They went to London for a few days,
Standing on the street outside a bar in Hoxton,
VJ, her man and the Pearly King of Woolwich passed the time of day.
They were seriously impressed by the Pearly’s attire.
He sewed every single pearl button on himself.
The first ‘Pearly’ was a young lad named Henry Croft.
Born in 1861, Henry was raised in the rough surroundings of the St Pancras workhouse.
At the age of 13, he took a job as a road sweeper and made friends with the local Costermongers (the fruit and vegetable street sellers).
The Costermongers hostility towards the police was as legendary as their loyalty to each other. They looked out for one another financially and would collect donations for those who fell on hard times. They had a nominated King and Queen for each area, to represent them and fight for their rights. They had a simple philosophy on life … “some you win, some you lose – just pick yourself up and start over again”.
The Costermonger community and generosity inspired young Henry, as did their fashion of pearly buttons sewn on to the piped seams of their trousers.
Henry vowed to raise money to help the less fortunate around him including the children at the orphanage. To do this he knew that he needed to stand out from the crowd and so he collected all the pearl buttons he could find and slowly fashioned himself a pearly suit. His spectacular suit became quite an attraction, drawing the crowds and he collected an increasingly large sum in half pennies and pennies. London’s first ‘Pearly King’ was born.
Henry was soon in great demand by many cash strapped local institutions and helped many of London’s hospitals, workhouses and orphanages. Henry turned to his Costermonger friends for help and they never let him down, fashioning their own pearly ‘smother’ suits and helping him with his charitable works.
There were soon 28 ‘Pearly families’, one for each of the London Boroughs, one for the City of Westminster and one for the City of London, with succession through inheritance.
Henry died of lung cancer in 1930 – his funeral was a spectacular affair attended by all the ‘Pearly families’ and received national media coverage.
The charities he helped over the years clubbed together and helped to pay for a statue of Henry for his grave. The statue was later moved and now stands in the crypt of the church of St Martins in the Field in a corner of Trafalgar Square.
Over 130 years later, the tradition continues strongly. The Pearly suits are painstakingly sewn by hand, decorated with tens of thousands of tiny buttons and weigh up to 30lbs.
The Pearly tradition is summed up by the motto … “Anyone can fall on hard times. What counts is making the most of the good times while they last, doing all you can to help others and having the support of your own kind when the going gets tough”.