Friday, 27 September 2013

A Throne for a Pearly King or Queen... by Ruth Eaton

 A Chair for Charity
View - Sunday 29th September 2013 - Harvest Festival  - Guildhall Hall

All photographs on this page (c) Ruth Eaton

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner … that the Pearly Kings and Queens, with their shimmering costumes, have featured in my world-view since childhood. Like, say, the majestic lion statues at Trafalgar Square, I probably first encountered them from the shoulders of my father, maybe first seeing them strut their snazzy stuff during a Lord Mayor’s Show.

A while back it occurred to me that the elaborate pearl-buttoned designs of their costumes might be suitable for a piece of furniture, and then that, well, if the pearly royalty didn’t already possess a throne perhaps they’d fancy one.

So one bright Sunday morning recently I set off for Columbia Road in search of the genuine article, somewhat nervous about the reaction I might receive. Half-expecting to meet Eliza Doolittle among the colourful crowds in the flower market at any moment, I soon spotted a cluster of Pearlies in full regalia rattling collection boxes. Quickly I realized that I need never have worried about my reception, for barely had I introduced myself and spluttered out my half-formulated plan than the Pearly Kings and Queens were already welcoming me warmly under their iridescent wings.

Among those present were John Walters, Pearly King of Finsbury, a fountain of knowledge and advice, his son Darren, the Pearly Prince, and Gwen Jones, Pearly Queen of Greenwich. All are members of the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society (LPKQS) a registered charity (no 1091098). The monies they collected are distributed among a large number of charitable causes, both small and large and all based in London and the Home Counties (a full list can be found on their website:

As I learned of the huge contributions the Pearlies have made to charity over past decades, it occurred to me that my chair might also serve to raise money for them. If I acquired the frame, the re-upholstery materials, the top fabric and the buttons I could ask friends to sponsor my button-sewing efforts. I discussed the idea with my upholstery tutor, Sarah Bolton, who kindly agreed to help me to source a suitable chair and oversee its re-upholstery and John Walters along with Carole Jolly, Secretary of the LPKQS who encouraged me enthusiastically but also warned me that I was taking on an enormous amount of work.

And so the project began…

The chair Sarah proposed was a Parker Knoll wing chair – one of the Queen Anne Penshurst models (PK 720) in beech. It was very disheveled so I stripped it back to its basic structure, re-upholstered it in calico and re-painted its legs.

Now I’ve set out on the long task of sewing hundreds – nay, thousands – of buttons onto the black fabric with which it is to be covered. Already I feel I’ve become a complete stir-crazy recluse but I’m determined to finish it.  I’ve already completed a few sections and will send out some photos shortly once they’re actually upholstered onto the chair…

I have a deadline – it’s Sunday 29th September 2013 for the Harvest Festival at London’s Guildhall, an important date in the Pearlies’ calendar. (For more information on that see ).

So, if you’re feeling generous-spirited and able to make a donation, then a cheque made out to “The London Pearly King and Queen Society” (and posted to me so that I can group/forward donations to them) would be extremely gratefully-received by the Pearlies. I thought about setting up a page on Just Giving or similar but the LPKQS were reluctant to go down that road – hence the cheques. “We’re only a small charity,” they explained – a small charity, yes, but with a big heart!

The Origins of the Pearly Kings and Queens: the Costers

The beginnings of the Pearly Kings and Queens date back to the late 19th century - to a Mr. Henry Croft in fact - but to understand them one really needs to look further back in time, to the history of the costermongers. The word “coster” refers to a kind of apple that was once sold in the markets of London and the “costers” or costermongers were the street traders who walked the city’s streets, selling flowers, fruit, vegetables and sometimes fish.  And walk they did, for most had no license to occupy a fixed position but instead had to keep moving, pushing their carts (unless they were lucky enough to own a donkey) and simultaneously packing up produce or counting change, perpetually on the move from dawn till dusk. It was an extremely harsh life, subject to the vagaries of weather, health, the purses of their clients and the often-cruel control of the moneylenders and the police. They particularly hated the police who’d reputedly book them on the grounds of loitering were they to stop for a fraction of time.

In response to the difficulties they faced the costers organized themselves in various ways. They elected those who were best equipped to defend the group - who literally fought their ground for them, in fisticuffs or words, in the streets or the law courts - to be “Kings”. And thus dynasties came to be created, with titles passing from generation to generation through birth or marriage across the centuries. To this day, the titles of the Pearly Kings and Queens are almost always transferred this way.

This sense of solidarity and organization also expressed itself in other ways and the costers supported one another financially when times got particularly tough. Often they passed a collecting bowl among their members, who were most generous despite being strapped for cash themselves, in the pubs, the music halls or the streets, to aid a colleague in dire need. They were also great benefactors of the hospitals that provided care to them in the 19th century and were an important source of funding before the creation of the National Health.

Henry Croft and the Pearly Tradition

Henry Croft, the first Pearly King, was born in 1862 and raised in an orphanage in Charlton Street, London NW1. In 1875, aged 13, he left that institution and became a municipal road sweeper, working in the market of Somers town where he befriended many costermongers. He appreciated their hard-working, often hard-playing and charitable way of life and decided to emulate this, helping those who were less fortunate than himself, supporting various causes including the London Temperance Hospital. In order to boost his success at this he realized that he needed to find a way of drawing attention to himself – and this is where the pearl buttons made an entrance in earnest.

Now, there is a legend that the pearly fashion started in the 1880s when a Japanese cargo ship laden with buttons foundered in the Thames during a fog and its pearly cargo was washed ashore into the hands of the costers gambling on the wharves behind the barges. Another version tells that a ship was seized for excise infringement and its cargo sold off cheaply to a costermonger clientele. Indeed the costers were a stylish group and those that collected money had already begun to sew a few buttons onto certain areas of their clothes, such as along the seams of their trousers. This, reputedly along with a brass-button-covered suit belonging to a music hall comedian, inspired Henry to sport lots of pearl buttons rather than just a few, and so, as he swept the market floors, he began to collect those that had fallen from the visitors. He sewed them onto his cap to start and then, little by little, added them to his suit until it became filled and the first ‘smother’ suit was created.

In the 1880s the then relatively recent cult of Pearly buttons merged with the coster tradition of London regional Royalty completely as Henry Croft was elected to the first Pearly Kingship of Somerstown. By 1911 all 28 of the metropolitan boroughs of London had its own pearly royal family, often members of the local costermonger community. In 1926 Henry claimed publicly that he was the “original Pearly King in London” and, when he died in 1930, he’d become so famous that some 400 Pearlies attended his funeral. A life-size marble statue of him, originally sculpted for his grave in Finsbury Cemetery, can now be found in the crypt of the Church of Saint-Martins-in-the-Field.

Pearly Costumes

The costumes of the Pearlies are the expression of considerable creative talent. No two are the same though a number of traditional symbols are always incorporated into their designs and tell us much about their life. Outlines are often bordered as a sign of protection and many features indicate the precarity of coster life and their fatalistic attitude to it. The rank and realm of the Pearly Royalty are proclaimed in buttons on the back of the jacket or waistcoat. Among the most important recurring motifs, we find triangles (the ups and downs of life); playing cards and/or clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades (life is a gamble); horseshoes (luck); hearts (charity); anchors (hope); crosses (faith); doves (peace); wheels (circle of life/friendship/wheel of a coster’s cart); donkey carts (costers’ donkeys and carts); donkey heads (idem); flower pots (the trade of selling flowers (also recalling the old coster song, “Three Pots a Shilling”) and John Walters told me he also includes stars (cos he’s a star!).

Generally men wear suits, of black or dark fabric, kingsmen (neckties) and caps and ladies skirts (usually long) and fabulous hats decorated with long ostrich feathers. There have been exceptions to these rules and indeed Henry Croft preferred a top hat to a cap and other Pearlies have broken with tradition by, for example, wearing collars and ties. The decoration is described as ‘smother’ when the beads are sewn on densely and ‘skeleton’ when images are applied sparsely and the underlying fabric is left quite exposed. The clothes often weigh a good 30 kilos under the burden of literally thousands of buttons and 60,000 buttons is apparently not uncommon for a royal suit - yet the ultimate smother costume surely belonged to the famous Beatrice Marriott, Festival Pearly Queen of London, who launched the P&O Cruiser Spirit of London in 1972 - reputedly it had 90,000 buttons!

1 comment:

  1. Dear Ruth what a Beautiful chair - it is a credit to our proud pearly tradition. My name is Diane and i came across this article by chance My family are the Pearlies of St Pancras (here is our website We are 5th generation Pearlies. Again my congratulations on making such a beautiful chair if you ever have one for sale let me know. Warm wishes Diane BTW before dad passed away he wrote a book about his life in London it is being released on 19th June