Being a Cockney22 minute read

This research project aims to consider whether culture coupled with cultural production are results of the Palimpsestuous layering of a range of different factors including immigration and cultural consumption to break down the identity of the East Enders, both past and contemporary. The East End is the area on which I will base my exploration and apply this hypothesis. My primary objective of undertaking the study on this area is to explore the palimpsest of cultural changes with the subsequent consumption of Cockney culture. To achieve this, I will provide a historical description of the beginnings of the East End and evaluate the wide-ranging arguments over what is said to constitute the East End. Consequently, I will conduct a review of the literature where I will analyse sources that inspired and aided the structure of this research. Through this, I will focus on two vital distinctions, the real and imagined East End, for my research project. Ultimately, this will lead to my exploration of concept of palimpsest in the broader context of the East End culture.

The Spire of St. Mary-Le-Bow
Figure 1 – The Spire of St. Mary-Le-Bow under reconstruction 1942. Source: A private history of a public city.

After this, I will give a summary of the projects research methods, and if necessary, the expected limitations alongside how they steered and influenced my study. I will then build my focus on discussing the key themes that pinned out on my conceptual framework together will the literature review. To begin, I will assess the East End’s shifting demography alongside the correlating concepts of multiculturalism, space, belonging and diaspora. This insight into the contemporary East End will facilitate a firm understanding of the critical determinant of change in the ‘real’ East End today. Subsequently, concentrating on the fluctuating fictional depictions of the Cockney’s will be my second step and then ultimatelty how this has influenced the peripheral perception of the culture. This will enable the analysis of the construction of the traditional, and stereotypical, Cockney identity that is internationally recognisable.

If culture is primarily about representation, we can see this through the built form as well as through the individual. Don Mitchell suggested that culture ‘itself does not exist’, but it is purely a construct developed to ‘define others’ which complements the ideas of Cohen (Mitchell, 1995). He gave the suggestion that the dominant narratives of the Cockneys are advanced by numerous different interested parties including philanthropists and novelist making the daring task of defining the East End culture quite challenging. (Cohen, 2013) This research project will, therefore, conclude that with the clarification of the blurred lines between the mythical traditionally constructed East End and the true contemporary East End, that this culture is the result of the layering of various peoples, events and traditional constructions which overlap to form the East End identity.

Background Review

Historical background of the Cockney East End

Through my own experiences of exploring the site, London’s East End appears to be a vibrant and diverse community with remnants of the traditional Cockney identity which relates to the idea that ‘Cities are places where ghosts can gather, uncannily and spookily’ (Pile, 2000).  However, London’s East has had a darker side throughout its history with tales that hark back to the Victorian Age resurfacing the memories of overcrowding, poverty, crime and social unrest coupled with polluting and dangerous industries. From its earliest periods, East London was a place that attracted business for its proximity to the Rivers Lea and the Thames. Tanning industries and tallow works were dispersed throughout the East End as such noxious sectors were restricted in other areas of London (Church, 1971).

The term Cockney dates back to the 14th century and has now become mostly synonymous with working-class Londoners (, 2010). The East End’s almost non-satiating ‘hunger’ for workers due to the continuous expansion of the British Empire, trade and industry intensified leading to the opening of St Katherine Dock in 1827. The local population erupted due to immigration, both domestic and international. Notably, due to the migrants that were fleeing political conflicts and religious persecution in their respective countries (Lee, 1936). The majority of the earlier migrants were the Jews, specifically the Huguenots, from France in the 17th century. Later, between 1870 and 1914, more Jews from Poland, Romania, and Russia arrived fleeing from Tsarist pogroms (Parker, 2009).

Consequently, the elegant houses of the Huguenots, concentrated primarily in Spitalfields, were subdivided into small and often inadequate dwellings to accommodate the massive influx of migrants. Wages became pitiful due to the, often, unscrupulous work practices including casual labour and piecework (Lee, 1936). Those who could escape the often-impoverished conditions swiftly moved out as soon as their means allowed. These events in the long-run came to be the baseline gauge of what constituted the Cockney identity. Charles Booth, a social reformer conducted a survey that exposed the poor conditions of East End in 1887, concluding that 13% of East End was ‘very poor’. With Crime, immorality, alcoholism, and violence seen as a norm in East End leading to the dubbing of the unlit alleys as “The Abyss,” being roamed with prostitutes and robbers (, 2014).

Figure two. Charles Booth's poverty map of Whitechapel.
Figure 2 – Charles Booth’s poverty map of Whitechapel. Source LSE archives.


The Cultural Production of London’s East End

The heavily debated, and somewhat loose, definition of the East End creates an exciting, yet challenging, prospect in identifying the themes through which to analyse the site concerning the production of Cockney culture. Initially, Newland’s emphasis on the difference between ‘real, material geographical, topographical east London and its inhabitants’ and the ‘imagined, mythical, symbolic, discursively constructed East End’ provided the impetus for my project (Newland, 2008). The changing relationship between the real and imagined East End has taken on a palimpsestic form as they intertwine and layer to produce a palimpsest of cultural identity in East London. Georgia Brown’s (1968) Who Are the Cockneys Now in 1968 initially stirred my interest regarding how immigration altered each individual’s definition of Cockney identity and, at times, led to significant conflict due to the anger at the perceived dilution of ‘real’ Cockney identity. Furthermore, Gray (2010) notes how the History of the East End, that has become the accepted consensus, is, in fact, a palimpsestic composition of ‘fact and fiction, reality and myth’ which results in the East End’s identity being more of a construction rather than a true and accurate depiction.  Furthering the discussion that Cockney culture is the result of a plethora of factors, both regarding the built environment and the individual, Young and Willmott (1957) describe Le Corbusier’s vision, of a city in the air, as utter madness destroying the typical work class dwellings which in some form can be seen to also be killing much of the Cockney Culture.  Therefore, this study will echo the suggestion that resistance to the above gave rise to a community that was neither intimate nor as close as often postulated (Dart, 2012). However, in reality, an imagined community was formed which gave birth to the identity of the archetypal Cockney East Ender.

Palimpsest and the East End

The notion of a Palimpsest is often likened to a paper, parchment or other writing material prepared for writing on and wiping out again. Dillon referred to the palimpsestic process of layering to construct a palimpsest with the term palimpsestuous relating to the structure through which we can see the result of the process (Dillon, 2005). The application of palimpsest in such a study facilitates an analysis of the history of an area. However, this concept does undoubtedly not imply there is a single correct history to be discovered but rather a range of varying representations are layered and intertwined. The social past of a palimpsest is often obscured, yet there are often significant connections between the physical and the social, a theory that is particularly important to the study of the East End (Scannel & Giffford, 2009).

The critical concept of palimpsest that applies to the culture of the East End is one of an intersection of the past, present and future. This is echoed by Benstock’s (1986) suggestion that palimpsest is in fact entwined and encoded structure echoes and not simply layered. However, evidently, demonstrated by the periodical influx of immigrants, there is a degree of layering in the East End suggesting that, similarly to Cockney culture, there is no a single definition of palimpsest that can be applied. Through this, at times, vague concept of palimpsest I intend to examine the association between the social and physical aspects of the East End and explore the representations and miss-representation of the East End.


A key focus of my palimpsest project is the identification of both the real and the imagined East End culture and the analysis of why the latter dominates popular views. To facilitate this, I have elected to focus on fictional representations, such as films, literature and in particular slum writing, a variety of media sources, such as documentaries and to some extent my own experiences. The beginnings of the construction of an imagined East End is exceptionally evident in late 19th-century slum writings where we see the dichotomy between the ‘known’ and the ‘discoverable’ (Betts, 2017). Later, we see cinema and fictional representations such as Oliver Twist! in 1968, and numerous recreations since, and the long-running series EastEnders, to name but a few, portray a fictional construction of East End culture that depicts the real East End to a varying degree. I will use such depictions to analyse the changing relationship between the real and imagined concepts of the East End. Through my focus on place and belonging, I will investigate the changing use of religious buildings to analyse the changing effects of human mobility.  Furthermore, where appropriate, I will explore the East End and Cockney identity through documentaries which offer some of the advantages of interviews yet over a far more considerable period, than this study will allow, and without the associated drawbacks of conducting interviews personally. Where appropriate, I have utilised qualitative research which often offers a more whole and unmolested view of the real East End and its inhabitants past and present.

Although this methodology will constitute the vast majority of my study I aware of the critical importance of acknowledging the limitations of my chosen methods and the impact this may have on the findings of my research. Fictional representations, due to their very nature, vary wildly and therefore a comprehensive and relatively broad selection of sources will be necessary. The, often, constructed views, however, are not strictly limitations as they contribute towards the study of the changing East End, whether that be real or imagined. However, it is indeed an aspect to continuously consider while evaluating source material.  I felt that as neither a native East Ender nor even Londoner, conducting interviews focussing on sensitive matters such as immigration and perceived loss of identity would be inappropriate and of relatively limited usefulness. I, therefore, proceeded to analyse documentaries and primary source material as an alternative. The limitations of this method were the lack of the ability to formulate specific questions which would have been made possible by conducting interviews. However, despite these limitations, the use of a variety of research approaches and sources will minimise the bearing these limitations will have on my project and ultimately facilitate a greater understanding of the real and imagined East End.


Environmental Determinism: The Real East End

‘Who am I, where do I belong, why do I feel at home in both cultures but find it difficult to speak of “we” or us”?’ (Hall, 2000).

Possibly the most significant factor influencing the real contemporary cultural identity of the East End inhabitants is the result of the East End long being seen as a destination for migrants from around the world. I will focus on the revisionist concept concentrating on the shift from ‘inter-national to trans-national’ states of being which in particular challenges the idea of fixed borders being relocated and contested (Lie, 1995). Lie’s ‘Americentric’ focus does not limit the pieces ability to explore the concept of the diaspora in the East End; many parallels can be drawn between diaspora in the USA and diaspora in the East End of London, particularly due to the sense off othering often felt by minorities in their new host nation.

The concept of diasporic identity, being both ‘here and there’, relates closely to this studies emphasis on how human mobility affects places and in turn the concept of place (Hall, 1996). It leads the observer to contest the general postulations surrounding social identity which is one of fixed social identity based upon an individual’s place of birth. Ultimately, this section will determine to what extent the East End is continuously reformed through diasporic groups and their practices they bring to the East End.

To illustrate this, the focus upon faith-based diaspora and the related places of worship help reveal the uncertainty of the accounts of integration and identity of migrants.  The viewing of religious structures, and associated images, as a palimpsest allows them to be used as ‘shifting markers of identity in East London’s diasporic religious spaces’ (Ahmed et al 2016, 223). This view was echoed by Keith (2008) whose study found that the intersections between a whole range of factors including ethnicity, religion and class throughout East London demonstrates the ‘ambiguity and instability of identity formation and expression’. The fragile, and palimpsestic, nature of diasporic identity is demonstrated through the case study of the Fieldgate East Great Synagogue which opened in 1899, a period characterised by exponential growth in the Jewish Population in the East End.


Figure four. Fieldgate East Great Synagogue and the East London Mosque.
Figure 4 – Fieldgate East Great Synagogue (left) and the East London Mosque (right). Source

 “Without synagogues like Fieldgate Street there would not have been a Jewish East End of London.  Synagogues like these provided sustaining comfort and support to our immigrant ancestors, and our debt to them is huge.” – Fieldgate Farewell

The exclusionary nature of sacred spaces is rooted in their ability to serve as a base for a particular religious identity. Through absorbing immigrants into an urban landscape, Keith argued that faith spaces in the East End both encourage assimilation and integration into society or resist it to an equal extent (Keith, 2008).  The construction of the neighbouring East London Mosque in the 1980s presents the concept of super-diversity and transnationalism in the East End through the built form.  However, more importantly, it depicts the interaction between diasporic groups in East End further provoking the suggestion that an individual can be both a member of a diasporic religious group while simultaneously being an East Ender. This is reflected in the gesture from the Muslim community, in figure 4 below, demonstrating that exclusionary spaces do not always invoke a strong sense of ‘othering’. While building the East London Mosque, immediately next door to the synagogue, care was taken not to block out the light illuminating the Star of David.

Figure four. Fieldgate East Great Synagogue window from inside East London Mosque.
Figure 4 – Fieldgate Street Synagogue window from inside East London Mosque. Source KCL Shahed Saleem.

In 2015 the East London Mosque purchased the Fieldgate East Synagogue personifying the continued palimpsest of race, religion and culture in the East End. Through applying the concept of culture, represented explicitly through the built environment, we can employ the theory of environmental determinism, in the East End, in that the built environment, through both their religious centre and general environment, with which they interact with daily dramatically influence their characteristics. Therefore, echoing Zelinsky, the concept of ‘superorganism’ suggests culture itself is an actual entity which exists at a level above that of the individual, but it does not suggest that the individual is purely a product of culture (Zelinsky, 1973). This study of culture in microcosm echoes the characteristics of many such situations through the East End where an individual’s culture is far more diverse than being merely defined by their racial and ethnic backgrounds. In reality, the real East End culture is the result of layering and intertwining of numerous religions, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds, in a palimpsestic type fashion, which combine to produce an output, the culture of the East End.

Finally, the use of documentaries in place of interviews also facilitates the study of past dialogues which traditional, first person, interview techniques would not allow.  In ‘Who are the Cockneys now?’ Brown provides a wealth of views questioning both the imagined and mythic East End and the previously discussed concept of environmental determinism. Through depicting the East End as a ‘melting pot’ of religions, races and culture intertwining and layering to form the actual contemporary culture of the East End (Brown, 1968). The idea that migration is merely a single journey from their origin to a new host nation, followed by their assimilation into society, is questioned and mostly revoked (Lee, 2009). Brown depicts that individuals do not shed their old identities but in fact become part of a diasporic and multicultural society influencing their environment to a similar extent to which their new environment impacts upon them. However, her disappointment at the lack of a significant relationship between the remaining Jews in the East End and the new wave of immigrants, mainly Bengali, has roots in the fierce protective nature of the Jewish East Enders regarding their own, and specific, East End culture. The result of this was a divided East End, appearing as two almost separate spaces, where it seems culture and people were not intertwining and overlapping but in reality, were merely coinciding.

The Impact of Fictional Depictions: The Mythical East End

‘The myth of outcast London derived its authority from those who could claim to know the poor’ (Marriott, 2011).

The cultural depiction of the East end has developed from a combination of ‘fact and fiction, reality and myth’ to convey a picture of East End that is more of a synthesised image rather than a true and accurate depiction (Gray, 2010). Newland (2008) proposes this mythical image and status turned the East end into an exclusionary space invoking a sense of ‘othering’ through the, at times, the falsity of the image. Through the analysis of fictional representations, and subsequent comparison with non-fictional sources, we are given a vivid insight into a combination of class relations, the changing economy and geopolitics of London. Finally, this comparison will facilitate discussion regarding the phenomenon of how the ‘mythic’ East End has pervaded, often leaving the actual East End in its shadow.

The East of End of London and its inhabitants have developed a strong and familiar identity thanks to, in part, a wide range of material. However, the fictional pieces based upon the East End, and the East Enders themselves, has possibly had the most significant impact on the perception of the East End. It can be argued that films based in London’s East End have a fictional and real aspect, regardless of their subject matters, as they break their boundaries by leaking from the screen into the street and then back again (Sinclair, 2009). The novel and subsequent cinematic pieces, as well as musicals, of Dickens’ Oliver Twist somewhat amazingly, or equally shockingly, continue to be seen as an example of the archetypal East Ender. The story of a young child being sold to a funeral director and subsequently absconding to join a gang of pickpockets does certainly not resonate as a common nor contemporary event. Yet, these films are not merely historical fiction, giving an inaccurate glimpse into the past, but a key factor in the creation of the imagined and mythical ‘Cockney’ East End.

Figure five. Promotional piece for Oliver film 1968.
Figure 5 – Promotional piece for Oliver!. Source,

Of further importance to the creation of a constructed image of the East End, consisting of both real and imagined features, are the slum writings of the late 19th century, particularly the ‘interplay’ between the knowledge held by the locals and constructed beliefs of the area itself. Slum writing combined the real and the imagined aspects of the East End to portray the Cockney’s as experts of specific areas in the East End (Betts, 2017). The slum writers exploited the concept of the East End as an uncharted area in need of exploring in an almost pioneering type fashion. The presentation of the real East End intertwined with romanticised illustrations which combined furthered the archetypical image of the East End.

Figure six. An example of slum writing, 'Next Door Neighbours'.
Figure 6 – An example of slum writing, ‘Next Door Neighbours’. Source W Pett Ridge 1905.

Of course, this not a phenomenon solely contained in the past, with various tours operating in the East End continue to take advantage of this constructed history (Jenks, 2004). Through my own experience of ‘The Original Terror Tour’, I discovered it focussed upon a ‘gritty’ depiction of Whitechapel as a place of lawlessness, prostitution and ultimately murder. The tour sells itself as ‘visiting more murder sites and locations related to the Jack the Ripper murders than on others’ ( The consumption of this aspect of the East End is therefore directly influencing how the East End, and its inhabitants, are perceived. It is particularly intriguing how atrocities such as ‘more murder’ are used to distinguish this tour from others. Therefore, suggesting visitors to the area are more interested in, and are being actively directed towards, the mythical and historic East End than the thriving cultural area both I, through numerous walks, and many others have discovered.

Concluding discussion

Overall, this study has found the depiction of the East End culture to reside at a point lying somewhere in amid the real and the imagined or mythic East End portrayed in popular culture, yet weighted towards the false representation. The palimpsest of culture in the East End is shown to be one of convolution, intersection and layering as numerous people, beliefs and constructions combine, in a non-linear fashion, to synthesise an image that is neither fact nor fiction but rather a cultural construction combining the two.

Religious sites are often considered to possess a deeply rooted sense of othering due to, in part, their ability to serve as a physical reminder of a particular beliefs identity. However, the proximity of two vital religious structures in the East End, and their relationship raise the suggestion that the intersection between diasporic communities allow an individual to both identify with a particular religion while simultaneously identifying as a real East Ender.

The common perception of the East End as a mythical ‘othered’ and exclusionary space has arisen primarily from the construction by parties seeking to profit from the falsity of this depiction. The subsequent collision over time between the real and imagined East End has varied. However, the current tensions between the constructed mythical image and the actual have reached a breaking point as the romanticised East End of dreams, memories and fantasies contrasts starkly to the diverse and thriving communities I came across.

Tom Cracknell.


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Image Bibliography                                                                                 

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