Have you ever visited London and come across a handful of colorful characters dressed head-to-toe in black outfits completely ‘blinged’ out with mother-of-pearl buttons? Probably in a parade or at a charity event? Well, if you haven’t, then you’ve missed a wonderful treat … and tradition.
Pearlies began in London in the early 1800s as ordinary “costermongers” or street vendors. The name “costermonger” comes from “costard” for apple and “monger” meaning seller. Often seen as vagrants and hounded by the police, these costermongers roamed the streets selling fruits and vegetables. Times were difficult and money hard to come by, but costers were always willing and eager to help each other out. Looked down upon by society and often bullied, they organized themselves into neighborhood groups for safety and elected Kings to lead them.
It was hard for the ‘costers’ not to admire the wealthy West Enders, whose style and panache were clearly evident as they paraded about London. One of the very fashionable items was mother-of-pearl buttons. So in demand were these accessories, factories couldn’t keep up with production. Costers, in an attempt to boost their sales by calling attention to themselves, began to sew lines of buttons up the side seams of their trousers. Not the expensive mother-of-pearl buttons, of course, but whatever buttons they could find. This also provided a way for them to identify which neighborhood group they belonged to.
Henry Croft, orphaned at a very young age, became a street sweeper at age 13. Croft was fascinated by the costermongers and by their charitable lifestyle. He was also fascinated with their concept of adorning clothing with attention-getting buttons. Although there are many stories about how Croft came about obtaining his first set of mother-of-pearl buttons, the truth has been lost in time. What we do know is that in 1880, Croft with his good friend, George Dole, started sewing hundreds of mother-of-pearl buttons on a suit.
Croft realized that by wearing these attention-getting ‘blinged’ out clothes, he might be able to raise money for the orphanage in which he grew up. From that first successful event, Croft then raised money for the London Temperance Hospital, and so began his path as a fund raiser.
Having created one suit, though, was not enough for Henry. He actually ended up creating seven suits, each one very distinctive from the others. In addition to the suits, Henry adorned a range of hats, belts, waist coats, ties, and even an overcoat, not only for himself, but for others. One of his suits was actually discovered in 1974 stowed away in the attic of a home in Essex. It is now part of a private collection.
Henry remained in the employ of the city for most of his life, as a street sweeper and then rat catcher (a very in-demand job during Victorian times). As husband to Lily Newton for 40 years, and father of 8 children, Henry became a successful and beloved member of the community, who never forgot his early struggles.
Described as the “Pearlie King of Somers Town“, Croft became such a local hero, he was written about and photographed in his famous suit consisting of 4900 buttons by STRAND MAGAZINE. This notoriety drew such attention that over the next ten years, all of London’s neighborhoods had established Pearlie families, numbering in the hundreds. Deemed the undisputed Pearly King, Croft continued raising thousands of pounds each year by appearing at various charity and social events until his death in 1930.
His funeral procession, comprised of Irish bagpipers, 400 Pearlie Kings, Queens and family members, as well as representatives from Croft’s charities and organizations, was nearly a half mile long. Commissioned by several of his favorite charities, in 1931 a marble statue of Croft was erected. The statue depicts Croft proudly posing with top hat and cane in a coat of more than 30,000 buttons, and the legend ‘the original Pearly King’.
The tradition of the Pearly King and Queen continues today. Each Pearlie is responsible for the design and the sewing of their own suit. Each suit must have its own unique pattern which should be personal to them. Some fairly common symbols include doves for peace, hearts symbolizing love or charity, wheels for the circle of life, and playing cards which symbolizes that life is a gamble. If the Pearlie should have a title, it should also be spelled out in buttons on their backs. To be a Pearlie you must also deal with the fact that a fully finished suit can weigh up to 50 lbs.
Croft’s friend, George Dole, also went on to become a Pearlie King and his family, to this day, continues his charitable work, as do Henry’s family. Since their beginning, Pearlies have organized into many different associations, each raising money for their specific charities. Although the numbers today are not as great as they were 100 years ago, the Pearlie Kings, Queens and their families continue to carry on the work of their ancestors spreading goodwill with cockney spirit and cheer, and you just might come across them on your next visit to London.