There has been a church on the site of St Mary le Bow, on London’s Cheapside, since Saxon times. And this is where Cockneys come from. Or, rather, a Cockney is deemed to be one born within earshot of the sound of St Mary le Bow’s bells. The great bell of Bow appears in the old nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons – just before the bit that goes “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head”. And of course it was Bow bells that told Dick Whittington to turn back because he would thrice be Lord Mayor of London: he did – and he was; not only that, but he also got rich, married Alice and they lived happily ever after. From the 14th century, St Mary le Bow rang London’s principal curfew bell at 9pm each day. And during the Second World War, the recorded sound of Bow bells broadcast by the BBC was thought to inspire hope to those under enemy occupation.
This Cockney business could be a bit fore and aft, though. Apparently, someone (I don’t know who and it doesn’t matter) did some tests in 2000 to see how far away Bow Bells could be heard. It turned out to be quite a distance, taking in Bethnal Green, Bow, Hackney, Hoxton, Limehouse, Mile End, Millwall, Poplar, Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Whitechapel – and even Bermondsey, sarf o’ the rivah. Well, that’s encouraging, because somewhere else I read that Cockneys are an endangered species. This is because the sound of Bow bells is being muffled by 21st century noise pollution and, obviously, this means that fewer Cockneys are being born. The situation is not helped by there being no maternity ward nearby so, for some, the only option must be to call a taxi when the time is near, or have an mp3 file of the bells handy in the overnight bag.
Medieval Cheapside was a bustling market and a major processional route. St Mary le Bow must have stood out more then: these days it seems, like many other City churches, rather hemmed in by everything that goes on around it; easy to miss. Hard up against one side is a nondescript office building; on the other, the old churchyard has been turned into a neatly paved public area, where people linger over a beverage. City folk spill like bees from a burst hive out of the crypt, part of which is occupied by a trendy café where parishioners’ bones used to lie.
In the middle of the paved area, there’s a splendid statue of Captain John Smith (1579-1631), soldier, adventurer, explorer and author. Smith was not a Cockney; but he was a parishioner of St Mary’s and a member of the Cordwainers’ Company – shoemakers who used goatskin leather from Cordoba. Setting sail from nearby Blackwall in 1606, John Smith was one of the founders of the Jamestown settlement, the first permanent English settlement in America, and was also a legendary friend of Pocahontas. The statue is a replica of one in Jamestown, USA, and was presented to the Corporation of London by the Jamestown Foundation of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1960.
Back to St Mary le Bow. A Norman church was built in around 1080, replacing whatever had been there before, though this new structure was badly damaged by a tornado. A fire in 1196 then necessitated substantial rebuilding, incorporating supporting arches – or bows – which gave St Mary’s its name – and the place was wrecked yet again by London’s Great Fire of 1666. Christopher Wren’s reconstructed church was, allegedly, his most ambitious after St Paul’s and supposedly based on the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome. The steeple is 223 feet (68m) high. The Wren building was in turn largely destroyed by a German bomb on the night of 11th/12th May 1941 and was rebuilt most recently between 1956 and 1964. It has a much richer history than this; I am being lazy. Picking up on our earlier theme, the 1941 raid brought the bells down and they were not restored until 21st December 1961 – so no Cockneys were born for twenty years. This, and other periods when the bells have been silent, must have had a devastating effect on the Cockney population.
As one more used to the relatively plain decor of most British parish churches, the extravagant interior of St Mary le Bow struck me as almost Roman. Which, given Wren’s alleged inspiration, I suppose makes sense. No criticism intended, for it’s no concern of mine – and it is in any event beautiful; magnificent, even. But there must have been a large pot of cash sloshing about when it was done.
St Mary le Bow is the Australian church in London. Inside, there is a bust of Admiral Arthur Philip (1738-1814), who commanded the first shipment of convicts to Australia, went on to become the first governor of New South Wales – and who had been baptised in the parish. The rood, depicting the Crucifixion and hanging over the altar, was a gift from the Federal Republic of Germany in 1964. There is also a bronze relief of St George and the Dragon, given to the church by the King and people of Norway to honour Norwegian resistance during the Second World War.
Finally, I thought it would be fun to search for ‘famous Cockneys’ on line. What comes up are lists of almost anyone born somewhere in the vicinity of London who doesn’t have an RP (Received Pronunciation) accent. Whoever publishes some of this rubbish is ‘avin a larf. One site lists Adele (born in Tottenham), David Beckham (Leytonstone) and Phil Collins (Chiswick) – all of which seem a bit far away to me; more estuary than spring, perhaps. Another site even mentions Bob Hoskins, who was born about eighty miles away in Bury St Edmunds. The following might be more certain Cockney claimants: Michael Caine (or Maurice Micklewhite, born in Rotherhithe – close enough?), Charlie Chaplin (Walworth – pushing it?), Len Goodman (Bethnal Green), the Kray brothers (Hoxton), Dizzee Rascal, George Carey and Harry Redknapp (Bow), Alan Sugar, Ray Winstone and Marc Bolan (Hackney), Ronnie Lane (Plaistow), Vera Lynn (East Ham), Terence Stamp and Steven Berkoff (Stepney) and Barbara Windsor (Shoreditch). Is that a ringing endorsement?