Tag Archives: St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church

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!

St. Martin-in-the-Fields



After spending a few hours in London’s National Gallery, I’ve had enough of appreciating great art. I’m more than ready to stagger down the steps into Trafalgar Square, navigate through the crowds, cross the street, and disappear down the well-worn steps into the ancient crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church. The church was once literally “in the fields,” far outside the center of London. Now it’s at the epicenter. The day before I visited was May Day, when tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the square. (In most of Europe, May Day is similar to Labor Day in the United States. In Europe, people march in support of working people on this day). On any day, though, Trafalgar is full of people.


The centuries-old crypt underneath the church has been turned into a cheerful cafeteria and venue for jazz concerts.

Are we walking on top of very old tombs? I don’t think so. I think these are grave markers from centuries past, when the church still had a churchyard around it. I think that tombs once in the crypt were moved elsewhere during one of the many rebuildings of the church over the centuries. Of course, like many British churches, the site of this one dates back to Roman times–or very likely even pre-Roman pagan times. So there’s no telling what is deep underground. If there are spirits of the departed, I think they enjoy the company.

The food is cooked onsite, inexpensive, healthy and delicious.

El Greco, St. Martin and the Beggar, circa 1597, Public Domain

El Greco, St. Martin and the Beggar, circa 1597, Public Domain

Who was St. Martin of Tours? He was a 4th-century Roman soldier who became one of the first conscientious objectors when he decided not to fight. He offered to go to the front lines unarmed, but fortunately the enemy sued for peace and he was allowed to leave the army. He eventually became Bishop of Tours, a post he accepted reluctantly because he preferred to serve the poor directly. He was well known enough in his day to have a biographer who followed him around and wrote about him, so it is pretty well documented that he once impulsively cut his warm military cloak in half and gave it to a near-naked vagrant in the dead of winter. Legend has it that the next morning the cloak was made whole again. The rest of his life was devoted to serving the poor and outcast, and that is the mission of St. Martin-in-the-Fields today. The church’s cafe and its many concerts support its work with the poorest of the poor in London.


I’m happy to contribute to the work of this famous church by joining the lively crowd in the once-silent crypt. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!