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Six things you never knew about Pearly Kings & Queens

Pearly Kings and Queens are an iconic image of London, easily recognised by their distinctive suits and accessories covered with patterns of mother-of-pearl buttons. They've inspired fashion designers, costume makers, and been featured in everything from films to the London Olympics opening ceremony. But do you know the meaning and surprising history behind the costume?

Natasha Fenner

Pearly Treasures curator

16 September 2016

Pearly suit of the Pearly King of Islington, Fred Bliss.

Pearly King suit ensemble

Worn by Fred Bliss, Pearly King of Islington; ID no. 63.7

1. The Pearly tradition was started by a Victorian street-sweeper

The very first Pearly King is accepted to have been Henry Croft, an orphan and street sweeper. In the mid- to late 1870s Croft completely covered his suit in mother-of-pearl buttons, creating the first pearly ‘smother’ suit. He did this to draw attention to himself when collecting money for orphanages and hospitals and so the pearly mission to support charitable organisations was born.

Following Henry Croft's example, pearlies sew buttons onto their own garments. Buttons are sewn into patterns, words and symbols, which often have specific meanings. A heart means charity and a wheel is the circle of life. In the museum's collection is the suit of the Pearly King of Islington, Fred Bliss, which features playing cards on the jacket illustrating that life is a gamble. It also has donkeys, vital in pulling the costermonger’s cart to market.

2. ...but Pearlies have been around even longer

Pearly shoes decorated with sequins and buttons

Pearly Queen shoes decorated with hand-sewn buttons

ID no. 2005.86/8

Costermongers were market and street traders who sold fruit, vegetables, fish and other produce from a cart or stall in the street. They were said to have sewn mother-of-pearl buttons on to their clothes to distinguish themselves; a line down outside seam of their trouser legs from knee to ankle as well as on the flaps of their jacket pockets. It was a tradition for each coster community in London to elect a leader, or ‘King’ to organize them, keep the peace and stand up for their rights with authorities. Henry possibly drew on this tradition when he used the term ‘Pearly King’ .

There is some debate as to whether Henry was inspired by the dress of London’s costermongers or the costumes of music hall coster-singers. Coster-singers entertained the crowds with cockney songs in the music halls. One singer, Hyram Travers performed around this time as the ‘Pearly King’ and wore ‘the handsomest and most costly suit of clothes ever seen’ (The Era, 20 Jan 1883). Perhaps Henry’s pearly suit was influenced by both groups. It was the costers, however, who embraced the style and ideology of Pearly Kings and Queens.

3. Pearly families are dedicated to charity

A Pearly hat decorated with ostrich feathers.

A Pearly Queen's hat decorated with ostrich feathers

ID no. 85.431/3

Henry Grant photograph of a Pearly queen

Pearly Queens at a Costermongers Harvest Festival service

Photograph by Henry Grant, 1951; ID no. HG1328/13

Pearlies are easily recognised by their colourful and eye-catching costumes. We're displaying several extraordinary items in Pearly Treasures, including a magnificent hat decorated with ostrich feathers.

But being a pearly is not just about wearing the costume, it is about a lifelong commitment to work tirelessly to raise money for charity. These days the Pearlies have divided into several organisations, however all still have charity work at their heart.

Henry is also said to have been inspired towards charitable work by the ethos of the costermongers, known as a tight-knit group who watched out for each other.

Henry Mayhew, in his 1851 investigative work London Labour and the London Poor, states ‘I heard on all hands that the costers never steal from one another, and never wink at anyone stealing from a neighbouring stall.’ They would also support fellow costers in distress by holding raffles where the proceeds would be given to the one in need.

4. Pearly titles are hereditary

Pearly dress for a child, with Little Queenie written on in sequins.

Pearly Princess dress

ID no. 86.242/10

Just like somewhat grander royal titles, traditionally Pearly titles are passed down through families. Children would be raised in their family’s Pearly traditions and eventually be ‘crowned’ with their parents’ title. On occasion the title would pass to a cousin or other relative. Today some of the old Pearly families have moved out of London so some titles rest vacant. On certain occasions, individuals with a strong proven commitment to charity work may be invited to hold a title. In this case they seek permission to borrow a title from a family who is currently resting theirs, thereby keeping the title alive in London.

One object in the display is a wonderful physical representation of this tradition, a Pearly “princess” dress, made to be worn by a young girl who was the daughter of Pearly parents. The remains of the words “Little Queenie”, sewn in mother-of-pearl buttons, can just be seen on the skirt.

Pearly King and Queen of Dagenham, by Henry Grant.

Pearly King and Queen of Dagenham

Photograph by Henry Grant, 1951; ID no. HG1328/11

5. Every London borough has a Pearly family

The earliest known printed reference to Croft as a Pearly King was in the Strand Magazine in 1902, and by 1911 all 28 London boroughs had a Pearly family, a total of around 300 people.

Many, but not all Pearly families were from the costermonger community. Bert Matthews, Pearly King of Hampstead, was a rat-catcher for 40 years.

Pearly titles don't die out if the "royal" family leaves London. The Pearly King and Queen of Islington was held by descendants of the Cole family. However, when they immigrated to Australia, they handed their title back to the Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association. Phyllis and Bobby Broadbent have now taken up the titles.

Henry Grant photograph of Pearly Kings and Queens at the Costermonger's Harvest festival

Costermongers Harvest Festival Thanksgiving service

Photograph by Henry Grant, 1951; ID no. HG1328/11

6. Harvest festival is sacred to Pearlies

Traditional harvest festivals were a time to celebrate the end of the harvest season and to give thanks for the crops. They are held on the Sunday closest to the Harvest moon, which is the full moon that occurs closes to the Autumn equinox. The Pearlies still hold annual harvest festivals, starting at the Guildhall Yard. The festivities involve live performances and traditional music and dance such as Morris men and women and maypole dancing, following which they march through the streets of London to the church of St Mary Le Bow in Cheapside. John Walters, of the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society, explained that the festival is the society's way of saying thank you to the Londoners and tourists that support their work.