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5 things you never knew about Pearly Kings and Queens

Written by
Katie McCabe

The Pearly Queen of St Pancras Diane Gould gives us the story behind the buttons

1. The button suit was invented by a rat-catcher

‘The pearly tradition began with Henry Croft, who was born in St Pancras workhouse. Curiously, he died there too, in 1930. He worked as a road-sweeper and rat-catcher, and he was the one who created the first suit. There’s plenty of stories, but they reckon there was plenty of button factories back in that sort of time, churning out pearl buttons. Then there was another legend about a cask of pearl buttons, chucked overboard by one of the traders going along the Thames. But it took Henry a few years to make that costume. He made what was called “skeleton suits” – one for each day of the week.’

2. Pearlies didn’t start in east London

‘We started in north London. People talk about the phrase that you have to be “born in earshot of the Bow Bells” [of St Mary-le-Bow Church] to be a true Cockney. But thinking about it, back before the high-rises and modern building in London, you could hear the Bow Bells in north London, Hampstead and way up. People think we started in the East End when it really started in King’s Cross.’


3. The outfits are bloody heavy

‘The women’s hats are usually larger cartwheel-type felt hats; they all need to take the weight of the traditional ostrich feathers. Some ladies put wire netting inside the hat to take the weight. Generally the suits are handed down through generations, and a pearly king would be the one sewing the pearly suit. A pearly suit is never finished. You’re always adding or changing the design. I’ve had mine for over 30 years now. A full pearly “smother” suit can weigh up to 30kg.’

4. Cockney rhyming isn’t the only pearly slang

‘Coster backslang is where the words are backwards. It started in Victorian London, and was used mainly by costermongers to talk behind the backs of their billy bunters [punters]. Sometimes they were being saucy or didn’t want the punters to know. The word “yob” was originally backslang for “boy”.’

5. It all started with the costermongers

‘They used to elect a costermonger king and a costermonger queen to look after the market, so if any market trader fell on hard times, they would always have a collection. From the coster king and coster queen, the pearly kings and queens started. It goes way back to when working-class people used to stick together. It’s about being united, spreading love and looking out for those who can’t do it themselves. It’s about raising funds for those less well-off. Sometimes people needed a little help up. That’s what the pearlies do – the traditional, real pukka pearlies.’

The Original Pearly Kings & Queens Association harvest celebration will take place at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Tube: Charing Cross. Sun Oct 7, 2.30pm. Free. Find out more about The Pearly Queen of St Pancras here

Want more London traditions? Check out these eight old-school events that are still going strong in the city

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