Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Cockneys on the move

Are Cockneys becoming extinct in east London?

Are Cockneys becoming extinct in east London? - Credit: Getty Images

Recent news, which you may have missed, is that the traditional cockney accent is rapidly disappearing from the East End of London and is now more likely to be heard here in Essex. I was not surprised at all.

Nowadays, there are far fewer of your traditional gorblimey cockneys still to be found in Bethnal Green, Stepney, Hackney, Bermondsey, Bow or Whitechapel.

The East End of London has been a transit camp and melting pot for newly-arrived Britons for many centuries now. Britain for all its recently perceived xenophobia, has been extending its rugged handshake to the world’s refugees for a very long time. Even within the past century, the East End has functioned as landing place and launch-pad for Jewish, Italian, Polish, Indian, Hungarian, West Indian and Bangladeshi people – as well as other newcomers.

We, the English, are a mongrel race. Let no-one ever say of us that we’ve been hampered by a limited gene pool. Those whom we’ve taken in, have usually strengthened us and we, them. Paradoxically, such constant change has been a key component of our permanence.

Our speech too, with its inflections, cadences, slang and patois are all a part of this ever-mutating whole. A cockney ‘masher’ of the late Victorian age, for instance, would probably find the ‘Jafaican’ patois of, say, a young white rapper in Hackney almost unrecognisable – and vice versa. But if somehow, the two could ever meet, both would probably recognise each other’s tough veneer, street-smart style and whip-like humour.

The county of Essex now functions as a sort of spare hard-drive for cockney culture. Like a hard drive it contains safety back-ups of almost everything which traditionalists fear is being lost. There’s been a constant migration of East Londoners to Essex since the end of the Second World War. They’ve tended to settle such places as Southend, Clacton and Walton, the seaside in other words. They were those undersized wartime kids, whose playgrounds were bombsites waiting for redevelopment. Many of them, but for odd day trips, would rarely have seen the sea. Essex’s vast flat fields and wooded copses were almost unknown to them. From the dusty haze of post-war East End, with many of its remaining tenements already being bulldozed to make way for blocks of flats, suburban Essex and its coast must have looked like the Promised Land.

The strange thing is that when I was younger, I was taught that the original cockneys, had themselves come from Essex. Between about 1530 and 1600, the population of London more than quadrupled from 50,000 to over 220,000. The once pretty villages just outside of the City: places such as Stratford, East Ham, and Forest Gate, were then still in Essex. The cockneys were horse-traders, costermongers and others who came out of Essex to trade, just as Tudor London’s population and wealth were expanding.

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Even their accent would only have been a more gutteral urban version of what had once been an old Essex dialect. Soon, the cockneys would have intermarried with Huguenots and other refugees. Eventually they would all have been absorbed by the City, along with all the others who had been carried in on the swell of the Thames, hoping to make their fortune.

But the old East End, hurtful as it may seem to those who have most recently left it, never really belonged to anyone for very long. For all its perceived virtues or faults, it changes again before our eyes, even as its most recent emigrés trickle back into Essex like a returning tide.

In pub conversations I often used to listen to East Londoners of my own generation getting misty-eyed about the past, over a drink. The classic nostalgia for the East End of the Kray Twins, for instance, was common. William Donaldson the satirist once put it into a cool perspective. They’d only ever killed their own kind, had been the cliché. “What? Other human beings, you mean?” he’d asked.

It’s also true though, that if you should talk to anyone who ever came into contact with them, there are as many tales of the Krays’ kindness as there are of their ruthlessness. You’ll be told that this man’s family had been helped by them, while he was in jail. Another, who’d “done a bit of driving” and kept his mouth shut, upon being retired from The Firm, had been set up with a pub.

The people who might tell you these tales – there are rather fewer of them around nowadays – will often describe themselves as English. Examine the surnames of the members of old East End gangs, however, and you may find a disproportionate amount of non-English ones. The surnames are Maltese, Italian, Cypriot, Jewish, Irish and so forth. Even the name Kray itself is cited by one biographer as being of Eastern European, possibly, Hungarian origin.

The East End’s reputation, therefore, as a place which breeds strong characters, remains intact. Look up a list of famous cockneys who dragged themselves up by their bootstraps and you’ll find some impressive entries: Michael Caine, David Bailey, Terence Stamp, Marc Bolan and Tommy Steele That’s just for starters. The list is long.

That the cockney accent is in the process of disappearing from its birthplace is one thing. The cockney accent is alive and well and living in Essex. It’s the old rural north Essex accent itself which is becoming extinct. That should be a far more pressing concern.