You may have seen these eccentric characters at various London events, dressed head to toe in pearls. But who are the Pearly Kings and Queens of London, and what is the history of the city’s lesser-known monarchy?
The Pearly Kings and Queens are an icon of cockney culture. You’ll know them if you’ve seen them: they are rather hard to miss with their distinctive outfits decked with mother of pearl buttons. But they’re not just dressing up for fun, although they do love donning their whistle and flute (‘suit’): the Pearlies and their families have a rich cultural heritage, and are actually connected to one of the oldest charities in London.
So how did the Pearly Kings and Queens come about?
The group was founded back in 1875 when a young orphan named Henry Croft left the Victorian workhouse in which he was born and raised to work alongside local costermongers (‘coster’ = ‘apples’, ‘monger’ = ‘seller’), or market traders. He was absolutely mesmerised by the language the traders used (Cockney rhyming slang, of course), and the supportive community they had built. They each followed a ‘coster king’ who was elected to lead them; keeping things organised and peaceful.
The costermongers would decorate their outfits with pearlescent buttons, with the number of buttons representing how successful they were. (Heard the term “Flash Harry”? This is how it was coined.) It was also a sort of dig at high society, who wore pearls as a sign of wealth.
Legend has it that Henry Croft found a vat of mother-of-pearl buttons washed up on the banks of the Thames. Inspired by the costermongers’ tradition, he covered a suit and hat in 60,000 buttons; portraying various charitable symbols within the pearl’s patterns so not a single spot of fabric could be seen. He started fundraising wherever he went, drawing attention with his glistening suit, and giving back to the orphanage where he spent his childhood.
When he realised how successful this charitable venture could be, he began donating to children’s hospitals, local charities and the homeless, too. The costers and their families soon joined him in his pursuits, and they became known as the Pearly Kings and Queens.
It wasn’t long before every London borough had their own Pearly King and Queen and thus began the tradition of these titles being passed down through generations of Pearly families. Even now, you’re either a Pearly through blood or by marriage. Or, on the odd occasion that an old Pearly family has moved out of London and left their position vacant, a person with a strong commitment to charity work may be invited to ‘borrow’ a title.
The Pearlies’ suits
Just like back in the day, the tradition remains that each Pearly must decorate their own suit. They can be covered in tens of thousands of buttons, and will often weigh up to 30kg. They typically feature distinct patterns and symbols, just like Henry Croft’s original suit. For example: a heart for charity; a dove for peace; or even playing cards to illustrate that life is a gamble, as the Pearly King of Islington once donned.
When a Pearly dies, the buttons from their suits are shared out amongst their relatives and sewn onto their own: something to remember them by.
What is the Pearlies’ role today?
There are far fewer Pearlies nowadays, but they are still out there selflessly dedicating their lives to charity, supporting their communities, and keeping the legacy alive.
Those who remain still get together at various events throughout the year, most notably at the Pearly memorial service in May, and again at the Harvest Festival. Still a highly-anticipated event in London’s calendar, you can expect a proper knees up with maypole and morris dancing, cockney sing-alongs and, of course, those iconic pearly suits.
This year’s Harvest Festival will start at 1:30pm in the Guildhall Yard on Sunday, September 24. The event is free but, in true Pearly fashion, they will be accepting charity donations – so remember your change.
Also published on Medium.