Happy New Year from The Original Pearly King


Henry Croft Pearly King, Public Domain

Henry Croft Pearly King, Public Domain

How did a penniless orphan rate a funeral procession half a mile long? How does a person make something wonderful out of nothing? Why do people appear proudly on the streets of London weighed down by thousands of white buttons? The ladies pictured below are part of the London institution known as the Pearly Kings and Queens.  The photo is from the Guardian article cited later.


Henry Croft was born around 1862 and raised in the orphanage of a workhouse. At age 13, he went out into the streets of Victorian London to make his living as a street sweeper and rat catcher. He fell in with the lively community of costermongers: sellers of apples and other cheap goods on the street.  They were known for sewing penny-sized mother-of-pearl buttons up the sides of their trousers, at the seams. Henry Croft took it one step further: he somehow acquired a full suit, complete with top hat and tails, and set about decorating it with “pearlies.” His friends helped him.  When he appeared in public, people gave him small change which soon added up to sizable amounts.  He donated the money to the orphanage that raised him. Soon, he was asked to collect money for other charities.  People began joining him and a movement began.

Pearlies, photo from thepearlies.co.uk

Pearlies, photo from thepearlies.co.uk

In 1911, the first of several organized pearly societies began in London. The various organizations, one for each borough of the city, united in 1975. They are a registered charity in England, with their own website at www: thepearlies.co.uk.


Their base is the Church of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, one of my very favorite places in London. One of these days I’ll make it to their Harvest Festival in the fall.


The tradition is kept alive by about 30 families in London. The photo above is from the Harvest Festival of 2015. An article about the festival is at http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/gallery/2015/sep/28/londons-other-royalty-pearly-kings-and-queens-mark-the-harvest-festival-in-pictures


Henry Croft died on January 1, 1930.  His funeral procession began with 400 Pearly Kings and Queens and stretched for half a mile with other admirers. He was honored with a memorial statue which is now in the crypt at St-Martin-in-the-Fields Church at Trafalgar Square in London. Most of the crypt is taken up by the wildly popular volunteer-run cafe in the crypt.  When in London, I eat there every chance I get.  I’m sure Henry appreciates all the lively company. On my last visit, I wrote about the cafe at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/05/09/st-martin-in-the-fields/

The motto of the Pearlies is “One Never Knows.” None of us can know what the New Year will bring, but I hope it brings peace and a better life for everyone who suffers poverty, homelessness, and being alone in the world.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

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