The Pearly Kings and Queens

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Few images are as innately ‘London’ as a person clad in a button-laden suit.

The Pearly Kings and Queens are thought to have been founded by the costermonger Henry Croft. He had grown up as an orphan in London and would later dedicate himself to raising money for charity. Croft achieved this by adorning his suit with mother of pearl buttons. Costermongers, or market traders, had established a unique way of decorating their trousers, yet it was Henry Croft that would further the decoration; he took on the ‘buttons’ from 1870 until his death.

Croft’s Pearly suit helped him to raise money for decades. The ‘smother’ suit had been littered with thousands of white pearl buttons; other designs were more skeletal, but told the personal story of the wearer. His unique garments provided the means to attract attention from people at events, due to their florid patterning. Prior to the induction of the National Health Service, hospitals had a reliance upon charitable donations; Croft’s difficult upbringing served him with an appreciation for the struggle of those frequenting the workhouse. His suit gave him the means to raise money for the destitute. Many believe that Croft was wearing his pearls in the 1880s, though the first documentation of this was in 1902 in The Strand Magazine, in which he was described as the ‘Pearly King of Somers Town’.

This working class tradition has been sustained in many forms. The earliest society, the Pearly Guild, was founded in 1902. By the next decade, all 28 London boroughs would be represented by a Pearly family. Croft had established a significant charitable movement that gained further recognition when he was presented to Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at the 1907 edition of the Horse of the Year Show. It is widely accepted that Croft was the founding father, a title which he proudly claimed for himself in 1926.

Henry Croft passed where he was born, amongst the Kingdom he reigned over. The ‘revered chief’ of the Pearly Kings and Queens, his funeral cortege was notably large. Pearlies and benefactors from across London walked from his home on Phoenix Street to the Islington and St Pancras Cemetery, many on foot, others on horse drawn carriage; hundreds lined the streets to honour the spirit of a community minded man.

Croft, having known the struggle of the workhouse, dedicated his life to charitable causes. Over 100 years since he acknowledged his noble title, his legacy has been maintained by new waves of Pearly royalty. In the 21st century; the significance of modern technology and social media has become a stumbling block to retaining many of the younger members.

The Pearly King of Peckham, no longer a resident of his Kingdom, is an excellent conversationalist and the personification of cockney spirit. He resides deep within the home counties, south east London continues to fill his thoughts. A proud south Londoner, George Major sees his brethren as the ‘history of the costers’. His suits are intricate and chronicle the life he has led. Buttons are stitched on, displaying the peaks and troughs of life. His title covers the back of the suit; the detail that makes the Pearlies truly iconic. Major is the head of the Pearly Guild; there are two recognised Pearly groups.

Association and Guild - north and south of the Thames; neither organisation agree on much. For the Association, Croft was the founding father, whereas the Guild (resurrected by Major in 1995) believes that Croft merely continued the work of costermongers who had helped the needy for decades. The charitable heritage has been tainted in the recent past. Major came into ownership of a number of Pearly suits, many of which belonged to direct relatives of Croft. This acquisition angered the Pearly Association, many of whom claim to be direct relatives of the buttoned families of the previous century. The costumes were discovered in a hotel and were handed to Major in a ceremony, attended by the press. Few could have anticipated the commotion that played out. Antagonism reached truly unsavoury levels in 1997, at the annual Harvest service at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, Trafalgar Square. Insults were slung; Major and the Guild were forced to relocate.

A commonality amongst the divided Pearlies of north and south London is a passion for charitable causes. Though they disagree on matters of lineage, the groups share a common goal of preserving their way of life. Major has strived for over two decades to open his own cockney museum. The disputed suits, one of which belonged to Croft himself, will be the star attraction.