Londiners, and all within the sound of Bow-bell,
are in reproch called Cocknies, and eaters of buttered tostes.
Shakespeare’s Europe: Unpublished chapters of Fynes Moryson’s Itinerary
And what, you ask, does a statement of regional prejudice, written nearly four hundred years ago, have to do with the Regency? Written two centuries before the Prince of Wales became Regent, this sentence is one of the very first instances in which the term "Cockney" was used with the same meaning that it carries today. Over the years, I have read a handful of Regency novels which included a Cockney character, in some cases speaking in the rhyming slang of that particular group of people. As you will soon discover, that is historically inaccurate.
A few words about that unique group of Londoners, their language, and a "translation" of Fynes Moryson’s disparaging comments regarding them.
The origin of the term "Cockney" stretches back into the English Middle Ages. In 1362, in Piers Plowman, the author, William Langland, used the word "cokeneyes" to designate small, distorted, misshapen eggs, assuming that they must have been laid by a cock, for surely a hen would have done better. About twenty years later, Geoffrey Chaucer, in one of his Canterbury Tales, has the character of the Reeve speak of a cockney in the sense of someone who was weak or deficient, a milksop, or a mother’s darling. At this time, there were only a few small cities across Great Britain. Those who lived in these cities were considered inferior to the sturdy, hard-working English countryman, who was not only nearly self-sufficient, but helped to feed the nation by their labor, unlike a city dweller, who primarily consumed the labor of others. Over the next two centuries, country people broadened their use of the term "Cockney" to refer to people, particularly young people, born and raised in cities, who were ignorant not only of the rigorous, demanding realities of rural life, but even of the various farm animals which were raised there. By the turn of the seventeenth century, this contemptuous expression had been narrowed and refined to target one place and one type of person, "the Bow-bell Cockney."
By 1617, when Fynes Moryson was writing, the term "Cockney" was used to refer only to those, regardless of age, who had been born in the area of Cheapside, at the very heart of the City of London, within the sound of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, thus, "Bow-bell Cockney." Their children were often called "Bow-bell suckers" from the seventeenth through the eighteenth century, but the use of that term appears to have died out by the Regency. There are stories told of a few residents in this area who did not wish to be known as Cockneys, so they plugged their ears whenever the bells began to toll. It is interesting to note that the original peal of bells in the St. Mary-le-Bow Church were destroyed when the building burned in the Great Fire of 1666. The current church was built, and later re-built, to the design of Sir Christopher Wren, and though the steeple was finished in 1679, there was not enough money to replace the original twelve bells, so only eight bells were hung. The Great Bell had cracked in 1736, and the other seven bells were considered inferior to the bells which had been lost. Therefore, in 1758, a group of "several respectable citizens," at their own expense, had the seven smaller bells recast and added two additional bells. This new peal of bells was first rung on 4 June 1762, the birthday of King George III, and just a little over two months before the birth of his eldest son, the Prince of Wales. They were said to be "unmatched for sweetness and melody of tone by any in the City." Sadly, that whole peal of bells was destroyed during the London Blitz. The current peal of bells was re-cast in 1956. [Author’s Note: A peal is a collective noun used to refer to a set of bells which have been specifically tuned to be rung together]. Even though the Bow-bells had been replaced over the years, it remained that the stereotypical Cockney was born in the East End, within the range of their "sweetness and melody." A Cockney was considered to be someone who had no interest in life outside the bustling metropolis, certainly not in life in the bucolic, but dull, countryside. A Cockney was the very antithesis of an English countryman.
Over the course of the next two centuries, the Cockneys of London developed their own dialect, peculiar to themselves. By the early 1790s, linguists and elocutionists recorded that Cockneys tended to drop their aitches, they pronounced words beginning with v with a w and vice versa; for example, vine for wine and weal for veal, and they tended to add an extra vowel, usually an e, between the t and s in words which ended with ts, such as fists, posts, wrists. Over the course of the next three decades, the last two dialectic practices had faded away, so that by the end of the Regency, the only distinction of London Cockney speech was the continued dropping of their aitches. Ironically, through the Regency, and well into the middle of the nineteenth century, there were a few pockets of the eighteenth-century version of Cockney speech still to be found in some small villages on the outskirts of London, or even in outlying rural areas, within small enclaves of older Cockneys. But those older speech patterns would seldom have been heard on the streets of London, particularly in the city’s East End by the time of the Regency. Nevertheless, no self-respecting Cockney would have been willing to make the effort to improve their speech, as that would have been tantamount to speaking the enemy’s language, that is, the language of the upper classes.
A "stage" version of Cockney speech had evolved by the middle of the eighteenth century, which was used by the characters in any play who were supposed to be from the lower classes of London. Most actors and actresses also made it a point to mimic the strong facial expressions, vigorous body language and emphatic loudness which was so typical of most Cockney conversations. The author, Charles Dickens, created a "literary" version of Cockney speech, based on the dialect as it was spoken in the eighteenth century. Though those speech patterns were completely obsolete and no longer spoken on the streets of London at the time he was writing, he believed they added greater color to his tales. Other authors also employed "Dickensian Cockney" in their own books, thus perpetuating an archaic version of the dialect for more than a century.
The rhyming slang for which Cockneys are most famous may have its roots in the eighteenth century, but it did not reach its maturity until the early 1840s. Cockney merchants and traders slowly developed a patter which was as much creative wordplay as it was cant. They used their rhyming phrases to attract and amuse customers as they hawked their wares on the London streets. Gradually, they also used their special language as a means by which to carry on private communication amongst themselves in the presence of outsiders. At about this same time, a "thieves’ slang" was developing in the prisons of the city, by which those incarcerated could communicate privately amongst themselves, even if a guard might be standing within earshot. Earlier this month, I wrote about the perception of crime in the Regency, in which I discussed the origins of the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. It was this event which scholars suspect had the greatest effect on the evolution of Cockney rhyming slang as it was probably the catalyst which brought the merchant and prison slangs together. It is likely some of these merchants were purchasing the ill-gotten gains of the thieves, necessitating that they develop a common, secret language with which to conduct their clandestine transactions. Peel’s Bobbies were widely hated in the East End, and in an area where so much of life was lived on the street, it became increasingly useful to be able to speak privately with a fellow Cockney, while excluding outsiders, particularly if conducting criminal transactions with the police or their nonces (informers) lingering nearby.
This rhyming slang never became a complete and systematic code language, but it grew to have a vocabulary deep and rich enough to enable its speakers to bewilder most outside listeners and camouflage the true subjects of their conversations. Rhyming slang absorbed words from the Romani, the Irish, Yiddish, back slang, run-on phrases spoken as a single word, and various abbreviations, to which were often added a final -o. Britain’s returning troops added words and phrases they picked up in various countries in later years, as rhyming slang continues to change and evolve over time. Therefore, many of the slang words in use during the Victorian era are no longer in use today, they have been replaced by more contemporary words. And the Cockneys have, in a sense lost control of their once private language. It is now in use throughout London and is no longer isolated to the East End. In fact, there are glossaries and dictionaries of rhyming slang available online and in book form to explain this colorful language to those who would once have been considered outsiders.
And now, as promised, a "translation" of Fynes Moryson’s remarks about those living in London, especially Cockneys, in 1617. He wrote, "Londiners, and all within the sound of Bow-bell, are in reproch called Cocknies, and eaters of buttered tostes." Londiners are, of course, Londoners, and we now know that Bow-bell is the peal of bells in the steeple of St. Mary-le-Bow Church in the East End. Reproch has both the seventeenth century spelling and its meaning, of shame or disgrace. Cocknies, the seventeenth-century spelling of the word, is a derogatory term which traced its origins back to those "cokeneyes," the deformed eggs believed to have been laid by a cock, the word later coming to mean someone weak and inadequate. Eventually country folk used it to refer to city dwellers, ultimately coming to mean those who were born in the City of London. But perhaps the most insulting of all was that Moryson also called these people eaters of buttered tostes. From the sixteenth century, that phrase was used to refer to someone who was extremely pampered and spoiled. And so, Fynes Moryson had written that the citizens of London, especially those who lived at the very heart of the city, were not only disgraceful for their urban life, but they were also spoiled and pampered. Clearly, Mr. Moryson was a staunch countryman!
Regency Cockneys certainly had their own unique dialect, but it did not include the mature rhyming slang for which they are now so famous. That only began to evolve after the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. There were a number of merchants in Regency London’s East End who hawked their wares using a rhyming pattern of speech to attract and amuse their customers, but they did not truncate those phrases as became common in later decades. And in the prisons of Regency London, the inmates were developing a slang by which they could conduct conversations their guards could not understand. But these separate dialects would not merge to become a covert, private language until at least a decade after the death of George IV. If a Cockney character in a novel with a Victorian setting should speak in rhyming slang, you will know that is historically accurate. Though one should not expect to find rhyming slang used in novel set during the Regency, any Cockney characters of that era would most certainly drop their aitches. If they are of an older generation, they might also say vine for wine, or fistes for fists, though younger Cockneys were much less likely to do so.
Those of us today who enjoy a bit of butter on our toast will have to accept that our seventeenth-century ancestors would have considered us spoiled and pampered, just as they would our Regency ancestors, many of whom buttered their toast quite liberally. Fortunately for those living in the Regency, that derisive phrase was no longer in use. Or was it? It is quite possible that Regency scholars of Shakespeare, perhaps a group of aristocratic blue-stockings, might have discovered the unpublished manuscript of Fynes Moryson’s Itinerary of Shakespeare’s Europe. Having ascertained the intended meaning of the phrase "eaters of buttered toasts," might they use it among themselves to refer to those in society whom they considered spoiled and pampered, while the targets of their contempt remained oblivious to their intended meaning? And what might happen if one of those young ladies, perhaps the heroine, should use that phrase in regard to the hero, only to be overheard by said hero? Even worse, mayhap his sister is a member of that same group of blue-stockings and he is able to tease the meaning of the phrase out of her. Perhaps, like the fictional Scarlet Pimpernel, he is posing as a spoiled aristocrat in his work for the Crown. In what devious or intriguing ways might he choose to get his own back? Shall we find the phrase "eaters of buttered toasts" bandied about the drawing rooms of London in a Regency novel one day?
For further reading about Cockneys, English and London:
Ackroyd, Peter, London: The Biography. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.
Evans, Simon, Stopping Places: A Gypsy History of South London and Kent. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004.
McArthur, Tom, ed., The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Shur, Norman W., Erlich, Eugene H. & Richard, British English A to Zed. New York: Facts on File, Inc. 2007.