Pearly Kings and Queens

Anyone who has seen any kind of programme or documentary about London will no doubt have seen images of men and women dressed in clothing covered in shiny pearl buttons. These are the Pearly Kings and Queens of London, and despite what you may assume there is more than one of each in the city. In one form or another the Pearly Kings and Queens have been around for more than a thousand years. Their origins lie with the original street traders which operated within the city walls; later they were linked to the ‘Costermongers’ who were a later generation of these same traders who sold their wares during the 18th Century. In the 19th century they were coined as ‘Coster Kings and Queens’, though it is the distinctive clothing worn by the individuals themselves that gave rise to the title of ‘Pearly Kings and Queens’. But who exactly are they are what sets them apart from their peers?

Photo by Scott Stegenga
Photo by Scott Stegenga

A Centre for Trade

London has been a centre for trade for many a century and all during this time the costermongers and street traders have been plying their wares from baskets, barrows and market stalls. Billingsgate market became the centre of the fish trade, cattle and livestock were traded at Smith field Market, and fresh produce was traded at Spitalfields and Covent Garden. London continued to grow and expand past the city walls. The traders and costermongers in each borough got together and elected a representative who would fight for the rights of the traders in their borough. He was known as the ‘Coster King’. These were the fighters, the politicians, the quick witted and the strong that would defend the rights of the trading families in their area. Some of the most fearsome of these representatives were the ‘Coster Queens’ of Billingsgate. The children of these kings and queens were deemed royal and would grow up to inherit the titles and follow in the footsteps of their parents.

Showmen at Heart

Costers had their own sense of style and even own language with their form of slang being much older than the cockney rhyming slang that we know today. The pearl buttons started as something of a mockery of the wealthy, as during the 19th century the well to do in the city were dressing up with pearl accessories so the costers took it a step further, stitching pearl ‘flashies’ all over their clothing. The Pearly King and Queen costume that we recognise today originated during the 1880’s when Henry Croft a rat catcher and road sweeper smothered a battered old dress suit and top hat in flashies, there were patterns, symbols and words all over hit outfit. He started a trend that every Pearly King and Queen has followed since. The Pearly Kings and Queens from all of London’s 28 boroughs still don their outfits for charity events and fund raising activities every year, plus they also draw in the visitors and tourists to the city who are looking for some real local culture and character when they arrive.

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