From Bow bells to jellied eels, you can’t beat a good old bit of Cockney tradition, the heart and soul of London’s culture and identity.
The term “Cockney” supposedly meant a cock’s egg (a yolkless one, in other words). It came to be used by red-necked country folk to mean a mollycoddled city boy. In the 1390s, Chaucer – who was himself from London, and lived above the gate at Aldgate – used it to mean a wimp in his Canterbury Tales. But by 1600, the term “Bow-Bell Cockney” had already come to mean an Eastender, or at any rate, a Londoner, no milksop but outwardly as hard as nails, even if they do have a heart of gold underneath.
“Bow bells”, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere, doesn’t mean the bells of Bow Church, but of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside in the City. In the fourteenth century, Dick Whittington could supposedly hear them from Highgate, but by the nineteenth, buildings, traffic and the prevailing wind meant they could only be heard from central and east London, and south as far as Lambeth and Bermondsey. Today, with so many more buildings and so much more noise, the area where you can hear the bells is much smaller, but a true Cockney is still East End born and bred. As for being born “within the sound” of Bow bells, an ingenious modern theory suggests it could actually mean the area between St Mary-le-Bow and Bow Church, which just happens to cover the East End pretty tidily.
One of the most famous Cockney traditions of course is rhyming slang. It isn’t all that old, dating from around the 1840s. Supposedly it’s now in retreat, but the truth is that it’s still evolving. So if we don’t now go down the rubba(-dub), we can still drink at the battle(-cruiser), where we might nowadays have a Britney (Spear) rather than a pig’s (ear). And even though rhyming slang changes over time, it preserves plenty of relics.
Does anyone otherwise now know what boracic lint is, or why potatoes should be “in the mould”? And who still remembers Mutt and Jeff (a comic strip), or Tod Sloan (a jockey), or Rosie Lea (apparently not originally the American cabaret star of that name)? But if you’re a bit mutt or mutton, or you’re having a cup of rosie on your tod, their names live on, and quite right too.
Another famous Cockney tradition is pearly kings and queens. The first pearly monarch was Henry Croft, a road sweeper from Somers Town, who made himelf a pearly suit back in the 1870s, and used it to go around raising money for charity. He got the idea from the costermongers (market traders, especially greengrocer’s), who elected “kings” as something like arbitrators and shop stewards, ran whip-rounds for the needy, and had a fashion of putting shiny buttons on their clothes, possibly as a piss-take of wealthy people’s bling.
One mudlarky story goes that Croft found a crate of pearly buttons washed up on the Thames foreshore. Either way, he made himself a pearly suit, and so the tradition was born. London’s original pearly kingdoms were its 28 metropolitan boroughs, starting with Croft’s own borough of St Pancras. And like all monarchies, pearly monarchies are hereditary, passed down in the family, and London’s pearly kings and queens continue their charitable work (and fashion statement) to this day.
Culinarily speaking, the East End is traditionally known above all for two great delicacies: pie and mash, and jellied eels. Eels were one of the few fish that could easily be found in the Thames, they were easy to hook, and they were cheap. Alas, that is no longer the case. In the twenty-Os, the Thames’s eel population took a 98% dive, for reasons unknown. Even cocaine users’ urine was blamed, and it’s true the River does pass the Houses of Parliament. But whatever the reason, most eels are now imported. They’re gutted, sliced up, and stewed in herb-infused water. In principle the collagen from their bones should be enough to jellify the water when chilled, but nowadays a bit of gelatin is usually added to help it out.
The first known “eel pie house” was operating at 101 Union Street in Southwark by 1844 (Eel Pie Island in Twickenham also had one for day-tripping Cockneys), but it was on Baker’s Row in Clerkenwell in 1862 that Frederick Cooke opened what seems to have been the first modern-style pie and mash shop, with meat pies and liquor. Cooke’s family still run one in Hoxton and one in Romford, closing their Hackney branch in 2020 while opening one for the Cockney diaspora out in Chelmsford, Essex (not the furthest-flung pie and mash shop we know of: there’s also one in Philadelphia PA). The other great pie and mash dynasties are the Kelly and Manze families. Manze’s in Bermondsey is London’s oldest surviving pie and mashery. As well as the traditional meat pies, most now offer veg versions too, plus parsley liquor of course, and eels (stewed or jellied) on the side if you want them.
So, while it may have changed over the years, and shifted eastwards a bit, the Cockney tradition is still going strong. It's had its Rebels and its Rejects, and it’s even got its own alphabet. And the whole of our wider London culture is based on it. It’s true that the great Cockney knees-up has given way to raves, clubs and karaoke, and some have claimed that Cockney culture is now dying, apparently because it’s absorbing Bangladeshi influences, but that’s its nature; it's taking in Bengali influences just as it previously absorbed those of Yiddish and Romany, and you won’t put the mockers or the cosh on that.