Originally posted on Spitalfields Life.
The ‘Cockney’ – that is the born East Ender – has long since been a regular figure in fiction. Originally, in appearances from Jacobean plays to mid-nineteenth century sporting fiction, the type was not working-class. It was the geography not the sociology that mattered. Wealthy merchants were still Cockneys and revelled in the name.
The East End of modernity, which (at least until recently) meant primarily poverty, is a mid-nineteenth century invention. Its citizens emerge, struggling and insecure, via the pages of Henry Mayhew’s pioneering sociological study, London Labour and the London Poor (1851). They are further investigated by Mayhew’s many successors, notably James Greenwood, but not until the nineteenth century was nearly over, were they fictionalised.
Dickens had portrayed Cockneys, but mainly as comic walk-on parts or, as in Oliver Twist, criminals who properly spoke cant. Other novelists, often temperance advocates whose ‘novels’ may as well have been tracts, looked East, but they made no attempt to put flesh on their caricatures. They were all in dreary earnest, propagandizing the proles, permitting neither…