In Search Of London’s Last Cockneys

By Lucy Wilton Last edited 14 months ago
In Search Of London’s Last Cockneys
A pearly king
Are cockneys on their way out? Image: Shutterstock

What does it mean to be cockney? Pearly kings and queens? Rhyming slang? Pie and liquor? It's commonly believed that to be truly cockney, you must be born within earshot of Bow Bells, which peal from Cheapside’s St Mary-le-Bow church.

Noise pollution and a lack of maternity wards in the area have rendered this definition practically obsolete. The term 'cockney' dates back to the 1300s and was originally used as a pejorative label for the city's toffee-nosed urban folk. It's since become a term of endearment primarily referring to the working class, down-to-earth, East Enders of London.

But in 2010, Professor Paul Kerswill of the University of York estimated that the cockney accent would disappear from London "within 30 years". 10 of those years have now elapsed. Is this native London breed really set to become brown bread? And what has triggered the mass exodus of these former city-dwellers to surrounding counties such as Essex and Kent?

"We’re still alive and kicking, but we’re hanging by a thread"

Diane and her pearly pony Alfie

Think cockney and Pearly Kings and Queens often spring to mind. The tradition, dating back to the Victorian costermongers (street traders) of north London, was founded by Henry Croft, a former workhouse inmate, who — inspired by the style-savvy costermongers who sewed lines of pearls onto their clothes to mimic the rich — chose to go one step further by completely embellishing suits with pearl buttons.

Diane Gould, the current Pearly Queen of St Pancras, reveals to me that she makes all her own outfits, a task typically left to the Pearly Kings. Her accent is unquestionably cockney: warm, down to earth, effortlessly dipping in and out of rhyming slang. Born into a family of costermongers and raised in Phoenix Road, Somers Town, Gould's pearly roots span six generations. Her great-grandfather George (the first Pearly King of St Pancras) was a close friend of Croft himself. Beginning with the humble title of Pearly Princess, Gould went on to assume her current regal title upon her mother's passing. I ask her if there are many pearly families left?

"At least a few from proper pearly stock, though there's plenty out there that can't be considered true pearlies as they're so watered down", Gould admits, some sadness in her voice. "We're still alive and kicking, but we're hanging by a thread."

"We had to move away, Cos' the rent we couldn't pay"

Diane and her son Lee

Gould reminisces about a colourful childhood; a lot of her time was spent helping on her family's market stalls at Islington's Chapel Market. "Markets were at the heart of the local community, people didn't travel far as they couldn't," remembers Gould. "Local communities were really tight. The Thames brought people from all over the globe — Italian, Chinese, French — we mixed with everyone. We didn't have a racist bone in our bodies. We didn't have two bob but it was all about respect."

This strong sense of community seems to have driven the pearlies in their life's work, to which a large part is devoted to charity. "It’s in our blood". Diane's own tireless charity work is for Great Ormond Street Hospital and Rippledown Environmental Education Centre.

Diane Gould and her father

Though Diane relocated to East Sussex some years ago, she claims she has by no means abandoned her pearly values. It was, she says, her cockney holidays to the hop fields of Kent every year until the 1980s — where the family would always enjoy "a sing song around the piano and pint of beer" — that inspired her to leave London with her four children for a more rural lifestyle.

In the countryside, Gould runs her own brewery, Furnace Brook Brewery. And, in true cockney style, she delivers her homemade beverages — including Pearly Pale Ale — to locals by cart, pulled by her beloved 'pearly pony' Alfie.

When I ask her why so many other cockneys are upping sticks to counties outside of London, she replies with a rendition of My Old Man, singing, "We had to move away, Cos' the rent we couldn’t pay...". Gould laments that a lot of people have had to move out of the capital due lack of affordability, and scorns the destruction of streets of houses which forced many to move into blocks of flats on large estates. This, says Gould, "shattered the 'backbone of community'. I'm part of the last of a dying breed," she says. But what about those Cockneys who are still based in London?

"Life back then was a lot different. Places have been gentrified."

Ray Winstone (right) is an alumni of the boxing club.  "He's always in Sicily now!" Mark Newman tells us. Image: Repton Boxing Club

I head to Repton Boxing Club. Dating back to 1884 and based in a former Victorian Bathhouse in Bethnal Green, it has produced the likes of John H. Stracey, Audley Harrison and Maurice Hope. It was even a regular haunt of the infamous Kray twins. Mark Newman, is the former club president, and now manager of the club's PR. The club was a regular hangout of his in the mid-sixties and he counts Ray Winstone, also an ex-Repton boy, among his friends.

It wasn't always solely a boxing club. "Back then it was more like a youth club; you could do weightlifting, judo, football, rugby, go on the jukebox — there was even a disco on Friday nights." Newman says. Did he ever encounter the Krays around this time? "Yeah, there's a photo of me getting the autographs of Rocky Marciano and George Raft, my boxing idols at the time, and Ronnie and Reggie are in it too — though no one knew who the Krays were."

I sense that Newman was not the Krays' biggest fan, and I am not wrong. "We had a jukebox at the club where you had to pay a sixpence for each song. We all thought the money was going towards the club, but when the bloke emptied the machines, we found out all those coins were going in the Krays' pockets!"

Repton Boxing club in the 1970s. Image: Repton Boxing Club

Born in Bloomsbury and raised in a block of flats on Globe Road, where he lived for 20 years, Newman speaks fondly of his youthful years in the East End, though admits that life there is different now. "Back then there were a lot of Jewish families there, everyone got on well, we had really great neighbours. Then things started to change, and my mum and dad started to get fed up." Shortly after, Mark’s mother (whose family had lived in Hoxton for two hundred years) and father did a council house swap and headed for a new life in Cheshunt, taking Mark's grandparents with them. Mark later followed them to Essex, settling in Braintree.

"Life back then was a lot different. Places have been gentrified. Before, it was primarily a working-class area, but jobs have gone, and families have gone. The indigenous cockneys, as I call them, are very much a minority," says Newman. "Listen. The world changes, you know. The East End has historically been inhabited by different races anyway, but now it’s a whole new world." He blames social media as well as the rise in violent crime for the lack of community feeling. "You don’t always hear it all on the news, but we hear about it."

Of course, it's important to remember that there were, and are, plenty of BAME cockneys.

"Hackney is almost like a comfort blanket. It is a place where I feel people have the freedom to be themselves"

Dalston. Image: Shutterstock

My next stop is Hackney where I speak to Cllr Soraya Adejare, responsible for the Dalston ward. Having lived in the borough her whole life, she too has witnessed its evolution. "The Hackney of today is very different to the one I grew up in. As a child, the borough often contained generations of the same family all living within the same vicinity."

"Over time, it has become a place where those family connections no longer exist."

She blames rising house prices and a shortage of public housing for this breakdown of a once close-knit community. The departure of what she calls the 'old school' residents to outer London has been substituted by a huge influx of mid to high earners, who treat visits to traditional cockney businesses, such as pie and mash shops and chippys, as an "irregular novelty". Adejare says that the loss of a regular clientele has led many to close down or to be taken over by new, high-end eateries. History, she says, is important to people who've been in Hackney much of their lives: "We do hold various exhibitions to provide all residents with snapshots of life in the borough from an everyman's point of view."

Cllr Soraya Adejare. Image: Hackney Council/ Gary Manhine

And her list of fond memories is endless. Adejare praises her old school's emphasis on having celebrated "all parts of cultural London". She remembers tasting jellied eels as a schoolgirl, trips to music halls, and assemblies singing along to My Old Man's a Dustman, which her five-year old daughter now even knows off by heart.

And her broad cockney accent? "Despite my mother's strident efforts to prevent me from acquiring one, I love a broad London accent! Though many streams of society jump to assumptions about those that speak it, it is a symbol of the history of London." He favourite cockney word, by the way, is "jubbly" (meaning frozen flavoured ice). But, Adejare admits that such rhyming slang which had previously been part of the day to day vernacular, today exists in only "a few small pockets". The common accents amongst the working class and school are now Estuary English or Multicultural London English.

Despite her borough's transformation, Adejare isn’t considering moving away any time soon. "Hackney is almost like a comfort blanket. It is a place where I feel people have the freedom to be themselves and I love living amidst the heady mix of people from every walk of life. I'm here for the long haul!"

"We've hardly changed our menu in the last 117 years"

Emma, Tom and Rick at Manze

Pie, mash and and jellied eels being that Cockney diet staple, it's only right to make my final port of call the country's oldest pie and mash shop, M.Manze, in Bermondsey. From surviving a wartime bomb blast, to hosting the Beckhams, this place's resumé is impressive.

The business was originally founded by Robert Cooke in 1891, though later taken over by his son-in-law, Southern Italian immigrant Michele Manze in 1902, who had previously run an ice cream-making business next door. Four generations on, the business is still in the hands of the Manze family and has two additional shops in Peckham and Sutton. I speak to Michele's grandson Rick, his daughter Emma and her husband Tom who currently own the business.

"Our business has remained popular over recent years," Rick tells me assuredly. "Back in the early 20th century, it used to be open 18 hours a day. Like most industries, the businesses that do it well will stay but those that don't do it quite so well will struggle." Unlike similar businesses in the city, such as West Ham's beloved Nathan's, which closed back in May 2018, Michele's successors predict a stable future.

Have they had to adapt their menu at all over the years to accommodate the modern market? "We've hardly changed our menu in the last 117 years," Emma proudly informs me. Nevertheless, the shop has not remained entirely complacent. They've teamed up with Deliveroo to participate in the ever-growing takeaway market. Tom also chips in, saying that while the internet can often be blamed for the death of the High Street, social media has in fact played an enormous role in the shop's survival. "We have a strong following on Facebook and Instagram which helps show us off to people that maybe haven’t tried pie and mash before." The same demographic, surely, that Adejare says uses these businesses as a curiosity.

In terms of cockneys becoming an endangered species, the family deny such a phenomenon. "London is changing. Always has, always will," says  Emma. "Change does affect communities, but you'll find the cockney community is still just as strong, just more spread out than it used to be."

So, can the Cockney people be deemed a dying breed? Or have they simply resettled on the other side of the city's borders? The age-old traditions — the food, the accents, the rhyming slang — are on the verge of dying out; upheld only by feisty few who are determined to keep their culture alive. Then again, perhaps the best way to define a cockney these days means scrapping all that stuff about the Bow Bells, and instead, focusing on that sense of community. And while stalwarts like the Manzes are indispensable when it comes to defending cockney heritage, we also can't dismiss the new wave of close-knit communities, often involved in charitable work, springing up in the East End and beyond.

Last Updated 29 December 2022