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The Death of the Cockney

November 23rd, 2012

In 2007 I read an article in Time Out that struck me, it was called ‘The death of the Cockney’ by Peter Watts and exclaimed the loss of culture of London’s indigenous population. It got me thinking about what being a Cockney and in fact what being a Londoner now meant. In a city of over 8 million people, that has extended out beyond the city to the reaches of the M25, what does it mean to be a Londoner? What have the bow bells got to do with the multicultural city and its inhabitants and who can call themselves a Londoner. Can I – Born and raised in Hillingdon, and having made my home and life in Southwark?

The article mentioned the Pearly Kings and Queens and quoted Jim Jukes – the pearly King of Camberwell, Jim said that his kids had no intention of following on in his footsteps – ‘They’re embarrassed by it all, it’s gone down the drain. It’s very rare that you’ll find a young pearly…. I was over in Spitalfields and a kid there, about 35, from Mile End – saw me in my suit and had no idea what I was about. If your own people can’t understand your culture, why should anyone else?’ This was really striking, that a tradition which had had its place in London since the early 19th Century should be disappearing in our modern city. Surely it was too important and too rich a heritage to be allowed to die out?

My first experience of the Pearlies was in cartoon form in Mary Poppins, and I’d always been thrilled to stumble across the flashes of pearly buttons worn by the kings and queens at random events around London. I decided to try and meet some pearlies in the flesh, and after hanging around Covent Garden on some cold Saturday afternoons I managed to meet a handful of Pearly Kings and Queens living, working and volunteering around London today.

In early 2010 I got in touch with writer Joseph Coelho, someone I’d worked with previously on projects for other theatre companies and who I was interested in working with. Together we began setting up meetings with Pearlies, who were happy to welcome us into their homes, events and stories to share what being a pearly today means. The long hours of standing on cold streets trying to raise money, the pubs that used to host regular knees up, now without pianos and no one to play them. The pearly families forced to move out of London to Kent, Essex and further afield to Jersey and Scotland. The questioning looks of people who don’t recognize the bands of pearlies dressed in buttons or what they stand for and worse still the shouts of abuse or laughter. The indignity of being thrown off Trafalgar square and told they couldn’t collect there.  London had begun to grow hostile to the hard working, charitable people who’d grown out of its trading history.