Tales from the City- Having a good old laff with the Pearly King

It’s hard to imagine that sewing buttons on a suit could change the lives of so many, but this simple act has done just this.  What a wonderful history the Pearly Kings and Queens have.  It all started with hard life in a Victorian Orphanage in Charlton Street, Somers Town, London, with a young boy by the name of Henry Croft.  On the twenty-fourth of May 1861, Henry was born into poverty at the St Pancras Workhouse. Escape from this kind of poverty was rare for children, and often the only way out from the workhouse was  death from malnutrition, disease, and crime. When his father, a musician, died in 1871, the young Henry was packed off to an orphanage.  He was one of London’s lucky children as so many born in the work houses died before the age of nineteen.

Henry determined to leave the orphanage, but never to forget it, took his first job in the Somers Town Market, which still runs to this day. Rat catching and street sweeping put food on the plate of the determined thirteen-year old. Henry, alone in the world, was very captivated with the warmth and brotherhood of the market traders.

London was a noisy affair back then with shouts of traders calling back and forth over stalls, and street vendors calling out their wares. The traders Henry was drawn to was the Costermongers, a rough, but tightly knit group of traders who sold everything from apples to nails. They first started selling from bags, or what you could carry in your hand, then barrows, and then finally the stalls that one sees in markets today. They were hardworking, and if one of their own was down on his luck, they would have a whip round to help their fellow trader back on his feet. Henry used to fending for himself in the workhouse and later the orphanage, was touched by this show of brotherhood. Although Henry had escaped the horrors of the work house, he was deeply affected by his childhood experience and vowed to do something to help those he left behind. But, he had no idea how to help.

The early Costermongers sewed smoke pearl buttons on their jackets and waistcoats along the trim of their jackets and caps, but not to the extent we see nowadays.  These mother of pearl buttons were made nearby in a factory in the East End.  How those shiny pearl buttons must have taken the young boy’s imagination in hand. He was the sort of person who leaves the world a better place than he found, and he so wanted to raise money for the orphans left behind. But, what can a street sweeper do?

He came upon the idea of sewing as many buttons as he could on his cap. With no money to spend on buttons, he scavenged the market floors for buttons dropped off the coats, shoes, and gloves of customers. Someone was always losing a button. He taught himself to sew and then with buttoned cap in hand he took to raising money. Soon, there were more buttons than his cap could hold and he started to fill the empty spaces on his clothing. Walking about in clothing smothered in buttons, he soon attracted attention and it was not long before the various hospitals asked him to raise funds for them.

Children suffered terribly and desperately needed help. It wasn’t until 1895 that The Royal Prevention to Cruelty to Children was granted its Royal Charter with Queen Victoria as its first Royal Patron, whereas the Royal Society of Protection of Animals had already been granted status in 1840, some fifty years earlier. It wasn’t until 1899 that the first law protecting children from neglect and abuse passed Parliament.

It took time to change people’s minds. People had lived a lifetime of abuse and knew nothing else. But, it was thanks to many writers of the times including Anna Sewell with her best seller- Black Beauty. She never intended the book to be written for children, but instead wrote it to create sympathy for horses who were suffering heart breaking cruelty. It was an instant best seller.   Changing the mindset of those so normally abused was a slow process and it took men like Henry with his coat of buttons and women like Sewell to create empathy and compassion for others and change the society they witnessed.

English: This rare copy of the first edition o...

English: This rare copy of the first edition of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell belonged to the author’s mother and bears a handwritten dedication reading “Mary Sewell, from her loving child A.S.” This copy was sold at an auction at Christie’s in London in June 2006 for £33,000.http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/norfolk/5053402.stm Image source: Christie’s Images via BBC UK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Henry with his coat of buttons, walking about the market and doing endless charity work, inspired the Costermongers to follow suite.  He needed their help. He was in such demand it was impossible to be everywhere at once. They had always been eager to help the less fortunate, and this suit of buttons really aided their desire to make the world a better place. So the Pearly Kings and Queens were born and the coat of buttons became their trademark.

To this day, it is an organisation made up largely of the original families of the market that still raise money for charity. How many lives has a mere street sweeper touched? How much joy have the Pearly’s brought to children over the years with their shiny buttons! These suits can be heavy, some weighing up to thirty kilo or more when fully buttoned.

The Pearly Way of life, touched Henry’s soul, for it wasn’t just about raising money, it was always done in such a way that no shame or embarrassment ever came to those who so desperately needed help. That is true charity- a gift given without any expectations of return. Henry Croft died in St Pancras workhouse, where he had been born more than 68 years earlier.   With a horse-drawn hearse to carry his body to his final resting place in St Pancras Cemetery, he was honoured with musicians, 400 pearly Kings and Queens, and the representatives from the charities he sought to help, as escorts and companions to his funeral.

If you are lucky enough to be in London  on the third Sunday in May, and the Harvest Festival held on the first Sunday of October, at St. Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, you will see a sea of pearly buttons, and you might get an earful of Cockney, or rhyming slang.

It’s not really certain where or when Cockney came about, but the East End of London has become synonymous with it. It’s been surmised that it was a way for the market traders to talk amongst themselves without the customers realising what they were actually saying, or possibly, when London first got it’s police force, the Peelers, nicknamed after its founder Sir Robert Peel, it was a way of warning other traders that the Bobbies were about. Language often has a way of happening so that we cannot always pinpoint it’s true beginnings.

Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Bt, by Henry William Pick...

Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Bt, by Henry William Pickersgill (died 1875), given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1951. See source website for additional information. This set of images was gathered by User:Dcoetzee from the National Portrait Gallery, London website using a special tool. All images in this batch have been confirmed as author died before 1939 according to the official death date listed by the NPG. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s difficult to explain how to use Cockney rhyming slang as some of the rhymes have no relation to the subject what so ever, but after time with any language, the meaning becomes the rhyme, such as –Call me on the bone- Dog and bone for the telephone. Now from seeing the early telephone and their handles, I can see this relationship; the handle does somewhat look like a bone, and bone rhymes with phone. So that works, but here are some others.

Back= Cadbury snack. Me Cadbury’s snack’s playing up.

Bank= Iron Tank He lost his business to the Iron Tank

Beer=Pig’s Ear  Can I buy you a pig’s ear?

Chips =Jockey Whips I think I’ll have some jockey whips with my Lillian Gish ( fish) tonight.

Daughter= Lamb to the Slaughter…

Geezer=Freezer  ( Geezer is slang for a man.)  He’s a right proper freezer.

Pork Pies =Lies Oh you are telling a porkie pie!

Aunt =Mrs Chant.

So from the heart of London, the East End, where little pearl buttons have done so much good, many thanks to a small boy who wanted to do so much to help, Henry Croft, and the Pearly Kings and Queens, and a right proper cockney goodnight, little of the old and little of the new….

Time for me to get me tommy tucker (supper) and watch the custard and jelly ( telly) in my Barack Obajamas. ( pyjamas)

About susan sheldon

I am an explorer. It's taken me awhile to realise this. But I love capturing bits of our wonderful world with my camera, travelling through time and history, always returning to write, or paint what I've discovered. I use my Leica and my iPhone to capture images, and with those images I try to hold on to a feeling, a moment in our busy lives. Sometimes those moments bring me into the past, others into the studio to paint, or back to the old typewriter to try to use words to capture what the camera has done for me already. One of my goals in my blog is to have a space to take a breath away from our frantic world. I hope you enjoy your time here. It’s such a privilege to have readers.
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8 Responses to Tales from the City- Having a good old laff with the Pearly King

  1. Pseu says:

    on your way up the apples and pears so soon?

  2. I love the buttons. What a distinctive car.

    • susan sheldon nolen says:

      I agree that car was amazing and he actually drove it! I wonder if he left a trail of buttons behind! 😉

  3. Just LOVED this, Susan. Exuberant!

  4. Very interesting post, Susan… this is the first time I have read about the history of the Pearly Kings – fascinating!

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