Who Do I Fink I Am?


The provenance of Cockneys isn’t as clearly defined as you’d expect.

In order to be a Cockney you must have been born within the sound of Bow Bells. But many people don’t realise that the church isn’t in Bow, and has nothing to do with the East End.

The church of St Mary-le-Bow was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Wren. The huge bells were destroyed again in the Blitz and before they were replaced there was theoretically a period when no Bow-bell Cockneys could be born.

The area around the church is no longer residential and the traffic noise makes it unlikely that many people would be born within earshot anymore.  Guy’s Hospital and St Thomas’ hospital are both within the area, suggesting a reasonable number of South London Cockneys continue to be born. Part of Sarf London is further Norf than Norf London, and vice versa, but let’s not go there.

A study was carried out by the city in 2000 to see how far the Bow Bells could be heard, and it was estimated that they would have been heard six miles to the east, five miles to the north, three miles to the south and four miles to the west. According to the legend of Dick Whittington the bells could once be heard from as far away as Highgate.

Thus while all East Enders are Cockneys, not all Cockneys are East Enders. I was born roughly four and a bit miles from the church, and as I was born Southeast I’m estimating a distance of four, but perhaps on a very still day you could hear them four and a bit.

To sort it out, the Metro freesheet revealed cockneydom. We say ‘indoors’ instead of ‘at home’, as in ‘Haven’t you got a jacket?’ ‘Nah, left it at home, didn’t I?’

We use the F word as an adjective, say ‘dee’ instead of ‘day’ (so true), call everyone and everything mate (the perfect Cockney here would be Ray Winstone) and we wouldn’t be seen dead in the West End on a Saturday night. Oh, and we hate pearly kings and queens, not that we’ve ever seen one.

However, as a bona-fide Cockney I’ve betrayed my heritage; I speak in ‘Received English’ (which could be partly defined as using consonants more than vowels) so I was probably always more likely to be a newscaster than a costermonger.

20 comments on “Who Do I Fink I Am?”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    About the ‘Pearlies’ — they do indeed exist as several largely charitable organizations. Much like the ‘krewes’ of New Orleans who build those elaborate floats and put on the annual Mardi Gras parade there and are also known for their good works. Think of it as the colourful and elaborately costumed Pearlies writ large — and motorised. And there’s the Cockney Museum in Stoneleigh where not only can you be properly introduced to the East End and its culture but ‘taste’ it as well with a plate of pie, mash and liquor in its cafe. As a bona fide Cockney, I reckon you must have a mother-of-pearl button-encrusted garment secreted away — maybe another pair of outré trainers.

  2. Jo W says:

    Wotcha Chris, me old china. I’ve always fought of meself as a cockney, being born in a flat on the Suvvak park estate. I fink that’s abaht two miles ( or just over, as the costers always sold yer.)
    But my mother was very strict with our speech and said if you’re born in a stable you don’t ‘ave to neigh like an ‘orse.
    She was quite right, in those days you got a job on how you sounded, then a check on qualifications.

  3. David+Ronaldson says:

    My Mum was born in Bow and my Dad in Barking. I’ve recently discovered that the “Welsh” branch of the family never got further West than Limehouse. I was born in Stevenage New Town after my parents (who were married in Hainault) moved out of their Chigwell prefab. Our local accent is purer old Lahnden than many actual Londoners nowadays. I contrived to develop an accent which saw me accepted (to my horror) as “One of Us” while working in Whitehall. ‘Enry ‘iggins would struggle.

  4. Helen+Martin says:

    What is it about mothers and speech? Mine insisted that it is “yes” and “no” unless you want to sound like a hick. My father had a very “politely spoken” mother and while his father was a coal miner till he was 14 he was – well, I’m not sure because he was so quiet I can’t “hear” his voice, but as a motorman on the streetcars he’d be expected to be polite.
    My linguistics prof said all of western Canada has a Scots based speech pattern even though we can’t hear it ourselves in the same way that the Japanese have a problem with L and R.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin So the question remains (from a similar blog post of yours ten years ago) have you received any more questionable complaints about your ‘Received English’ being too ‘Deep English’ from US readers (and here I thought that referred to the likes of the HMS Audacious). If you do, I recommend you suggest the dental flosser contact the baked bean for guidance.

  6. Roger Allen says:

    “We use the F word as an adjective,”
    Don’t we all?
    “The fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.” – the verdict of a highly-paid systems analyst on a software problem.

  7. Joan says:

    I’m thinking of those Guy Richie films, that were so hard to understand with the accents!! Love Ray Winstone.

  8. admin says:

    The most Beano-like Cockney phrases turn out to be true if old films and books are to be believed. ‘Cor, strike a light!’ is in Margery Allingham, and ‘Cor, lumme!’ (a corruption of ‘God love me’) from children’s mouths in Ealing-type comedies.

  9. Peter+T says:

    To raise Roger a couple of points: “A fucking fucker has fucked off with my fucking bastard fucker, fuck it!” – from just over half a century ago when one of my fellow apprentices in a Black Country steel works misplaced his coarsest grade of file.

  10. Hazel Jackson says:

    I recently employed a firm of builders who, until recently, operated out of Putney. They employed many skilled tradesmen who grew up in Putney and worked out of there for many years. My husband has a card playing mate who is a working class Putney native. They all share a definite Putney accent and vernacular vocabulary which must sound “Cockney” to all but the most sensitive of Cockney accent identifiers. When they arrived in the morning I was always greeted with “Hello H, You Orlright?”. Putney is of course on the Thames and has been a busy river settlement for many centuries. I assume there are subtle variations like this in the London accent across the city.

  11. Hazel Jackson says:

    Sometimes the H is dropped as in “Allo Aze-all, you Orlight?”. The t on all right is always pronounced.

  12. Wayne+Mook says:

    I saw Mary Poppins with my daughter Saturday, what part of London would you put Bert’s, aka Dick Van Dyke, accent?


  13. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Wayne – I believe Van Dyke’s accent is called “What a bad voice coach thinks Cockney sounds like”.

  14. Jan says:

    Makes you wonder about the noise levels in times past doesn’t it?

    They must have lived with such different types of background noise. Theres a very old bridge in Kingston – the oldest in Greater London called the “Clattern” bridge cos of the sound the horses hooves and carts made passing over it. (Onomatopaeia? Is that in this name?)

    Church Bells probably rang out above all other city noises with a real resonance we don’t get in our world of traffic noises and personal stereos, car radios and other background entertainment sounds

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Ed+DesCamp Van Dyke did explain the off-radar supposed Cockney accent (which, btw, none of the exclusively British cast of ‘Mary Poppins’ told him to work on) in his usual self-deprecating way by saying that, ‘ People in the UK love to rib me about my accent, I will never live it down. They ask what part of England I was meant to be from and I say it was a little shire in the north where most of the people were from Ohio.’

  16. Peter+T says:

    There are a few films where American actors have totally mispronounced British place names and none of their British colleagues seem to have corrected them. A notable case was Robert De Niro calling the home town of the SAS Hear Ford.

  17. MartinT says:

    Mr De Niro was not so far off in his pronunciation of Hereford as local speech has it in many forms ranging from the Yerefod version to H’fod and the incomers Hirifoord! It’s not all about London round here you know.

  18. Nick says:

    My late father was born in Mile End in 1920 and didn’t have a trace of Cockney in his voice (both my parents had ‘neutral’ voices with no trace of any regional accent – they described this as speaking “well”). When we talked about this, he said that no-one in East London spoke with Cockney accents when he was young, as the “well-spoken” voice was prevalent. He said that the accent that we distinguish nowadays as Cockney came from South London.

  19. Liz+Thompson says:

    Roger and Peter. They were perfectly accurate observations. Similar ones can be heard all over Leeds.

  20. Jeanette says:

    My Mother and her twin were born in Fulham Road Infirmary ( City of Westminster workhouse Union) in 1920. On that site now stands The Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Sadly the twins never knew each other, (my mother learned she had a twin when she was called up for service in WW2) and needed a birth certificate, and was told by the registrar she was one of twins). I found my Auntie’s family 12 years ago, and amazingly both twins quoted the same saying “I was born within of Bow Bells”. I think they were taught that to remember where they came from. As I am a Londoner and when asked say London, then with further questioning, North London and then finally Finchley.

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