The London tradition of the Pearly Kings and Queens
began in 1875
, by a lad named Henry Croft
. Henry was born in 1862
and raised in an orphanage
in Somers Town
, London NW1
At the age of 13 he left the orphanage to become a Municipal Road Sweeper and Rat Catcher in the market. Here he worked hard and made friends, particularly with the Coster Mongers who were a tough breed of market traders. The Coster Mongers wore 'Flash Boy Outfits' to distinguish themselves from the other market traders, which involved decorating their trousers and waistcoats with a row of pearl buttons down the seams.
The Costers were a closs-knit group who looked after one another and if another coster was in need, they would have a 'whip round' for him.
Heartened by this, Henry decided he would like to help the unfortunate, especially the children back at the orphanage. He knew that to collect money he'd need to draw attention to himself, so, taking his inspiration from the Coster Mongers outfits he decided to totally cover a suit with pearl buttons.
He eventually emerged, at a local carnival, wearing a suit covered in tiny pearly buttons and became an instant attraction. Hospitals and churches approached him to help raise money for the poor, deaf, dumb and blind. He also enlisted the help of the Coster Mongers, so that eventually there was Pearly Family for every London Borough and the Pearly Monarchy began.
By the time of his death, aged 68 in 1930, Henry had collected over £5000 (the equivalent of £200,000 in today's money.) Pathe News filmed his spectacular funeral and all 400 Pearlies attended, following the coffin to Finchley Cemetery. A statue was erected over the grave of Henry wearing his famous buttoned suit, but in 1995 the statue was vandalised and was replaced with a headstone, inlaid with a photo.
The Pearly Kings and Queens Association now meets every month in the crypt in St. Martins in the Field, Trafalgar Square. The Pearlies all attend the Harvest Festival Service held on the first Sunday in October, as well as a Memorial Service for past pearlies on the third Sunday in May - they choose this date as it is the nearest to Henrys Croft's birthday, May 24th.
The Pearlies pride themselves on helping anyone in need regardless of their background, colour or status. The Pearlies' motto is:
"One Never Knows".