The Pearly Kings and Queens
by Philippa Rae
Suitable for Whole School (Pri)
To recognize and affirm the tradition of the pearly kings and queens of London.
Preparation and materials
Gather some images of pearly kings and queens through their history, including Henry Croft and the modern-day parades, and have the means to display them during the assembly. Also have available some images of Victorian times in London, such as historic photos of the city, barrows and street traders and what life was like for poor children in those times.
If possible, borrow some pearly king and queen clothing and arrange for the children to model them.
- Have available the song 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going' by Billy Ocean and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
- Do you know what pearly kings and queens are? Well, they look like this . . .
Show some of the images of pearly kings and queens.
They are people who dress up in clothes decorated with patterns of lots of attractive mother-of-pearl buttons to raise money for charity. The celebrated tradition of the pearly kings and queens we see today began in the nineteenth century in working-class London, born out of the hard conditions that poor people had to endure then.
The man credited with starting this tradition is Henry Croft. He was influenced by the spirit of the London street traders and together they organized themselves to raise money for charity.
- Today, there is great affection for customs handed down through the generations, such as cockney rhyming slang, and the pearly kings and queens are loved by many and have been honoured in recognition of their work.
- At the beginning of autumn each year, there is a parade in London that travels from Guildhall to St Mary le Bow. This is the pearly kings and queens' harvest festival parade to raise money for charity.
Show some of the images of the modern-day parades.
- It isn’t just the fundraising activities that mark the pearly kings and queens out but also their distinctive spirit, which is a result of the hard times previous generations found themselves in when they first started their work.
- Let me tell you about Henry Croft.
Show one or more of the mages of Henry Croft.
Born in 1861, as a baby, he was left on the steps of the local workhouse, where he lived until he was 13. Many parents in those days couldn’t afford to keep all the children they had and gave them to the workhouses. When Henry was found, he had a tag around his neck giving his name, date of birth and religion.
As a teenager, Henry worked as a roadsweeper and rat catcher. In Victorian times, if you were poor, London was an extremely unpleasant place to be. Home was a squalid slum or you slept on the street. With little decent food and unclean, dirty conditions, people struggled to survive in any way they could.
Show some of the images of Victorian London.
- Imagine being sick and not having a doctor to look after you. If you were a child then, even a simple chill could kill as you would be in an already weakened state as a result of the conditions in which you lived. There was no school for poor children or hot lunches. Instead, you would run the risk of being thrown into a filthy and cramped prison for picking pockets or stealing money to buy food, literally living hand to mouth, taking each day as it came.
Show some images of poor children in Victorian times.
The only other option was the dreaded workhouse. In those days, apart from people such as Lord Shaftsbury or Charles Dickens (you may know the story Oliver Twist), usually the well to do did little to help relieve the suffering of those in difficulty.
- In his adult life, Henry was a poor man and had a family to take care of himself. He understood how harsh life was. He started to raise money for the workhouse where he had grown up. To make himself stand out, he covered his suit and top hat with mother-of-pearl buttons that he had found. He had picked up the idea from the costermongers - street traders, selling fruit and vegetables and other wares from baskets, barrows and then, eventually, stalls at markets - who started this fashion by sewing buttons on the seams of their trousers and flaps of their waistcoats and so on, but Henry took it a step further.
When the costermongers saw the effect his glimmering outfit had on boosting funds, they also sewed more buttons on their clothes as they, too, raised money for those who had fallen on hard times. An agreement was made between them and they joined forces for their fundraising parades and carnivals. So it was that the seed was sown for the more formal pearly kings and queens societies that have since grown and expanded into the organizations we see in London today.
A bit of cheerful, cheeky banter and entertainment is given in return for donations. This spirited gesture has much in common with the ways in which the unlicensed street traders in Victorian times drummed up business for their wares, thumbing their noses at the upper classes and the police who often chased them.
Show some of the images of Victorian barrows and other street traders.
- Henry and the other costermongers were remarkable in that they didn’t become cold-hearted towards others. Despite having to labour for their living and money being very tight indeed, they willingly gave up their well-earned spare time to help others and provided charity without it being patronizing. They had a dignified, compassionate attitude to life, which was to raise money and dispense it in true cockney spirit – good-heartedly, without pity or condescension. Their attitude was based on the understanding that life in those times could be cruel, but you had to pick yourself up and start again.
The cockney motto was to look out for their own kind. The costermongers relied on selling their wares to the poor, who, in turn, relied on them to provide them with goods that they otherwise couldn’t afford.
- Henry Croft died in 1930. Though he, like the Victorian street traders didn’t seek recognition, he received countless medals and ribbons to mark his achievements. Today, a life-size marble statue of him stands in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields. It and the annual parades mark out the pearlies' special place in the history of London.
Time for reflection
Help me to appreciate all that I have and remember those who have less.
Help me to understand that anyone can fall on hard times.
Help me to remember to make the most of the good times when they are here and help others when I can.
Let us give thanks for the many charities and wonderful fundraisers who help communities today, such as the pearly kings and queens, and remember the people in the past, such as Henry Croft, who have inspired them.
Let me find the same generosity of spirit in life that he and the pearly kings and queens have.
'When the going gets tough, the tough get going' by Billy Ocean
- In art lessons, the children could make their own pearly outfits.
- In history lessons, the works of Dickens, such as Oliver Twist, could be studied and the historic markets in London, such as Billingsgate, Smithfield and Covent Garden, that owe much to the original itinerant street sellers operating in Victorian times.
- For citizenship and creative writing lessons, the children could be shown examples of cockney rhyming slang and discuss modern examples, perhaps coming up with some of their own.