Cockney Rhyming and Scarlet Fever


What is a Cockney? One who has been born within the sound of Bow bells, a reference not, as often believed, to the eastern suburb of Bow, but to the church of Saint Mary le Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London. Further to a study carried out in 2000 to see how far the Bow Bells could be heard, it was estimated that they would have been audible six miles to the east, five to the north, three to the south, and four to the west, an area that covers Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Millwall, Hackney, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Bow, and Mile End, as well as Bermondsey, south of the River Thames.

So here’s me, making a pledge to compose poetry as my penance for Lent. Holding my head in despair, bouncing it off the laptop, trying to achieve some poetic coherence……..and suddenly I thought…………you were born to write poetry, you’re a cockney. I was raised on cockney rhyming slang it should be part of my DNA.

I’m not telling porkies either. That’s cockney rhyming slang ‘ pork pies’ for ‘eyes’.

When I have my morning ‘dig in the grave’ I look fondly on my Schick razor, appreciating its lubricating feature and its five blades. I then head into the kitchen for my morning pot of ‘rosy lea’.

I then venture up the ‘apples and pears’ to my library where the laptop awaits and sign on to my favourite ‘wind and kite’. After spending three hours reviewing WordPress I find that my ‘mince pies’ are declining with age. I rub my ‘boat race’ vigorously trying to dispel the tiredness. I need a short break.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that I’m from Irish descent born in East London. But I have just found out that there was such a race as Irish cockneys. They were immigrants from Ireland that first came to London in the 1850’s. Some say that the cockney rhyming slang was first used by the Irish cockneys to disguise their conversation from other Londoners. There were in fact a number of Irish cockneys who took part in the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin. One of which was Johnny O’Connor, known as ‘Blimey” for his thick cockney accent.

So here’s a little poem for you straight from my cockney genes:

The Oldest Profession

I'm a hooker dearie.
Wait till I get my hooks into you.
Though I get a little weary,
I can still turn a trick or two

I'm here to make a living
By any means I can
So you do the giving
And be my generous man.

Forget the weary painted face
Just close your eyes and dream
Of a lady with frills and lace
And keep your self esteem

I’ve been reading ‘London’s Characters and Crooks’ compiled from books written by Henry Mayhew in the 1850’s. It describes costermongers, flower girls, cheap-Johns, rag and bottle buyers, dustmen, dolly mops and bawdy houses, tramps and lucifer droppers. Just to name a few. Here’s an extract from a chapter entitled Soldiers’ Women.

Soldiers are notorious for hunting up women, especially nurse maids and those that in the execution of their duty walk in the parks, when they may be easily accosted. Nurse maids feel flattered by the attention that is lavished upon them and are always ready to succumb to the ‘ scarlet fever ‘. A red coat is all powerful with this class, who prefer a soldier to a servant. This answers the soldiers purpose equally well, only earning a shilling a day, he cannot afford to employ professional women to gratify his passions.

Remember not to judge the 19th century with 21st century sensibilities.

24 thoughts on “Cockney Rhyming and Scarlet Fever

  1. Very much enjoyed this, Len. Would like to give those Mayhew books a butcher’s sometime. Liked the poem a lot. I like the rhyming slang, likewise backslang used to be a thing, didn’t it – and Polari’s an interesting slang variant, I think. My Dad was born in the Tufnell Park area, back in 1925, his grandfather had a fish barrow, apparently. He told me lots of stories of growing up round there before the war. Penny bags of stale cakes, walking up from Archway all the way to The Spaniards. Used to live in London myself, but not been back for a good while now.

    Like

  2. This was fun, Len, and I really enjoyed learning all the cockney phrases. There’s a treasure trove there for you to share with the rest of us.

    And what a novel idea: a poem about the Oldest Profession as your penance for Lent! Love the irony.

    Like

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