London Explained – Pearly Kings and Queens…

Pearly Kings and Queens at a Harvest celebration outside Guildhall in September, 2014. PICTURE: Maureen Barlin (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Often simply called ‘Pearlies’, Pearly Kings and Queens are easily identified through their tradition of wearing clothes decorated with mother-of-pearl buttons.

The habit of wearing clothes decorated with mother-of-pearl buttons was adopted by London’s costermongers (street vendors) in the 19th century. The costermongers had a tradition of helping each other out during tough times and costermongers later elected “Coster Kings” to organise and represent them.

It was this tradition that street sweeper Henry Croft, who was raised in a workhouse orphanage in Somers Town, north-west of the City of London, is said to have drawn on when he created a suit completely covered in mother-of-pearl buttons in a bid to help his efforts to raise funds for the orphanage he grew up in (although some say he was inspired by the costumes of music hall ‘coster-singers’ who entertained crowds in music halls with cockney songs).

Such was Croft’s success at raising funds that hospitals and other charities subsequently asked him to fundraise on their behalf as well. The work soon grew beyond what Croft, who is often referred to as the first ‘Pearly King’, could personally handle and so many costermongers and others joined in his efforts giving birth to the broader movement.

By the early 20th century there were 28 ‘Pearly families’ in London, one for each borough. Pearly titles are pass down through families, a tradition which continues to this day (although there have been cases of Pearly families leaving their title behind as they left London which case it it awarded to someone new). There are a number of “pearly” organisations in London these days which engage in a range of charitable activities.

It’s also worth noting that the symbols, patterns and images on the pearly costumes have various meanings – a heart, for example, means charity. One of the key events the Pearlies take part in each year are Harvest festivals.

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