Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, but I noticed, at the brilliant V & A exhibition dedicated to the pearl, the quiet absence of a London tradition so intrinsically linked to the beautiful pearl, I thought it deserved a mention! So it was that Pacific Pearls sent moi, to find out more about this tradition, dear reader, for your pearly edutainment.
The pearly kings and queens, affectionately called ‘Pearlies’, are a much-loved feature of London. They are an organized working-classed charitable tradition. So much so that a parade of real-life Pearlies was a feature at the 2012 London Olympic games. And their story is extremely interesting.
It all began with the street vendors, known as the Costermongers; a close-knit community, who decorated their hems with pearl buttons they’d found on the street, so that they could recognize each other. They were known for helping each other out in times of need and hardship.
Along came young Henry Croft. Having grown up in an orphanage in Somers Town, London, aged only thirteen, Henry was released, and had to make his own way in life. He became a municipal street sweeper. And here, he was first introduced to the lively Costermonger community. So inspired was Henry, by the Costermonger’s charity towards each other, that he decided he too would like to undertake charitable work.
In order to draw attention to his fundraising activity, Croft changed the tradition a little, and vowed to sew himself a mother-of-pearl studded suit fit for a king, in an attempt to draw attention to his charitable work. So the legend goes, Henry swept the streets for pearl buttons, until he had amassed enough to sew himself one of these suits. And his PR stunt was very successful. Henry became increasingly popular and in demand by charities. Eventually, he had to ask the Costermonger community for help, to keep up with the demand! The families of the Costermonger community became the first Pearly families. And in Finchley, North London, 1911, a formal ‘pearly society’ was formed.
Pearlies are now divided into several active groups in London boroughs. Many still hail from the Costermonger community. They continue their charitable work. There’s a sense of pride, and fun, about the Pearlies. When the Pearlies are around, you can expect a good knees-up, maybe a marching band or two, a lot of entertainment, some vividly colorful characters. They represent all that is good, about being a warm-hearted, working-class Londoner. They bring the beautiful Pearl from the clutches of the rich, famous and noble, to the everyday person. And, undeniably, their suits are fantastic.
The Pearlies’ have now been around for one hundred and twenty-five years. Their good old working-classed philanthropy is still very much alive and kicking. They support all kinds of charities, from cancer treatment to donkey sanctuaries; from air ambulance charities, to the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal. So if you do happen to visit London, pay our respects to Henry Croft. You can see a statue of Croft in The Crypt, St. Martin in the Fields Church, London.
Pacific Pearls does not pretend to have earned the charitable status of the Pearlies; however, with us, you too can wear your pearls with pride. For every purchase you make, we will donate a nutritious meal to someone in need, through the United Nations World Food Programme and Feed The Children.
Long Live the Pearly Kings and Queens!