An inside guide to cockney London
London’s cockney scene has a long history and an interesting future, thanks to its proud custodians looking to safeguard its reputation
Cockney culture has long been a proud part of London’s storied landscape, boasting its own pitter-patter dialect of rhyming slang, a cuisine of eels, pie and liquor, and even an alternative royal family, the very dapper pearly kings and queens. And while it’s undeniable that the gentrification of London has seen markers of cockney communities evaporate or migrate, there are still resilient pockets to discover.
With the unveiling of a new museum dedicated to cockney traditions, enterprising pie and mash shops jumping on the home delivery bandwagon, plus a pub singalong introducing music hall songs to a new generation, various aspects of cockney culture are still alive and kicking in and around the capital.
“Step right up to see the cockney crown jewels!” declares the pearly king of Peckham, George Major, standing before his prized collection of 30 pearly costumes. Housed in a dinky outhouse in Stoneleigh, about half an hour by train from central London, Major’s recently opened Cockney Museum is on a mission to preserve his rich cockney heritage.
Exhibits include a replica of the bustling Victorian street markets that birthed cockney culture, alongside a dazzling collection of outfits embellished with mother of pearl buttons. The jewel in this quirky museum’s crown is a 170-year-old suit worn by the original pearly king himself, Henry Croft, an altruistic street cleaner with a flair for street theatre. Major is also on hand to take visitors on a Lambeth walk through his cockney life story, while a canary yellow three-wheeler van at the front of the museum is a cheeky nod to the rumour that Major inspired Del Boy’s character in the TV series Only Fools and Horses. And there’s even a rhyming slang cheat-sheet at the onsite cafe, if ordering a cup of Rosie Lee (tea) gets confusing.
Back in the heart of London, head to Cheapside in London’s historical financial district. Folklore has it that to qualify as a true cockney, one must be ‘born within sound of Bow Bells’, which peal from St Mary-le-Bow church. Nowadays, noise pollution has made that almost obsolete — although kudos to the tech-savvy vicar who attempted to rectify this with a digital download version. Standing in the shadow of nearby St Paul’s Cathedral, also designed by Sir Christopher Wren, visitors can hear the famous bells ringing out every 15 minutes from this heavenly church.
A short stroll over the Thames River will deliver you at the handsome tiled saloon of M.Manze in Bermondsey, London’s oldest surviving eel and pie house. This culinary dynasty has been serving cockney comfort food since 1892 and counts David Beckham as a regular. Order a freshly baked flaky pie, a knuckle of mashed potato scraped onto the side of a thick porcelain plate and a ladle of their legendary green parsley liquor at the counter, then nab one of the booths with wooden church pew seating. Those with a strong stomach can have their eels served jellied or stewed and there’s also a veggie pie option on this local institution’s warm hug of a menu.
Read more: the London tradition of pie 'n' mash in photos
For a modern take on an old-school classic, head to G Kelly on the Roman Road. Following a refurbishment, this traditional pie shop, once a fuelling point for the costermongers working the surrounding market, now boasts hip interiors and a new bakehouse. But some things don’t change, thankfully, as their pies are still handmade daily from scratch. Homesick Londoners with cockney cravings are also in for a treat, as Harringtons Pie and Mash shop in Tooting has introduced UK-wide delivery.
Under a flutter of Union Jack bunting, Tom Carradine is keeping the cockney singalong tradition alive with his Thursday night knees-up at Mr Fogg’s Tavern in Covent Garden. Multi-generational cockney families, many travelling in from London’s surrounding counties, jostle for space with American tourists and office workers in this eccentric old-time tavern, its walls lined with Dickensian prints and taxidermy ferrets.
“The idea of traditional cockney culture, rooted in East End working class traditions or being born within the sound of Bow Bells, may be dying out,” musician Carradine notes. “But really, contemporary cockney culture just evolves, as it’s always done. Nowadays, to be a cockney is to have your heart in London and align with the values; the charity of the pearly kings and queens, the warmth of an East End welcome and being able laugh in the face of adversity,” he says, before slipping behind the piano to tinkle the ivories as the diverse crowd unites for the chorus of Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner.
Like a local: George Major’s cockney tips
George Major is the pearly king of Peckham and creator of the Cockney Museum.
1. Visit Spitalfields Market
This street market puts you right in the heart of the action. So, use your loaf and grab yourself a bargain.
2. Head to Essex
Many Eastenders have now moved out to Essex. Visit somewhere like Southend-on-Sea to hear cockney rhyming slang and get a sense of the good old days.
3. Drink some ale in The Blind Beggar
This historic cockney pub on Whitechapel Road has been serving pints since 1894.
4. Join the costermongers harvest festival in September
Each September, the harvest festival procession starts at Guildhall Yard and parades to St Mary-le-Bow for a church service. It’s been running since 1887 and you’ll get to see the pearlies decked out in their finery.
5. Head to a music hall
Once a hotbed for cockney entertainment, London’s music halls mostly went the way of the dodo following the advent of cinema. But there are still a few hidden treasures to be discovered, including Wilton’s, which hosts a regular cockney singalong and Hoxton Hall, which is steeped in faded grandeur. Each September, Brick Lane Music Hall hosts a cockney variety show and dinner, attended by some of the capital’s most stylish pearly kings and queens.
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