You’re a True Cockney If…

Where are you from? It’s a simple question that often inspires feelings of pride or nostalgia. In metropolises the world over, people are constantly on the move. Coming, going, moving in, moving out. To find a person that was born and raised and still living in their birthplace can be a challenge. Are you a native New Yorker? Glaswegian? Seoulite? To find out if a person is a true Cockney, or native of east London, requires a simple test: Were you born within earshot of the Bow Bells?

A history of the bells at St. Mary-le-Bow

On Cheapside, one of the City of London’s oldest thoroughfares, rises a church built in red brick with dressings of Portland stone. An elaborate stone spire chases the sky up 222 feet. Within, 12 bells ring out in merry peal. These are the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow. London folklore maintains that only those born within sound range of the Bow Bells are true Cockneys.

Steeple containing the Bow Bells of the Church of St. Mary-le-Bow

Image: The steeple of the Church of St. Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside, a historic street in the City of London, United Kingdom.

St. Mary-le-Bow dates back centuries. Founded by Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1080 CE over an existing Saxon structure, a church has stood on the site ever since. The name derives from the crypt’s prominent Norman arches or bows, which were an architectural marvel at the time.

The earliest reference to the Bow Bells comes to us from 1469, when the Common Council decreed a nightly curfew at 9:00pm, which was to be announced by the bells. Nobody likes a curfew, and the bell ringers were chastised for often ringing late – giving a bit extra time for neighbors to go about their business.

By 1515, the bells had increased in number to five with the addition of a new bell gifted by the churchwarden, one Mr. William Copland. He did not live to hear the bell ring; it was rung for the first time at his funeral. Nonetheless, the bells continued in their service and, from time to time, new bells were added. Six bells hung within the steeple by 1666 – all were destroyed in the Great Fire of London that ravaged the city in September of that year.

The church was rebuilt and a tower was planned to accommodate a ring of 12 bells, although only eight were cast in 1677. The tenor (the largest bell in the ring) was recast in 1738, with the remaining seven other bells recast 14 years later. In 1762, two additional bells took up residence in the tower and were first rung to celebrate the 25th birthday of His Majesty King George III.

Finally, in 1876, the practice of ringing the curfew bell was ended. For those keeping count, that’s 407 years of being reminded that it’s too late for you to be out and making good choices. Five years later, two new additions brought the count to the intended ring of 12 bells, but by 1926, they had been declared unringable. The tower fell silent. The American retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge commissioned the restoration and recasting of the Bow Bells in 1933, but controversy swirled that he had never actually paid the bell foundry for the work.

The familiar tone of the Bow Bells had long been a reminder of home and, during World War II, the BBC’s World Service broadcast a recording made in 1926 of the Bow Bells to lift the spirits of those fighting on the continent. Why was the recording from nearly two decades prior? It seems Mr. Selfridge’s controversial restoration work was not long for this world. After only eight years in use, a Nazi air raid lay waste to the church on May 11, 1941.

The Bow Bells at St. Mary-le-Bow in London

Image: The peal bells of St. Mary-le-Bow hung within the steeple. Courtesy: The Church of St. Mary-le-Bow.

Today, the tower is home to a new peal of 12 bells, cast by the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1956. Metal from the earlier set of bells was salvaged and reused in the new casting, while the overall profile of the bells was slimmed down. The smallest bell weighs just over 628 lbs., while the largest weighs roughly 4,707 lbs. 

Hanging some 100 feet above ground, the bells are frequently rung for church services and recreation, although adjustable sound control measures ensure they aren’t always thundering overhead in consideration of the area’s neighbors and businesses. A group of bell ringers working in or near the City regularly take to the tower at lunchtime for a bit of jolly ringing practice.

The parish church of St. Mary-le-Bow maintains its place in popular British culture, with an influence felt around the world. In the courtyard, a statue of Captain John Smith, a parishioner at the church and founder of the first English settlement in America, stands resolute. Above it all, the Bow Bells ring out to call the faithful to worship – and to bestow upon a few the honor of being called a true Cockney.

Cover image: The steeple of the Church of St. Mary-le-Bow is illuminated at night above the historic Cheapside thoroughfare in the City of London, United Kingdom.