Best of British – Pearly Kings and Queens of London

1 May

Phylis Broadbend (Pearly Queen of Islington) – Photograph by Harry Dutton

Pearly Kings and Queens, also known as pearlies, are an organised charitable tradition of working class culture in London, England. They featured in the Olympics opening ceremony where they were described as “the other Royal family”.

A Pearly King and his taxi

The practice of wearing clothes decorated with pearl buttons originated in the 19th century. It is first associated with Henry Croft, an orphan street sweeper who collected money for charity. At the time, London costermongers (apple sellers) were in the habit of wearing trousers decorated at the seams with pearl buttons that had been found by market traders. Croft adapted this to create a pearly suit to draw attention to himself and aid his fund-raising activities.  In 1911 an organised pearly society was formed in Finchley, north London. Croft died in January 1930 and in 1934 a memorial was unveiled to him in St Pancras Cemetery. The statue was later moved to the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster.

A typical pearly hat with new decorations for the Olympic ceremony

The pearlies are now divided into several active groups.  Each group is associated with a church in central London and is committed to raising money for London-based charities.

To see photographer Harry Dutton’s series of portraits of the Pearly Kings and Queens titled simply “Meet the Pearlies” click here.

 

 

 

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