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.

London Explained – The Lord Mayor of London…

Not to be confused with the Mayor of London (a position currently held by Sadiq Khan, the Mayor is the head of the Greater London Authority – more on that in a later post), the Lord Mayor of London serves as the head of the City of London Corporation which governs the Square Mile.

Lord Mayor of London William Russell in February, 2020. PICTURE: Bank of England (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/image cropped)

The Lord Mayor of London is generally elected annually (last year was an exception due to the coronavirus pandemic) by members of the City’s livery companies who are summoned by the previous Mayor to meet at at Guildhall on Michaelmas Day (29th September) or on the closest weekday

The Lord Mayor is subsequently sworn into office in November in an event known as the ‘Silent Ceremony’ because, aside from a short declaration from the incoming mayor, no speeches are made. The following day, the Lord Mayor participates in a procession from the City of London to the Royal Courts of Justice in the City of Westminster, where they swear allegiance to the Crown. The event is known as the Lord Mayor’s Show (this year it’s being held on 13th November).

Lord Mayors must be one of the City of London’s 25 alderman (elected to represent the City’s wards) and must first served as one of the City’s two sheriffs prior to taking on the position – the sheriffs support the Lord Mayor in their role as advisors. They also host dinners for visiting dignitaries, accompany the Lord Mayor in their business travels and look after the judges at the Old Bailey.

The first Lord Mayor is said to have been Henry FitzAilwin, who served between 1189 and 1212. The current Lord Mayor, William Russell, is the 692nd to hold the post. Until 1354, the title was simply Mayor of London.

The role of the Lord Mayor these days is to serve as an international ambassador for the UK’s financial and professional services sector.

The official residence of the Lord Mayor is called the Mansion House. It is used for some of the City’s official events.

London Explained – The West End…

Piccadilly Circus lies at the heart of London’s West End. PICTURE: Sheep purple (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

This term is used to describe what was traditionally the western end of London as it developed beyond the City of London boundaries and has since became a word synonymous with the city’s theatre district.

The term’s origins are lost to history although it’s said it first started being used in earnest to describe fashionable areas to the west of Charing Cross in the late 17th or early 18th centuries. The term as it’s used today covers an area which contains the commercial and entertainment heart of London.

While the eastern boundary of the West End can be easily defined as where the City of London ends (Temple Bar on the Strand marks the City of London’s boundaries), thanks to its not being a formally designated geographic area, exactly where the West End finishes is a matter of considerable debate.

While the some see the West End only including Theatreland itself – an area stretching from Aldwych across to Piccadilly Circus and north from Trafalgar Square to Oxford Circus, others have adapted a broader definition which sees include not only Aldwych, Soho and Covent Garden but also Mayfair, Fitzrovia and Marylebone with Oxford Circus at the centre (some even go further and include districts such as Bloomsbury and Knightsbridge in their definition of the West End).

London Explained – The Royal Parks…

Green Park, the smallest of the eight Royal Parks. PICTURE: David Adams

One of the most beautiful features of London are its Royal Parks.

The Royal Parks signage in The Regent’s Park. PICTURE: Elliott Brown (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The parks, which covers some 5,000 acres, are owned by the Crown and managed by a charity, The Royal Parks. They include eight of London’s largest open spaces – Hyde Park, The Green Park, Richmond Park, Greenwich Park, St James’s Park, Bushy Park, The Regent’s Park, and Kensington Gardens – as well as some other important open spaces such as Brompton Cemetery, Victoria Tower Gardens, Canning Green and Poet’s Corner.

All eight of the Royal Parks have historically been owned by the Crown with St James’s Park considered the oldest (while Greenwich Park is the oldest enclosed park).

Under an Act of Parliament passed in 1851, the Crown transferred management of the parks to the government. These powers were originally vested in the Commissioners of Works and later transferred to the Minister of Works in 1942. They now rest with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The Royal Parks charity was created in 2017 when The Royal Parks Agency – a former executive agency of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – and the Royal Parks Foundation came together. It is governed by a board led by chairman Loyd Grossman.

Deer in Richmond Park, largest of The Royal Parks. PICTURE: David Adams

The largest of the eight Royal Parks is Richmond Park which covers some 2,500 acres in London’s south-west (it’s followed by Bushy Park which is just over 1,000 acres). The smallest of the parks is Green Park at just 40 acres.

Interestingly, Hampton Court Palace gardens, which are open to the public are not part of The Royal Parks but instead are under the care of Historic Royal Palaces.

Here’s one fact about each of the eight Royal Parks.

  1. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey gave Bushy Park to King Henry VIII in 1529 (along with Wolsey’s home, Hampton Court Palace).
  2. Green Park was initially known as Upper St James’s Park after it was enclosed by King Charles II in 1668.
  3. The Royal Observatory, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is located in Greenwich Park.
  4. Hyde Park became the location of the first artificially lit highway in the country when King William III, who had moved his court to Kensington Palace and found his walk back to St James’s rather dangerous, had 300 oil lamps installed upon a route which later became known as Rotten Row.
  5. Queen Caroline, wife of George II, gave Kensington Gardens much of its present form when, in 1728, she oversaw the creation of the the Serpentine and the Long Water.
  6. Horse Guards Parade is considered part of St James’s Park.
  7. Architect John Nash designed a summer palace for the Prince Regent which was to be located in The Regent’s Park but was never built.
  8. Prime Minister Lord John Russell was given a home in Richmond Park (Pembroke Lodge) by Queen Victoria in 1847.

London Explained – The Square Mile…

Office towers in the City of London, known as the Square Mile (as pictured in April, 2021). PICTURE: sunnie

Commonly used as an alternative for the City of London, the term ‘Square Mile’ comes from the amount of land in the heart of the city which is under the jurisdiction of the City of London Corporation.

The City (with a capital ‘c’, it’s another commonly used term for the City of London) contains the core of the ancient city which has stood here since Roman times and is still the financial centre of the city. While called the ‘Square Mile’, it actually encompasses 1.12 square miles (equivalent to 716.80 acres or 2.90 square kilometres).

While the City has been roughly that size since medieval times (the City has long included land both within the medieval city walls as well as some without), the term ‘Square Mile’ is understood to have been a relatively recent invention, created in the Victorian era.

It’s interesting to note that the Square Mile was slightly smaller – just 1.05 square miles – up until the mid-1990s when some boundary changes increased it to its current size.

Below is a map showing the outline of the ‘Square Mile’ today…

London Explained – Beefeaters…

A nickname for the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London, its origins are somewhat obscure but apparently related to a penchant for beef and was presumably meant as an insult (hence they prefer being called by their proper title). It was apparently first used of the English population in general and is said to have first been applied to the Yeoman Warders in the second half of the 17th century.

A Yeoman Warder in everyday “undress” uniform. PICTURE: PRA (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0/image cropped)

The Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London (not to be confused with the Yeomen Warders of The Guard, the Sovereign’s Bodyguard, who are also referred to as “beefeaters”), are charged with guarding of the Tower of London and its contents including the prisoners of state who were formerly held within its walls (the last was during World War II).

With a history dating back to the reign of King Henry VII and first present at the Tower during the reign of King Henry VIII, they were made extraordinary members of the Sovereign’s Bodyguard during the reign of King Edward VI in 1552 (meaning they wear scarlet livery and carry partizans on state occasions).

The Chief Yeoman Warder is their commander and second-in-command is a Yeomen Gaoler (who still carries an axe on state occasions). There are also three Sergeant Yeoman and a Yeoman Ravenmaster. A Yeoman Warder (along with a detachment of soldiers) carries out the Ceremony of the Keys every night – formally locking the Tower.

These days (drawing on innovations introduced by the Duke of Wellington when he was Constable of the Tower between 1826 and 1852), the Yeoman Warders must be warrant officers who have served at least 22 years (and have been awarded the long service and good conduct medal) in the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines.

The Yeoman Warders – and there were 38 (although we’re not sure how cutbacks due to COVID may affect this) – live within the Tower under the authority of the Resident Governor. They wear the red state dress uniform on state occasions and a dark blue “undress” uniform for everyday use. Moira Cameron became the first female Yeoman Warder in 2007.

As well as carrying out state duties, since Victorian times the Yeoman Warders have conducted towers of the Tower and assisted visitors with their inquiries.

London Explained – The Tube…

Commonly used as a nickname to describe the London Underground, the “Tube” is an obvious reference to shape of the tunnels themselves.

Construction of the Tube at Mile End (c1946). PICTURE: The National Archives UK (London Transport Museum © Transport for London)

The word is believed to have been first popularised around 1890. Underground lines had previously been constructed using the ‘cut and cover’ method – that is, digging out the trench for the Underground line, lining the tunnel with iron and them covering it.

Thanks to its depth (due to the fact it had to pass under the Thames), City and South London Railway’s line from King William Street (a now disused station) to Stockwell was the first to be created by boring a tunnel through the earth and then lining it to create a tube. The line, a forerunner of what is now the Northern Line, opened in December, 1890. It was the first true ‘tube’ of the Underground system.

The construction of the line was followed in 1900 by the opening of the Central London Railway’s line from Shepherd’s Bush to Bank (now part of the Central Line) which was given the nickname the “Twopenny Tube”.

The name stayed and was soon applied to the entire network of Underground lines (and interestingly, it wasn’t until 1908 that the word “Underground” first appeared in stations).