Wotcher, wotcha and what cheer
By J. C.
Readers with long memories will recall a correspondence over the derivation of the cockney greeting “wotcher” or “wotcha”. (NB and Letters, December 2009–February 2010). Most plumped for wotcher as a contraction of “What cheer?”, but the writer Michael Rosen was of the opinion that “the sense of it was ‘What are you doing?’, with ‘what are you’ contracting to ‘wotcher’”.
The poet Kit Wright now gets in touch, apologizing for lateness but happy to present what he regards as a clinching argument. It comes in the form of a music hall song, “What Cheer ’Ria”, written by Will Herbert and Bessie Bellwood in 1885. The story concerns Ria (Maria), “a girl what’s a-doing wery well in the weagetable line, / And as I’d saved a bob or two I thought I’d cut a shine”. Ria buys “some toggery, these ere wery clothes you see” and visits the local music hall – not to sit in the gallery, where her friends are, “but on the bottom floor”, with the toffs. As luck would have it, her pals up in the gods see through her finery and begin to cry:
"What cheer Ria! Ria’s on the job,
What cheer Ria! did you speculate a bob?
Oh Ria she’s a toff and she looks immensikoff,
And they all shouted 'What cheer Ria!'"
As sung, the line comes out as “Wotcher, Ria!”, and Mr Wright is surely correct in believing that the thorny derivation is thus smoothed. When next passing Mr Rosen in the street, he expects to be greeted, “What cheer, Kit”.
Ria’s song is, of course, a moral tale, and a rather dismal one, about the perils of getting above yourself. At the end, having had her dress torn by a toff, she confesses she knows her place: “I felt so wild, to think how I’d been taken down, / Next time I’ll go in the gallery with my pals, you bet a crown”. This picture of either Ria or Bessie Bellwood adorns the front page of the original score, reproduced in Sixty Years of Music Hall by John M. Garret (1976). Now we need to know if “immensikoff” was common usage, circa 1885, and if there are other instances in literature or song.