Thursday, September 29, 2022

Pearly Kings and Queens

London The Unfinished City
Pearly Kings and Queens.

Considering every Borough of London has a Pearly King and Queen, it is rare that I have ever seen them. So, I was quite pleased to see some out and about during the State Funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

They were friendly and more than happy to pose for photos, as the crowds dissipated following the funeral procession.

As this was one of the first times that I seen them up close, I thought that I had better find out more about them.

Brief History

Ever since the 11th century street sellers, or Costermongers, were a common sight on the streets of London. It wasn't until the Victorian era, around 1875, that Henry Croft started the sewing pearl buttons onto a suit an hat.

Henry Croft was an orphan and so was raised in a workhouse. He was a street sweeper and loved the life outlook of the Coster families; some you win, some you lose, when things go bad you pick yourself up and start again. 

It was this outlook and the the way that the Costers looked after one another. If someone had nothing you helped them in any way that you could. 

Legend has it that Henry found a box of mother-of-pearl buttons on the mud of the River Thames. He took them and began sewing the 60,000 buttons onto his worn out dress suit and top hat, in intricate patterns and included the slogans 'All for charity' and 'Pity the poor'.

He began wearing his suit on the streets of Somerstown and, soon after, convinced his friend George Dole to sew on buttons, too. And so were created the first Pearlies: The Pearlies of St. Pancras.

When Henry joined the Costers on their hospital fund raising parades and carnivals his outfit delighted onlookers and worked wonders in raising funds for the charities. 

More Costers began sewing lines of pearl flashers on their waist coats, caps and working trousers and started parading around, much like the wealthy West End elite did in London's Parks, and so was born the 'Lambeth Walk'.

Henry Croft died in 1930 and 400 followers attended his funeral.

London The Unfinished City
Heritage Foundation - Henry Croft

There are various Pearly organisations that have sprung up over the years, including:
  • Original London Pearly Kings and Queens Association
  • Pearly Guild
  • London Pearly Kings and Queens Society
  • Pearly Kings and Queens Guild
Although separate each group is committed to raising money for London-based charities.

Another fact that I found out is that Pearly titles are hereditary. But, if a family moves out of London it can 'rest' its title. This title can then be, on certain occasions, given to individuals with a strong proven commitment to charity work. In this case they can seek permission to 'borrow' a title from a family who is currently resting theirs.

Every London borough has a Pearly family, many of whom have had had the titles since 1902. Some families have left London and have given back their titles to the Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association. These titles have now been taken up by other families.

The most important date in the Pearlies calendar is Harvest Festival. This festival is held on the Sunday closest to the Harvest moon (full moon) in the Autumn equinox. The festivities involve marching bands, donkeys and carts, Morris men and women and maypole dancing.

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