Post Date: 3rd October 2013
Author: Matt Gedge
Our City of London Tour Guide Matt paid a visit to the Guildhall Yard in the Square Mile last Sunday to witness a celebration of working class Londoners – the Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Festival.
Donkeys and carts, shiny costumes, maypole dancing, morris dancing and the Pandemonium Drummers (who appeared in the Olympic Opening Ceremony) all joined the top brass of the City in honouring the work, ethos and history of a special group of Londoners who have raised money for the needy for hundreds of years.
Here are two of the Pearly Queens:
But who are the Pearly Kings and Queens?
The tradition of the Pearly Kings and Queens goes back to the 19th century and the ‘Costermongers’. These were street traders who had worked in London’s main general market Cheapside from the 10th century, and who had gained their name from selling ‘costard’ apples, which were plentiful in the orchards around London. They were well known for attracting customers through showmanship, cheeky banter and a rhyming slang (useful for evading the authorities who often hounded them). An indication of their success was their purchase of donkeys and carts which enabled them to move around town quicker.
As London grew so the market places spread, and in the Middle Ages each new market district would elect a Coster King to fight for their rights and fundraise for their fellow trader. In an age before social reform, the support the poor, disabled and downtrodden would receive from their fellow man was often the only means to survive.
As a way of raising money, fancy dress parades and carnivals would be arranged, and by the mid-1800s the Coster Kings had developed a taste for sewing mother of pearl buttons onto their clothes, imitating the fashion of the West End. The Coster Queens began wearing huge ostrich feathers and earrings while their children would also dress as princes and princesses. This dress sense led to the Costers being referred to as ‘Flash Harrys’ and ‘Pearlies’, and the incredible outfits started to catch on in music halls and even Coster funerals became known for their spectacular style.
This all left a great impression on a 13 year old roadsweep named Henry Croft who grew up in an orphanage and spent his childhood slaving away in St Pancras workhouse. Working around the markets he picked up stray buttons and over time created the first ‘smother suit’, with huge numbers of buttons sewn into his clothes, many arranged in designs and patterns. The Pearly Kings and Queens were so impressed that they began affixing the buttons in such a manner as to indicate their market district, superstitions and trade.
This ornamentation greatly helped the Pearlies’ fundraising efforts, with Henry himself making 7 suits in total – some of the suits had up to 60,000 buttons!
Unfortunately while fundraising on New Year’s Day 1930 outside the Whitechapel Hospital Henry Croft was tragically knocked over by a horse drawn carriage.
His funeral was a great coming together of the Pearly families, with 400 Pearlies making up the cortege alongside representatives from the hospitals and institutions Croft had raised money for during his lifetime.
And although the number of Pearly families dwindled in the 1960s, there has been a recent resurgence with over 100 kings, queens, princes and princesses representing the boroughs of London.
The celebration of all things London at the Guildhall Yard on Saturday is now in its 15th year.
Information courtesy of the Cockney Museum: http://www.thecockneymuseum.com/
And the charity they were raising money for – The Whitechapel Mission – http://www.whitechapel.org.uk/