Button Crazy – London’s Pearly Kings and Queens

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.

Photo credits: London Connection

As London grew, so did the pearly Monarchy and their work spread to many new charities that needed help. Henry Croft died in 1930, and at the time of his death he had reportedly raised and donated over £5,000. That’s over £220,000 ($360,000) in today’s money. His funeral was attended by all pearlies (around 400) and it was so spectacular that it was filmed by Pathe News.

Photo credits: Pearly Society

Today, there are around 40 families of Pearly Kings and Queens still carrying on the 137-year-old tradition in London, helping out different charities around the city’s boroughs. Sadly, the two World Wars took a heavy toll on the pearly society, with many families being lost in the conflict. In order to survive, they were forced to recruit new members. With their flashy costumes., decorated with pearl buttons, Pearly Kings and Queens attend festivals and event raising money for worthy causes. Each outfit features up to 30,000 pearl buttons and weighs up to 30 kilograms. They are sewn with mystic symbols, stars, moons, suns, flowers, diamonds, Trees of Life, Eyes of God and fertility designs.

Photo credits: The Pearlies


Photo credits: The Pearlies

Photo credits: Felix Cohen

Photo credits: honto

Photo credits: Swamibu

Sources: The Pearlies, City Noise

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