A Pearly Harvest Festival


by Esmerelda Weatherwax (October 2011)

I had had enough of Islam and all its works last week and decided to attend and report on something a bit more uplifting. So after attending my own church's Harvest Festival last Sunday my husband and I went to the City of London Guildhall for the Harvest Festival Parade of the Pearly Kings and Queens of London.

Some of you may be familiar with the London institution of the Pearly Kings and Queens. I mentioned it some months ago briefly. The Pearlies started with Henry Croft an orphan from the St Pancras area of North London who worked with costermongers who sold fruit from barrows in London’s street markets. They were very sociable and formed groups to help each other when hard times hit. Henry was struck by the pearl buttons they used to trim their clothing and he was inspired to decorate an entire suit with these buttons when he went out to collect money to help the orphanage where he was raised.

The charitable work grew and eventually every borough in London had a Pearly family among the costermongers doing charitable and community work. A costard was a type of ribbed cooking apple; I do not know what exactly distinguished a costermonger from other fruit and vegetable sellers like my grandfather. I just know that there was a distinction.

Henry Croft died in 1930. In recent years the pearly tradition has spread out of London, as have the native Londoners, and Pearlies can be found in several of the home counties, particularly Essex and Hertfordshire. There are now two associations, both registered charities with two interesting websites, here and here. Succession is partly hereditary, Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses, and since some families have rested their title the tradition is also continued by new blood being elected and invited on the strength of their work and commitment to charitable causes.

The church of St Martin’s in the Fields in Trafalgar Square has been associated with the Pearlies for many years. The statue of Henry Croft which stood on his grave has been restored after vandalism and is now inside the church. Harvest Festival is generally celebrated there in early October and also at St Paul’s Church Covent Garden, which was once the main fruit and vegetable wholesale market for London’s traders.

However 13 years ago the Pearly King of the Old Kent Road organised a third Harvest Festival in the City of London at the famous church of St Mary Le Bow. The one within the sound of her bells all true Cockneys were born. 13 years isn’t long as traditions go but several ancient traditions are brought together.

The Pearlies gathered in the courtyard of the City of London’s ancient Guildhall. Present were the two Sheriffs of London (City and Greater) and Mayors of many London boroughs and towns of the Home Counties. Fiona Wolff the Sheriff of the City of London made a welcoming speech and the entertainment began with a maypole dance. Because without the fertility of spring we wouldn’t have the harvest. The photographs below show the day better than any description of mine.

Donna Marie had all the mayors and dignitaries up to dance. Invited guests included veterans from the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

The Pearlies paraded to popular songs of the early 20th century, including Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner. Top left, the older lady is the Pearly Queen of Hornsey, in North London and the younger is the Pearly Princess of Welling Garden City, a New Town in Hertfordshire. They are wearing skeleton suits where the pattern is made with rows of buttons. The King of Lambeth is wearing a smother suit, smothered in buttons with the pattern picked out by the gaps. Not many people know that.

There were two Morris dancing sides and two marching bands. After the entertainment the parade formed up to process out of Guildhall Yard, into Gresham Street, up Cheapside to St Mary le Bow.

The Harvest offerings were to benefit the Whitechapel Mission. If there was an area that needs a mission it’s Whitechapel. The need there is far greater now, in my opinion, than 130 years ago when my grandparents were born.

Little and Large.  I don’t know how much beer Fullers contributed, but London Pride is lovely stuff. The donkey on the left is one of a half dozen pulling carts of produce.

Newfoundland dogs pulled even smaller carts with contributions.

There were vintage vehicles which took some of the older Pearlies and London black taxis representing two London charities, St Joseph’s Hospice in Bethnal Green  and the London Taxi Drivers Fund for Underprivileged Children. The work of the hospice is self-explanatory, although St Joseph’s, run by the Sisters of Charity since 1903, was a pioneer of the Hospice movement. The Fund for Underprivileged children are best known for their regular expeditions taking children to the seaside.

Also in the parade were Brownies and their Guide leaders, the Standards of the Royal British Legion, ladies of the London Redhatters, Sea cadets, Police Cadets and, standing by, young people of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. This is a side of our youth that is rarely reported.

At the church the Pearlies were greeted by a youth brass band playing Knees up Mother Brown. Somebody had to play it! The gifts were unloaded and carried into church.

It was a good afternoon. Young and old (and even bears) enjoyed themselves.

I will not accept that the English ‘have no culture’. That we native Londoners, Cockneys, are all chavs; uncouth, thick, pasty, fat and inferior. And I think foul scorn of those who dismiss my music, traditions and customs.



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