In this new column, we’re going to explain some parts of London culture that might seem unusual to those living outside of London or the United Kingdom. Many of the topics covered under “What’s All This Then?” are deeply ingrained in the city’s and the nation’s culture, with long and meaningful histories. This is certainly true of the Pearly Kings and Queens (also known as “Pearlies”) who have been a part of London’s traditions since the Victorian era. More than just an excuse for fancy dress, the Pearlies have a rich connection to charitable works in the city since their inception.
The Pearly Kings and Queens were started by Henry Croft in 1875. Croft was an orphan born in a St. Pancras workhouse and raised in an orphanage in Somers Town, London, which he left at the age of 13 to start making his own way in the world. His first job was as a municipal street sweeper and this brought him into contact with the “Costers” or “Costermongers”, street traders who wore pearl buttons sewn into the seams of their clothes. A tight-knit community, the Costers would look after each other if one was sick or in need, and Croft became very enamored of their lifestyle.
Inspired by the Costermongers, Croft made himself a suit covered in the pearl buttons and used it to aid his fundraising for charity. Henry collected the pearls that had fallen off of others’ suits and, since he had no one to sew on the mother-of-pearl buttons for him, he learned how to do it himself. This started the tradition that Pearlies design and sew their own pearly suits. Eventually, Croft had collected enough buttons that his suit was covered in them and has since become known as a “smothered” suit. As the need for his charity work grew, he turned to the Costmongers to help him, with some of them becoming the first Pearly families.
By 1911, each of London’s 28 metropolitan boroughs had their own Pearly King, Pearly Queen, and Pearly families. When Croft died in 1930 at age sixty-eight, his funeral train was half a mile long and comprised of 400 Pearly Kings and Queens and people from the charities that he helped. The families passed on their traditions to their children, including both the construction of the pearly suits as well as design symbols and their meanings. In addition to the “smothered” suit made famous by Croft, the more well-known “skeleton” suits include many of the Pearlies’ symbols such as: hearts (charity), horseshoes (luck), doves, (peace), crosses (faith), and donkey carts or flower pots for the Costers, among other symbols. Pearly Queens are also sometimes known as “donahs”. If you want to join the group, however, you’ll have to marry into one of the families, as the traditions are hereditary and only stay within the original families that formed from Henry Croft.
Several Pearly groups formed as a result of Croft’s charity work, with the first being the Original Pearly Kings and Queens in 1875 and reformed in 1975, including several of the original pearly titles such as the City of London, Westminster, Victoria, Hackney, Dalston, Tower Hamlets, Shoreditch, Islington, and Horton. The longest continually-active organisation is Pearly Guild, which has existed since 1902. Modern Pearly groups include the Pearly Kings and Queens Guild, which formed in 2001. Each organisation is tied to a church in central London and coordinates their charity work with these institutions.