Cockney dialect: Mr Kent talks about horse-drawn public transport



This recording is an example of a Cockney dialect.

London accent

There are a number of features of Mr Kent’s speech that are typical of a London accent. Listen, for instance, to the vowel sound he uses in words in the following two sets:

  1. twopence, run, Dalston Junction, bus, up, jump, one, Sunday, clutch, rush, bustle, hurry, conductor, come, just and front
  2. trams, man, stand, happen, contraption, Hackney-carriage, cab, whereas and mechanical

The vowel he uses in the first set has an element of an <a> sound about it. As a result of this characteristic London vowel sound many speakers elsewhere in England, perhaps particularly in the north, frequently wrongly interpret a Londoner’s pronunciation of words such as hut, cup and bunk as meaning hat, cap and bank. In fact, if you listen to the way Mr Kent pronounces the words containing this <a> vowel in the second set, you will hear that he uses a vowel that seems to have a hint of an <e> sound about it. Thus in London, butter might initially sound like ‘batter’ to a northerner, but in comparing these two sets you should, if you listen closely, appreciate that in London batter would in fact be pronounced almost, but not exactly, like ‘better’.

Mr Kent also uses several features here that are typical of informal speech in many parts of the country. Listen, for instance, to the way he pronounces words in the following two sets:

  1. Cambridge Heath, here, Hackney Station, half, horse-trams, hook, happen, horse-drawn trams, dickey-sky-high, how, holiday, houses and hayloft
  2. shillings, willing, running, amusing, evening, sitting, driving, shoemaking, engineering and repairing


The tendency to omit word-initial <h> is a feature of popular speech throughout England (apart from the far North East) and Wales. For some reason it is an extremely stigmatised feature, avoided by the middle classes and by many people in careful speech. It is, however, uniquely English and Welsh – we do not encounter it in speech in Scotland, Ireland nor indeed in the USA or other English-speaking parts of the world.

ING with [n]

Mr Kent’s use of a <n> sound for words in the second set is, however, a feature of informal speech in most forms of English across the globe. Interestingly, although the use of a <n> sound in words like this is also considered somehow inferior to a <ng> sound – the sound we use for the letter <n> in words like finger and think – it was in fact at one time considered the more prestigious form. Consider, for instance, the traditional upper class pursuits of a-huntin’ and a shootin’ and a-fishin’.

About the speaker

H J Kent (b.1888; male, shoemaker & engineer)



H: Well, a fare now today, from, uh, from Cambridge Heath to Bloomsbury it used to be, didn't it?

Unidentified female: Hmm.

H: No, Lea Bridge Road to Bloomsbury. It used to be twopence.

Unidentified female: Threepence return.

H: Thruppence return. Today at least, it would cost you three shillings. And it might be a little more, but I'm not quite sure of it today. Uh.

Unidentified female: But from here to Dalston Junction

H: Dalston Junction a penny from here to Hackney Station.

Unidentified female: today costs eight-pence.

H: It cost eight-pence.

Michael: Hmm.

H: Oh fares've gone up tremendously. And, uh, as I said before, it's no, uh

Unidentified female: [inaudible][1]

H: you're no quicker, you don't get there any sooner.

Michael: No.

H: You have, in fact you have to allow yourself a little more time now than you did fifty years ago.

Michael: Hmm, why's that?

H: Well, for the simple reason you, you go to the top here and you've got a quarter of an hour's run to Hackney Station, to, uh, Dalston Junction.

Michael: Hmm.

H: You might have to wait a quarter of an hour before c, the bus comes. And so it's going to take you half an hour. Whereas in the old days the, there was a constant run of trams; there was horse trams. And you just went along, there was no stops, you just put your finger up and, uh, he stopped, well or if he didn't, uh, if you was willing to jump on while he was running, well, he just eased up a little bit and off he went. But

Michael: Hmm. How, how many horses did they have?

H: Two. And, uh, there was one place at Pentonville there's a st, a very steep hill. A man used to stand with a horse at the bottom of the hill. And when the tram got along almost level at the bottom of the hill with this horse he used to jump and hook it on the side and the three horses jump, run together to the top of the hill; give him a lift up.

Michael: Hmm.

H: Uh, I don't know if you want a little amusing incident?

Michael: Ahem, yes.

H: Well we were going to church one Sunday evening on this, where the halfpennyworth on the bus from here up to Mare Street. And as I said, there was no stops. And, uh, the conductor rang the bell and there was a old lady wanted to get off. And the bus, I suppose the, a bit groggy on the clutch, so he didn't want to stop completely, so he eased up and he went along slowly and slowly and a bit more slowly. And, uh, st, the old girl still wouldn't get off. And eventually the driver through a little window behind him shouted through, “I say, Bill, has she gone to sleep on the step?" And they're the sort of things that used to happen. But of course they don't happen today, it's all, uh, hustle and rush and bustle and, uh, you get on a, on a bus today, you're in a hurry. He goes from here, he gets round into Well Street, they decide that they've got to change crews there; well it's the regular thing. The driver, he gets off, he switches off; the conductor, he takes his box and he pushes off. And if the other two come out, well that's all right, but if they don't, you just sit there and wait until they do.

Michael: Hmm. What other horse-drawn vehicles were there?

H: What were there?

Michael: Yes. What other horse-drawn vehicles did there used to be?

H: Oh, the buses. And trams, trams on lines; horse-drawn trams on lines. Buses were a wooden-wheeled, nine-tyred con, contraption. And the driver, he used to sit up on a dickey-sky-high, level with the outside passengers, so that if you was sitting in the front seat of the bus at the top, you could talk to the driver.

Unidentified female: No cover.

Michael: Hmm.

H: No cover on the top. Uh, you may have heard the phrase 'a busman's holiday'?

Michael: Hmm.

H: You have? Well, how that came about was, quite often a bus driver, when he has got his day off, he so much liked buses, that instead of driving the thing, he would get on the bus and go and sit at the top on the front seat alongside the driver and, uh, have a natter with him: that was a busman's holiday.

Michael: Hmm. Can you tell us about the hackney-carriages?

H: Hackney-carriages? Well they were the old, uh, cabs, weren't they? Four-wheeled cabs.

Unidentified female: Cabs - there's one on the side here.

H: We used to have one, uh, housed opposite in the corner house. Whereas most of these houses down here, well not most of them, several of them, the people had their own carriages. And, uh, in Gore Road – that's just, uh, what: five minutes walk from here? Nearly ev, every house at the end of the garden had its own carri, uh, stable and hayloft.

Michael: Oh.

H: With the carriage and the horse down below and the grub upstairs. They've all just, they've only recently been demolished in the last what, four or five years?

Michael: What was the harness of the horses like?

H: Oh, quite good. Oh, yes. All well-polished and all the brass-work, uh, well-polished.

Michael: Do you know what the parts were called?

H: The part? No! No, I'm not a horseman at all; I'm, uh, more mechanical.

Michael: Hmm. What kind of work did you do when you were young?

H: Well, I was, uh, in shoemaking, uh, chiefly on, uh, maintenance work: on engineering and machinery; repairing and maintenance generally.


[1] [inaudible] indicates a passage or phrase where the speaker’s exact words are unclear.

Cockney dialect: Mr Kent talks about horse-drawn public transport
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