Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Pearly Kings and Queens of London

The Pearly Kings and Queens are a charitable group of Londoners.  All cockneys and great fun to be around.  They date back to 1875 when a young man called Henry Croft was looking for an idea to bring attention to his charity work.

Henry was an orphan and at age thirteen was working as a road sweeper in north London.  He also worked in a market and was drawn to the Costermongers (market traders) whom he found to be generous people.  He was fascinated with their clothes which were decorated with pearl buttons that were stitched onto the seams of their bellbottom trousers, jackets, waistcoats and caps.  This was to show their status in the market.  Henry also learned that they looked after one another during times of sickness or need.

So impressed was he that Henry decided he would like to help people less fortunate than himself.  Whenever he was sweeping up around the market he often found pearl buttons that had fallen off so he collected them up.  Gradually he sewed them onto a suit of his own until it was totally covered.  This is what is now called a “smother suit”.  The ones with fewer buttons stitched in various designs are called skeleton suits.

Henry became so successful at raising money, not only for the orphanage where he grew up, but also for hospitals and workhouses, that he needed help.  That is when he turned to the Costermongers, many of whom became the first Pearly Families.  There were twenty-eight families, one for each of the London Boroughs, one for the City of Westminster and one for the City of London.

Most of today’s Pearly Kings and Queens are direct descendents of those Costermongers.

The Pearly Suits
All of the suits are of dark fabric, preferably velvet.  The pattern is laid out and the pearl buttons gradually, slowly and lovingly stitched on.
There are many designs for the suits, which usually reflect the owner’s particular interests.  For example:
·                                Bells – for Bow Bells
·                                Horseshoes – for luck
·                                Doves – for peace
·                                Hearts – for charity
·                                Anchors – for hope
·                                Crosses – for faith
·                                Wheel – for the circle of life
·                                Playing cards – life is a gamble!
·                                Flower pots  and donkey carts – costermongers

The outfits have tens of thousands of buttons on them and can weigh as much as 66lbs. 

The Pearly Guild
Almost every area of London has its own “royal” family within the Pearly Guild.  A prince or princess can only graduate to the status of King or Queen once their elders are sure of their maturity, have knowledge of the group’s history and have a strong commitment to the job of collecting for charity.  And, of course, they can only become a pearly king or queen if there is a vacancy.  Mostly the title goes to a descendent of the family but sometimes a family dies out or moves away. 

The Pearlies take every opportunity to dress up and collect for charity.  They can be seen in parades, at Bank Holiday Fairs such as on Hampstead Heath and even travel outside of London when requested.  The one day in the year when they all try to gather for a parade is for the Lord Mayor’s Show which occurs early in November (on a Saturday when the City is ‘closed for business’) and wends its way through the City of London from the Mansion House taking a circular tour and back to the Mansion House..

To learn more about the Pearlies, visit their web site at www.pearlykingsandqueens.com

Photos provided by the Pearly Guild.