Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Charles Williams had a (so-called) 'Cockney' accent because he wanted one


St Alban's grammar school would at the time Charles Williams attended, would certainly have made it its business to eradicate local accents.

(St Albans is an anciently founded grammar school, and one of the high status English Public Schools, whose Headmasters were members of the Headmasters Conference.)

That was a non-optional part of what English public schools were about - core business for them. A public school education was designed to prepare its pupils to join the upper classes - and upper class membership could be detected by hard to fake attributes such accent, manners and detailed knowledge of etiquette etc.

Most of this training was done by the social milieu - such that boys would discipline each other into adopting the correct behaviours - and this would probably have been reinforced in class by formal elocution or 'speech' lessons, as well as by teachers mocking and shaming those who spoke with lower class accents in class.

So the probability is that anyone who emerged from an English private or public school around 1900 still having a regional accent must have actively resisted its eradication. This is somewhat plausible, given Williams lifelong assertion (reported by Alice Mary Hadfield) that the English 'middle classes ' (and not the upper classes) were the basis of the best and most distinctive literature. 

So either Charles Williams retained his 'Cockney' accent by choice, or else he had lost his regional accent by the time he left school but later re-adopted it, by choice.

But, either way, CW had a lower middle class 'Cockney'/ South East English regional accent essentially because he wanted one!

I think we can rule-out un-self-consciousness when it comes to CW! - since by all accounts his manners were exceptionally studied, formal, learned, distinctive.

If Williams spoke with an accent mistaken for Cockney - it was almost certainly by his deliberate choice.



Philip Neal said...

My father attended that school as a direct grant day boy in the 1950s. He described himself and his schoolmates as 'bilingual' - i.e. they could switch between RP and the London/Hertfordshire accent. He himself always spoke near-RP apart from joke Cockney of the 'apples and pears' variety, which he did well.

I would imagine that Williams sounded something like Norman Tebbit (standard English with a Hertfordshire colouring) out of deliberate choice.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PN - Thanks for the local insight!