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East End characters

Although the East End is rapidly changing it is one of the few parts of London which has the most trouble shaking off the images of the past. This may be a hindrance to the new breed of Eastenders but it’s a credit to the enduring spirit of the East End.

Probably the most well know East London character is the Cockney. On the whole they are perceived to come in two working class varieties… for men - the cheeky chappy or the hard man, and for women a combination of tough girl and slapper.

However despite the wide spread knowledge of these cockney caricatures, they are only loosely based on truth. Firstly not everyone in East London is a cockney. The traditional definition of a cockney, is a person born within the sound of bow bells, which are the bells of the Bow church. Secondly, not every cockney is working class. The sound of the bells reaches across parts of the City, Stepney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green - although many of these areas may be thought of as working class the people that live there (especially now) cover the whole social spectrum.

Another defining feature of the cockney is the use of cockney rabbit, or rhyming slang as it is more commonly known. This subset of the English language was actually developed in the East End pubs by those planning unlawful activities. The language was used as code to hide their plans from the police and police spies who might overhear them talking. This is probably where the hard man image of cockneys grew from, but over the years as common phrases worked their way into everyday language this became known as the language of the East End. But today it is used less and less by true cockneys.

How the cockney caricature managed to gain such an international cult following probably has something to do with their on screen presence in films like Snatch, but this has also given rise to the phenomenon of the mockney.

Mockneys are wannabe cockneys who are from nowhere near the working class environment of the East End, but try to use the attitude and the language in an attempt to acquire some the cockney ‘cool’. On the whole mockneys are not received well by true cockneys who will either find them highly amusing or highly offensive, but if you fancy trying it in the safety of your own home or with your friends, then here’s what to do…

If you can drop your h’s and use an ‘F’ where a ‘th’ should be (but NEVER the other way round) then you’re well on your way. All you need to complete your transformation into a mockney geezer is to master some choice rhyming slang – preferably with a modern twist (i.e. You must be having a Steffi, mate!" Steffi Graff - laugh). and you should be able to graduate from mockney class in no time!

The other well-known East End characters are the Pearly Kings and Queens. Dressed from head to toe in mother of pearl buttons you will usually see these characters on high days and holidays and in the touristy parts of town. The tradition was started by Henry Croft, a young orphan boy who had the same birthday as Queen Victoria. Wanting to make the most of his connection to royalty he collected the shiny pearl buttons he found in the street and sewed them onto his cap, to imitate the finery royalty wore. He then continued until his whole suit was covered and this is how the tradition started.

When the trend took off in Victorian times, the Pearly Kings and Queens were mainly costermongers, fruit and veg sellers elected by their peers to protect their interests from rivals. Today however most just dress up to raise money for charity or simply for the fun of it.


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