The Pearly Kings and Queens of London, commonly referred to as “pearlies”, are an organised charitable tradition of working class culture in London, England. They raise funds to provide a better way of living for those less fortunate, but they’re best known for their flashy outfits decorated with thousands of pearl buttons.
Pearlies can be traced back to the year 1875, when the organisation was founded by Henry Croft, a 13-year-old street sweeper and rat catcher who dedicated his life to raising money to help children raised in orphanages. Henry himself was an orphan, and after he left the orphanage, at age 13 he became fascinated by London’s costermongers, a guild of colorful street traders who always helped one of their own when he was in trouble. They would organize a “whip round”, collecting money to help fellow costermongers get back on their feet. Traditionally, costers elected Kings’ to lead them against bullies seeking to drive them from their’place of business. They all wore clothes decorated with pearl buttons so they could easily be identified. The buttons were sewn down the outside leg seam of their pants, from the knee down to the ankle, on the pockets of their waistcoats and the front of their caps. Henry was fascinated both by their lifestyle and their dress code and decided to take their fashion style to a new level by decorating a whole suit with pearly buttons, while at the same time raising money for various causes. He became an attraction wherever he went, and one point he was so popular that Hospitals and other charities started asking him to collect money for their causes. But he needed help in his quest to help the sick and poor, and it help from his costermonger friends, who later became known as the Pearly Kings and Queens of London.