Q & A

Why do we need a Modern Cockney Festival?

A positive self-identity provides you with a confident sense of who are, your bigger story of your place in the wider world, and a sense of community. It fuels your self-belief, your resilience and resourcefulness, and purpose.

We’re proud of an identity, what the comedian Arthur Smith defines as, the ‘non-posh Londoner’ – Cockneys.

Cockney is the culture that emerges from the ‘non-posh Londoner’. Some are born in the traditional heartlands. Others, are part of the ‘Cockney Diaspora’ that spans geography – mainly across the South-East of England – and generations where your parents, grandparents or beyond identified as Cockneys, some are ‘New School Cockney’, the latest generation of an ever-evolving culture of the ‘non-posh Londoner’. All share an affinity with the ‘non-posh Londoner’.

We live in an age where social identities are more complex and multi-layered, more often defined beyond a single label such as ‘Cockney’ but through incarnations such as ‘Cockney Bengali’, ‘Cockney Black’, ‘Cockney British’, ‘Cockney European’, ‘Cockney Indian’, ‘Cockney Jamaican’, ‘Cockney Polish’, ‘Cockney Sylheti’ and many more iterations

The month-long Festival celebrates, explores, and promotes a proud Cockney identity and heritage based on positive inclusive values, seeking to encourage a society where people are more open to understanding one another.

The Festival challenges negative stereotypes, campaigning against media bias, and champions the cultures of ‘non posh peoples’. Britain is Engbland without regional cultures and stories.

Coming together we can create a confident, positive story of what it means to be a non-posh Londoner aka Cockney. Embrace your inner Cockney now.

Why is this Festival important?

Working class communities and cultures don’t have cultural institutions to stand up or advance their collective interests. As a result, their story gets told, mis-told, or even ignored by others.

There isn’t a Royal Institute of Cockney, nor should there be. What the Modern Cockney Festival provides is a safe place and space to explore ‘what does it mean to be a Cockney in modern-day Britain?’

For some, like the Pearly Queen who told us, “This is the first time I have felt I have permission to explore who I am”, or the young Bengali artist who felt “I now realise my experience in the East End, is part of an ongoing story” or the Walthamstow resident who reported in one of our research events, “I only found out about the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ from a mate from South Wales who’s dad’s a trade unionist. We don’t get taught about our history or culture.”

The Festival does something positive to tackle the risk of a decline in regional identities across the UK. Our country becoming Engbland

Do you have to be born ‘within the sound of Bow Bells’ to be a Cockney

The story of ‘being born within the sound of Bow Bells to be a Cockney is what anthropologists call a Foundation myth – a story that provides a central pillar to a group’s identity.

The Bow Bells at St. Mary-le-Bow church Cheapside, were cast over 200 years after the term Cockney was first used.

The Bow-bell-birth definition of Cockney is attributed to a 1571 sermon by J. Bridges: ‘We are thorough out all the Realme called cockneys that are borne in London, or in the sounde of Bow bell’. In other words, ‘people in England call Londoners “Cockneys”’. In 1571, St. Mary-le-Bow would have been a common reference point at the centre of London. (The East End was largely unpopulated).

‘Born in the sound of Bow bell’ was almost certainly not a way to distinguish Cockneys from other Londoners. Today, Bridges might have said, ‘Londoners are born in the ULEZ’.

Unlike a land boundary, clearly revealing if you are in or outside, defining an identity defined by an imprecise audio boundary automatically creates ambiguity of how it is interpreted. Modern-day sound pollution limits their audible reach. The Bells did not ring between 1941 to 1961 because of war damage. Some also mistakenly assume that Bow Bells are in Bow, rather than St Mary-le-Bow church, in London’s city centre.

The 20th century witnessed a massive outward migration from traditional heartlands of Cockney communities. Despite being well out of range of hearing Bow Bells they still retained, the language, cultural identity, and ways of thinking and doing that can be labelled ‘Cockney’.

Recognising the deep significance of the Bow bells as a cherished myth, Cockney Cultures recognises how the legend has always been a metaphor, signifying an emotional attachment of belonging to a place. Rather than physically being able to hear the bells to define someone as being ‘Cockney’ we prefer to say how ‘The sound of Bow Bells is heard through the heart’.

Is Cockney purely about nostalgia? Do you have to be working class to be Cockney?

The Festival is not an exercise in nostalgia.. We tell a proud story through a set of values that recognises our proud past providing a rich heritage, yet these values of being defiant and resilient, resourceful, supported by a stoic and irreverent wit are relevant to equip modern-day and future generations. They provide, a confident, positive story that equips those who identify with ‘Cockney’ to better stand up for themselves, or come together to overcome whatever challenges faced.

Although Cockney was born out of the emergent culture of London’s working class communities, of the ‘non-posh Londoners’, a social identity is a bit like supporting a football club. Some fans go to every match, home and away, even might have the Club’s badge tattooed on their body, with the matching bedspread. Other fans may go less often. Some may just feel a pleasure in hearing that their ‘team’ has won.

Like supporting a club, there is a whole spectrum of different degrees of engagement with a sense of identity. For some, being Cockney may be first and foremost in how they identify themselves. Others may feel, being Cockney is just one ingredient in their cocktail of how they perceive and describe themselves.

Although Cockney is rooted in working class identity, you can still have an affinity with it, through your family history, even though you may now be ‘posh’.

How inclusive is Cockney?

There’s no Royal Institute of Cockneys providing an official definition or organisation to declare whether someone is a Cockney or not – nor should there be. We believe Cockney is an inclusive identity based on values of resilience and defiance, resourcefulness, and relevant for all who have an affinity with the non-posh Londoner.

Identity in modern-day Britain is more complex and multi-layered. more often defined beyond a single blanket-term of ‘Cockney’ and more like a patchwork quilt spanning race, religion, geography and generations, through incarnations of ‘Cockney Bengali’, ‘Cockney Black’, ‘Cockney British’, ‘Cockney European’, ‘Cockney Indian’, ‘Cockney Jamaican’, ‘Cockney Polish’, ‘Cockney Sylheti’ and many more iterations.

How do you identify yourself?

Is this Festival relevant for other British regional nationalities? 

We tackle the challenge of how social identities like Cockney (as well as Brum, Geordie, Scouse, Weegie and others) don’t have cultural institutions to define or advance their interests.

As a result, their story gets told by others, often in a negative way.

We don’t believe there should be a Royal Institute of Cockney. Rather by creating a space, places where people feel they can explore who they are, where they are from and what it means to them, we can encourage greater pride, sense of self-belief, and purpose among those who identify as Cockney.

We are hopefully providing inspiration and a model for others to use, if they wish, to celebrate their own identity.