays died’.

    She adds: ‘At one point, cockney culture was seen to be white and dull and boring. Now we’re coming out of multicultural London – we still love it, but are more opened out – and it’s become more acceptable again.

    ‘I would have said cockney was dead about five years ago, but not so much now. There’s a sort of postmodern ironic cockneyness coming back. You’ve got the latest White Stripes album with them in pearly costumes, Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club is very trendy, and Alexander McQueen had a pearly collection. It might not be real, but it adds value.’

    This is a familiar pattern. Kill a culture and then sell it back in antiseptic form. Mockney itself isn’t anything new; George Melly has spoken about flapper-era mockneys, while Mick Jagger and Jamie Oliver represent not so much faux cockney as an entirely legitimate suburban strand, the result of the post-war diaspora and social mobility affecting the middle class. Mockney, though, is little more than an accent, while this recent flowering of pearly and music-hall fashion suggests something more involved, borrowing from cockney and selling it to the hip and the rich where it will be a fun fad for five minutes before fizzling out. Its impact on the urban working class it takes from is likely to be minimal.

    Whether this counts as cockney, Collins doesn’t know and isn’t even sure it’s important. ‘If you talk about any characteristics that define a culture, you are left with clichés. Whether that’s white or black, it doesn’t solve the riddle of the sphinx. People denigrate pie and mash while talking up the Carnival, but there’s not much difference. People criticised cockney culture for years and said it had no colour but, if it had been regarded as any stronger, the crossover into what is called multiculturalism would have been much more difficult.’

    So where does this leave the cockney? Suspended like an eel in jelly; slowly suffocating as he fights for his own slice of multicultural London and the right to be represented among a thousand other voices? Retired in Dartford, baton passed to the next generation, having served his 150 years as the face of London?

    Or happily evolved into something new, that’s still finding its voice in Lady Sovereign, Lily Allen and Gautam Malkani? Either way, the result is inevitable.

    Admit it, you’ll miss him when he’s gone.

    How cockney are you? Test yourself with our cockney quiz.

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