Main content
Sorry, this episode is not currently available


Jim Conway and Cheryl Fergison venture into Cockney literature, from Chaucer to Dickens and Henry Mayhew to Bernard Shaw. Music includes Elgar and Albert Chevalier, the Cockney King of the music hall.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Sun 10 Apr 2016 17:30

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:00

    Anon English Ballad

    New Oysters (The Cries of London)

    Performer: Alfred Deller (counter-tenor), The Deller Consort.
    • VANGUARD CLASSICS 08 5072 71.
    • 5.
  • Henry Mayhew

    Extracts from London Labour and the London Poor read by Jim Conway and Cheryl Fergison

  • 00:01

    Recording of the Bells of St Mary le Bow

    • BBC Sound Effects.
  • Traditional Nursery Rhyme

    Oranges and Lemons, read Jim Conway and Cheryl Fergison

  • 00:03

    Gustav Holst

    A Fugal overture (Op.40 No.1)

    Performer: London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Hickox.
    • CHANDOS CHAN9420.
    • 1.
  • Originally compiled by Captain Grose

    Cockney (1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue), read by Cheryl Fergison

  • Geoffrey Chaucer

    The Reeve’s Tale (The Canterbury Tale), read by Jim Conway

  • 00:08

    Clement Woodcock


    Performer: The Parley of Instruments Renaissance Violin Consort.
    • HYPERION CDA66929.
    • 2.
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes

    City Madrigals, read by Jim Conway and Cheryl Fergison

  • 00:11

    Mrs. Mills

    Mrs Mills Medley (Part 2) (Ma (He’s Making Eyes At Me), Swanee. Ain’t She Sweet, California Here I Come)

    Performer: Mrs Mills (piano) and unnamed ensemble.
    • 2.
  • William Pett Ridge, Lee Jackson

    Mord Em’ly, read by Cheryl Fergison

  • Dickens

    Miss Evans and the Eagle (extract from Sketches by Boz, Chapter 4), read by Jim Conway

  • 00:21

    Edward Elgar

    Cockaigne (In London town) - overture (Op.40)

    Performer: Halle Orchestra, Mark Elder (conductor).
    • CD HLL7501.
    • 29.
  • Traditional Nursery Rhyme

    Pop goes the Weasel, read by Jim Conway and Cheryl Fergison

  • 00:37

    Albert Ketèlbey

    At the Palais de Danse (Anywhere) (Cockney Suite)

    Performer: A. W. Ketelbey’s Concerto Orchestra conducted by the Composer (recorded January 1929).
    • NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110869.
    • 3’09.
  • Examples of Cockney Rhyming Slang

    Read by Jim Conway and Cheryl Fergison

  • 00:40

    Albert Chevalier

    What’s the good of ‘Anyfink? or A Cockney Complaint

    Performer: Albert Chevalier (singer) and unnamed ensemble (recorded 8 December 1911).
    • 6.
  • Richard Whiteing

    No.5 St John Street (extract), read by Cheryl Fergison

  • 00:45

    Eric Coates

    Covent Garden (London (London every day) suite)

    Orchestra: BBC Philharmonic. Performer: Rumon Gamba.
    • CHANDOS CHAN9869.
    • 7.
  • George Bernard Shaw

    Pygmalion (extract from Act 2), read by Jim Conway and Cheryl Fergison

  • 00:52


    Winter Potato No.3

    Performer: John Tilbury (piano).
    • 8.
  • Gilda O’Neill

    Memories of Life in Cockney London, read by Cheryl Fergison

  • 00:55


    The seven merry wives of London, or The gossips complaint

    Performer: Lucy Skeaping (soprano), The City Waites.
    • NAXOS 8. 8557672.
    • 7.
  • 00:59

    Ignaz Biber

    Sonata violino solo representativa for violin and basso continuo, Der Frosch [The frog]

    Performer: Andrew Manze (violin), Nigel North (lute), John Toll (harpsichord).
    • HARMONIA MUNDI HMX2907344-45.
    • 12.
  • Arthur Morrison

    The Whole in the Wall (extract from Chapter 3, in Old London ‘Slum’ Tales), read by Jim Conway

  • 01:02

    Michael Finnissy


    Performer: The Smith Quartet.
    • 6.
  • Henry Mayhew

    The London Street Markets on a Saturday Night (London Labour and the London Poor), read by Cheryl Fergison

  • Robert Williams Buchanan

    The Mercenaries, read by Jim Conway and Cheryl Fergison

  • 01:10

    Orlando Gibbons

    The Cry of London

    Performer: Fretwork.
    • VIRGIN VC7908492.
    • 18.
  • 01:12

    Recording of the Bells of St Mary le Bow

    • BBC Sound Effects.

Producer's Note - Cockneys

The cockney world that has come to epitomise the East End of London, particularly the area within the earshot of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, is vanishing as its characteristic dialect and rhyming slang morphs further east into the Estuary English of Essex and North Kent.  As a term, ‘cockney’ originates in Middle English where it referred to a small misshapen egg, but by the late 16th century, it had come to be associated with a person who lives in a town regarded as effeminate, affected or weakly.  It is only by the early 17th century that ‘cockney’ began to refer to a native of London and especially the East End, or to a person speaking the dialect of the East End. 

This edition of Words and Music ventures into the vanishing world of cockney East London, from the early references to town-dwellers in Chaucer’s ‘Reeve’s Tale’ from The Canterbury Tales and an entry from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue to contemporary tales of life in the East End by Gilda O’Neill and William Pett Ridge.  Our guides into cockney literature are Jim Conway and Cheryl Fergison, who are both native cockney speakers, and Cheryl Fergison played the part of Heather Trott in the BBC’s Eastenders from 2008 until 2012. 

Markets such as Spitalfields are the traditional working centre of cockney life and so I wanted to set the scene with the cries of the costermongers collected by Henry Mayhew in his survey, London Labour and the London Poor.  Alfred Deller and the Deller Consort sing of new oysters from the Cries of London, thereby joining the throng of the lively market place.  Not far away stands St Mary-le-Bow whose bells are immortalised in the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons, which also maps out cockney London through a conversation between the bells of Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Aldgate and Stepney.   

Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem City Madrigals paints a portrait of cockney romance as ‘ye cockney gentlemen’ meet the ladies who ‘all are out and rustling silks and nodding plumes’, which is preceded by the lively instrumental piece, Hackney, by Clement Woodcock.  Dickens depicts the excitement of Jemima Ivins (Miss Evans) as she is invited to go to the Eagle by Mr. Wilkins, dressed in his best attire.  The celebratory dressing up for a night out on the town contrasts with the brassy Mord Em’ly’s romantic talk in William Pett Ridge’s novel of the same name, which comes from a large body of late Victorian and early twentieth-century cockney literature.   

Cockney English is distinctive with its characteristic glottal stops and rhyming slang, which has been woven into nursery rhymes like Pop goes the Weasal.  Richard Whiteing wrote about cockney dialects in his novel No.5 St John Street and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion tells the story of the Covent Garden flower-seller Eliza Doolittle who becomes a lady, first by taking elocution lessons.   

The programme ends with short vignettes of cockney life and its hardships as remembered by Gilda O’Neill and Arthur Morrison, and returns to the scene of the ‘London Street Markets on a Saturday Night’ in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor with Fretwork performing The Cry of London by Orlando Gibbons.

I have chosen music that is almost exclusively English and either relates directly to cockney London or fits the texts.  There are versions of The Cries of London by both the Deller Consort and Orlando Gibbons.  The pub and the music hall were the scenes of cockney social life.  Becton-born pianist Mrs Mills was a celebrated performer of sing-alongs and Albert Chevalier was one of the cockney kings of the music hall.  Albert Ketelbey captures the dance halls in his Cockney Suite and the Band of the Blues and Royals perform a medley that celebrates London Pubs.  At the centre of the programme, the Halle Orchestra perform Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, ‘cockaigne’ referring to the medieval mythical idea of a plentiful city full of luxury.

 Elizabeth Arno (producer)



The hidden history of plant-based diets

The hidden history of plant-based diets

Forget social media influencers - the meat-free movement started with the Victorians.

Books website

Books website

Get closer to books with in-depth articles, quizzes and our picks from radio & TV.