Cockney Culture's New Face


The East End's Eliza Doolittles have long since moved away--not to rural Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, mind you, but to suburban Essex and Kent, where their cockney rhyming slang is hardly heard.

The street markets they abandoned in the gritty neighborhoods of Spitalfields and Whitechapel are Bangladeshi now. And the cockneys' favorite pie-and-mash shops are outnumbered by tandoori restaurants and trendy cafes that serve arugula salad to City of London slickers.

In short, East London's cockney culture is, as old-time rhymers would say, "brown bread"--dead.

Or is it?

"I'm a cockney," said Paul Baird, 42, whose father emigrated from the West Indies to East London. "It's the way I speak, you know what I mean? It's my mannerisms. It means I'm from the East End."

Abdul Quayum Jamal, 32, who inherited a Brick Lane market from his Bangladeshi father, said proudly, "I grew up here speaking proper cockney."

As it turns out, the population of East London always has been fluid. The definition of a cockney has changed many times, and the cockney dialect, like all languages, has evolved. Yesterday's white, working-class cockneys may not recognize today's East End immigrants as their brethren, and East Enders who call themselves cockney may not mean the same thing today as they did 50 years ago.

But they are cockneys, according to historian Gilda O'Neill, the offspring of Jewish and Irish immigrants and author of "My East End, Memories of Life in Cockney London."

"London has always been Britain's melting pot, and East London was always the posh folks' backyard . . . everything that was 'other' or foreign," O'Neill said. "It's the working community in the East End, and it will always be thought of as cockney."

To locals such as Baird, upscale East Enders are the foreigners.

"You've got people coming in here for 10 minutes and calling themselves cockney," Baird said, shaking his head. "You've got shops opening up that's so expensive the normal, average person hasn't got a chance. But we'll find a way."

The word cockney comes from "cock's egg," meaning something strange or unnatural, as East Enders were to the British ruling classes. According to tradition, a true cockney must have been born within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary Le Bow in the high-finance City of London. But East London has grown in size and stature. While cockneys once sought to escape the label that conjured up the slums of Dickens and the crimes of Jack the Ripper, today many East Enders wear the badge with honor. The accent that pegged them as poor in class-conscious Britain has been made hip on film by director Guy Ritchie and actor Terence Stamp.

"I wasn't born within the sound of the bells, unless the wind was blowing the right direction that day, and I consider myself a cockney," said Jane Taylor-Reid, 33, a librarian from East Ham.

"It used to be that people would look at you as poor and uneducated, from a poor part of London and, therefore, you were not a worthy person," she said. "But I have been to university, I've got a career, and I feel quite proud of my roots."

It helps that the East End is becoming a trendy place to live, with contemporary artists, City financiers and Canary Wharf professionals moving in, causing the value of Taylor-Reid's house to double in the last four years.

Immigration is a cornerstone of the area, although until now it was usually the poor and oppressed who pulled into London's East End port. The foreigners came in waves, as migrants tend to do in response to economic and political pressures at home.

A Common Destiny for Immigrant Groups

The Huguenot silk weavers who arrived in the late 17th century from France were supplanted by the Irish and Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries. Chinese immigrants established a small Chinatown in the Limehouse district near the docks in the early 20th century, largely keeping to themselves, while another influx of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe made their way into the teeming East End.

Different origins, but a common destiny in the rough part of London near the port and "stink" industries such as breweries and tanneries. They crowded into slum housing, worked in the docks and markets, and bought half a cabbage at a time if that was all they could afford.

Many cockneys refer to the "golden years" of the East End, before vast areas were leveled in the Blitz of London during World War II. There is more than a little bit of romanticism in the recollections of slum life, when extended families lived cheek-by-jowl without indoor plumbing or privacy but could rely on each other for help.

Back then, Jews were established in the markets of Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane and Whitechapel, where they worked as bakers, "rag" traders and "fruit and veg" vendors. They had 120 synagogues, such as the one behind a house on Princelet Street that the Spitalfields Center conservation charity hopes to preserve and convert into a museum of East End immigration.

"When I was young, there used to be a lot of Jews, Greeks, Maltese and Turks around here. Now it's all Asians," said Helen Gabriel, a saleswoman in her 50s working at one of the two remaining Jewish bakeries on Brick Lane. She sells "beigels"--East End bagels pronounced "bye-gulls."

"They call me cockney Greek because I'm Greek, but I talk cockney," Gabriel said with a laugh.

By that she means she retains the cockney accent and grammar. Not all East Enders speak the cockney slang of rhyming words once or twice removed that is indigenous to East London and ever-changing. Like all jargon, it is an insider's language intended to distinguish "them" from "us," and it may have begun as a code to keep pesky coppers in the dark.

East Ender Taylor-Reid said she doesn't speak the cockney her grandfather would have used with fellow fruit-and-veg vendors in the Rathbone market decades ago, but she probably knows more of it than recent immigrants to the East End and will throw in a word or two when talking to her husband.

"I'll say, 'It's taters outside' when it's cold, which comes from 'taters [potatoes] in the mold. Or, 'a cup of rosie' for tea," she said, rhyming with Gypsy Rose Lee.

There is humor, mockery and often vulgarity in the vocabulary, and no political correctness: A husband has trouble and strife--a wife. The check is in the Holy Ghost--post.

"Tit for tat, hat. North south, mouth. Whistle and flute, suit," George Major, 64, recalled on a recent Sunday afternoon in East London's Mile End Park.

Major is the standard-bearer for another cockney tradition that has been a mainstay of East End life since Victorian times--the pearly kings and queens. These men and women who don button-festooned suits and plumed hats are East London's working-class royalty.

A cockney street sweeper named Henry Croft who dressed up to raise money for the poor in 1875 founded the pearly dynasty. He recruited other "royals" among the coster mongers--apple sellers--in the markets, and soon all of the East End neighborhoods had their royal families raising funds for hospitals and orphanages.

While once they numbered more than 400, today there are just 42 pearly kings, queens, princes and princesses, and, like Major, most of them have moved to the suburbs.

"We moved for the same reason everyone else moved, to get more space," said Major, who traces his pearly lineage back to his great-grandfather.

After World War II, the British government offered East Enders new housing in the suburbs and many cockneys moved out, making way for new immigrants. The port and many factories closed as London switched from industry to commerce, and the area fell to ruin until the government began to redevelop the Docklands section in the 1980s.

Gradually, Jewish markets became Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani markets. Synagogues were converted to mosques, and kosher butchers became halal butchers. Brick Lane became the heart of Banglatown with street signs in Bengali, walls covered in Indian movie posters and music stores selling Robi Chowdhury CDs. Today, women in Asian dress and head covers shop alongside those in Western clothing, and English is not necessarily the lingua franca.

As the area has begun to gentrify, other changes have taken place. A Victorian public lavatory was turned into a hip bar called Public Life. A 1902 "Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor" was converted to luxury flats. And the derelict Ten Bells Pub where Jack the Ripper snared one of his victims just sold for nearly $2 million.

"You've got a lot more upper-class people moving into the area. It's getting very expensive to live here," said Jamal, the Brick Lane shopkeeper.

He said many Bangladeshis are taking advantage of rising real estate prices to sell their flats and move their families to larger quarters in safer suburbs, as the Jews and Irish did before them.

Cockney Linked to Working-Class Life

The new, chic East Enders may listen to cockney lyrics by the late pop singer Kirsty MacColl ("There's a guy works down the chip shop swears he's Elvis"), but they aren't authentic cockneys, according to Cambridge English professor Laura Wright, who has studied the dialect.

"Cockney means being from the East End and working-class," Wright said. "It can't be a middle-class museum director living in Stepney."

But it can be a girl of West Indian parentage. George Major boasts that his 12-year-old granddaughter, Jade, is the first pearly princess of West Indian descent. She joined him for the fair in Mile End Park and wore the "royal" garb with obvious relish.

"Some of my friends think it's weird. They don't really understand," she said. "It's fun. It puts smiles on people's faces."

The cockney is dead. Long live the cockney.


Times staff writer Laurel Rosen contributed to this report.

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