Medieval Roots, Victorian Origins
London’s pearly tradition originated in the 19th century with the costermongers, a group of itinerant street traders who had actually been in the city since the 11th century. It was during the Victorian era that the merchants appointed leaders – or coster kings and queens – who would advocate for the group, as they were often hounded by the police.
East End costermongers were all too aware of the Dickensian poverty and depravity that accompanied the glory days of Victorian London. Whenever a coster was down on their luck, the others would rally and support them financially until they were back on their feet—a heartening display of the collective spirit that existed amongst England’s working class at the time.
The First Pearly King
Victorian-era coster kings and queens were fans of elegant flair, and they came to imitate the style of wealthy West End folk by emblazoning their scruffy suits with lines of penny-sized mother-of-pearl buttons called flashies.
Dazzled by the flashy suits of the coster kings, and inspired by the community spirit that existed within costermonger circles, street cleaner and rat catcher Henry Croft set about adorning a suit in a shell of flashies to raise money for the St Pancras orphanage, where he was raised until he left aged 13.
Many of the coster kings and queens were delighted to see what Croft was doing and joined him as pearly kings and queens, collecting money for charity and supporting the community. It was not long before every borough in London had its own pearly royalty, and they became a facet of working-class culture.
Modern Pearly Kings and Queens
During the 150 years since Croft was born, the tradition has thrived, and the pearlies were even courted by Boris Johnson during his campaign for Mayor of London and participated in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Many of today’s pearly kings and queens are descendants of the original royalty, and there is a strong element of hereditary duty to honour the charitable example originally set by Croft. In fact, the pearly queen of Somers Town is the great-granddaughter of none other than Croft himself.