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Issue 49: the Pearly Kings and Queens of London
The capital's 'other royal family' has more in common with the Windsors than you might think: both are committed to their causes, bring joy to those they meet, and have their share of in-fighting.
Welcome to Born Free Press, a fortnightly newsletter delivering a free-range collection of interesting stories for interested people. Currently focusing on quirks and curiosities from the UK’s history.
For anyone who’s lived in London for a while, the sight of men and women dressed in black outfits heavily adorned in buttons is not uncommon – although certainly impressive. As spelled out on their backs, they are the Pearly Kings and Queens of London.
I remember seeing my first ‘Pearly’ on a London Underground train within a couple of years of moving to the city. I was impressed enough to snap a poor-quality photo on my phone to commemorate the occasion.
But while I continue to encounter them every now and then on my travels around the capital, I’ve never thought too deeply about who they are and what they do.
Over the past few weeks, that’s changed.
In short, the Pearly Kings and Queens are a not-for-profit fundraising group (or, series of groups; on which more below).
Henry Croft (1861-1930) is the self-declared and (almost) universally acknowledged ‘original Pearly King of London’.
He was raised in the St Pancras Orphanage and by his mid-to-late teens, while working as a street sweeper, started collecting money for charity. To draw attention to himself and inspire more donations, he stitched mother of pearl buttons all over his suit.
(One popular theory is that Croft’s outfit was building on the tradition of the fruit and vegetable sellers, or costermongers, in Somers Town Market in north-west London, who sewed buttons – though many fewer – on their trousers and waistcoats or lapels.)
Croft’s original suit, which has been dated to 1880, is known as a ‘smother suit’ because the fabric can barely be seen underneath the thousands of buttons. Designs with slightly less buttons – which Croft also wore – are known as ‘skeleton suits’.
Throughout the early 1900s, a London-wide network of Pearlies was established to further the fundraising work. By 1911, each of the capital’s boroughs had a Pearly King and Queen. The collective of families numbered about 300 individuals.
Families often have their own unique pearl button design which is passed down the generations. And each Pearly must sew their own suit.
From at least the mid-1920s, Croft attended the annual costermongers and Pearlies harvest festival, then held in St Mary Magdalen church in Bermondsey, south-east London.
And it’s that tradition that brings the story up to the present day.
On Sunday 24 September I joined a crowd half-a-dozen-deep gathered around a square barricade outside the Guildhall, London’s civic and ceremonial centre. In front of an invited audience of London borough mayors and other dignitaries, the Pearlies enjoyed Morris dancing and marching band demonstrations and performed some classic Cockney songs. Then they led a procession to St Mary-le-Bow church, in the City of London, for their annual harvest festival service.
It was at the Guildhall, when one of the mayors was introducing the Pearly spokesperson – the King of Finsbury – that something intriguing happened. The Pearly King acted out what appeared to me to be a mock punch towards the mayor. What was that all about?
It turns out, the mayor had started to call the Pearly group by the wrong name (they’re the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society, for the record). And as I later discovered from a rather entertaining, gossipy 2001 article in the ‘Independent’, there’s a bit of rivalry among the capital’s Pearly Kings and Queens, and they’re divided into least three different groups.
The article mentions an ‘ugly skirmish’ after the 1997 harvest festival, and a parting of the ways of the groups. The Pearly King of Peckham (from the Pearly Kings and Queens Guild) said they found another church for their harvest celebration and “we hold our service the week before theirs, so we get all the publicity”.
And so, I found myself on Sunday 1 October outside St Martin-in-the-Fields church, opposite Trafalgar Square, for my second Pearly harvest festival in a matter of weeks – this time for The Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association.
Still intrigued by the ‘Independent’ story, I asked the Pearly King of Royal Kensington and Chelsea why the two harvest festivals and the difference between the groups? His answer was much more moderate than the version reported above.
“There's no real difference. They're the Society and we're the Original Association. This is the original [harvest festival] church. It's just like, I guess with every organisation, you have people that split off. But they're still Pearlies. We all do the same thing."
Today there are around 60 active Pearly Kings and Queens across the multiple groups, some of whom can trace their lineage back to Henry Croft’s day. Indeed, last weekend’s harvest festival included the christening of the Pearly Princess of Haggerston, a seventh generation Pearly.
And while there may be division among the groups, they are equally committed to Croft’s original vision to raise money for the needy.
In an interview with BBC Radio London, the Pearly King of Royal Kensington and Chelsea (from The Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association) explained: “We get requested to attend things – it could be to a home to do a sing-along, or it could be to a wedding because the people getting married love the Pearlies – and all we ask for is a donation. That could be £1, or it could be £500. We try never to turn down an opportunity to go out there and attend a job. But every single penny, that money goes straight to the charity.”
The Pearly Queen of Clapton added: “We take nothing for doing it, we pay for our own fares, and everything that goes in our buckets goes straight to charity. People don’t realise the commitment that goes into it, but we do it because we love it and it’s definitely in our blood.”
Likewise, in an interview with BBC London news, the Pearly Queen of Woolwich (from the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society) said: “We’re continuing with a wonderful tradition. That’s what we’ve been put on the face of this earth to do: raise money for charity.”