Henry Croft: ‘The Original Pearly King’
by Bob Davenport
One of the most striking monuments in St Pancras & Islington Cemetery – until repeated vandalism caused its removal some 20 years ago – was a top-hatted statue of Henry Croft, ‘The Original Pearly King’, based on the photograph above.
Henry Croft was born on 24 May 1861 in the St Pancras workhouse, in King’s Road (now St Pancras Way) in Somers Town, north London, where his mother – Elizabeth, the 27-year-old wife of a musician also called Henry – had been admitted that day. Mother and child were discharged a fortnight later, on 7 June, presumably returning to 10 Fitzroy Market (between present-day Warren Street and Grafton Way), the ‘Residence’ given in the workhouse records. On 24 February 1862 they were admitted again – their address now given as 18 Mary Place (off Stanhope Street) – being discharged on 13 March with a dole of two shillings (worth about £11 today). And they were back there again in 1863: from 31 January to 2 March – with Elizabeth’s occupation now given as ‘Charing’ (sic) rather than ‘Husband a musician’ and their residence as ‘None’ – and then from 14 March to 8 May, with residence again given as 18 Mary Place and no entry in the occupation column. In July 1864 Elizabeth again appears in the workhouse records, but this time without Henry, who by now had perhaps been sent to the St Pancras orphanage where he spent most of his childhood.
It was in the orphanage that he learned the sewing skills which would prove so useful in creating the pearl-button-covered costumes that he later made famous; and it was the orphanage that in 1876 sent him to the roads and sewers department of St Pancras Borough Council to take up a job as a road sweeper, which was to be his occupation for all his working life.
In the course of his work from the council’s Barnby Street depot he came across many costermongers – sellers of, particularly, fruit and vegetables from barrows in the street – and became fascinated by their ‘flash boy’ outfits. They had a row of mother-of-pearl buttons sewn to their outside trouser seams from the ankle to the knee, with more pearl buttons on the flaps of their waistcoat and coat pockets and the front of their caps. A 1904 newspaper article reported that ‘Pearl buttons always possessed a peculiar charm for Croft, and when quite a boy he was never happy unless his coat boasted more “pearls” than those of his companions.’
In 1883 at Burton Hall, Burton Crescent (now Cartwright Gardens), in St Pancras, a competition was held with a silver watch offered for the ‘flashest’ youth within a 12-mile radius. Young dudes came from every part of London, but the prize and the title of ‘Pearly King’ went to Henry. (It was a title already used by the music-hall performer Hyram Travers. In February 1883 The Era reported that ‘Mr Hyram Travers, announced as the “pearly king,” appears almost covered with pearl buttons, and then modestly asks the spectators not to call him “flash.”’) Henry was probably wearing a ‘smother’ suit, with the fabric completely covered with pearl buttons, rather than one of the more restrained ‘skeleton’ suits which he also produced. He is believed to have eventually created seven suits for himself, as well as suits for others and various pearly accessories such as caps and belts.
Henry – who was no more than 5 feet tall – used to wear his pearly outfits to stand out in charitable fetes and carnivals to collect money in aid of the children in the orphanage where he had been raised. He and his suit became a great attraction, and he was approached by hospitals, churches and other organisations to collect for the poor, deaf, dumb or blind. Eventually he had more requests for help than he could cope with single-handed.
Tradition has it that Henry’s friends the costermongers had a custom of organising a whip-round for any of their number who had fallen on hard times, and Henry now asked them to help him with his charity work. They adopted the same style of costume, and so the pearly monarchy and its practice of raising money for charity began, eventually spreading to every London borough.
As the Manchester Guardian wrote of Henry in 1934, ’For over forty years he went about the streets, in and out of taverns, threading his way among theatre queues, collecting money for charities. He was twice presented to royalty, and on his own estimate his collection-boxes yielded up to charity over those years the handsome sum of £4,000 [equivalent to about £220,000 today].’
Medals awarded him included one for his work with the Children’s Outing Fund and another from the lord mayor of London for raising £72 (about £4,000 today) for victims of the Thames flood of 1928. In 1892 he had married Lily Newton, the daughter of a Kentish Town painter and his wife, and after Henry’s death she told the press, ‘He was given a ribbon for every collection he made, and we have two thousand of them.’
The pearly king and queens became a very visible part of London life. The Pearly King of Somers Town, Leon Williams, was among the costermongers and their donkeys who took part in the International Horse Show at Olympia in 1907, and the Daily Express reported that at least half a dozen pearly kings took part there in 1912, though ‘the super-king was Mr. Henry Croft, of Euston-road, who wore a frock coat literally covered with “pearlies”.’ (The outfit that he wore at a costers’ donkey show at Crystal Palace in 1910 – not that he was ever a coster himself – was said to have had 20,300 buttons.) In 1924 The Times reported that a fund-raising carnival for St Dunstan’s institute for the blind was attended by the pearly kings of ‘Holloway, Hornsey, Poplar, Somers Town, Islington, and West London, and, in addition, Brother Croft, who has the title of “pearly king of the world”’ – a title also used below a Daily Mirror photograph of him taking part in a May Day demonstration in 1922.
But his precedence seems not to have gone unchallenged – in 1914 a Times report of a costers’ donkey show at the People’s Palace in the Mile End Road noted the presence of ‘H. G. Tabram, “the original pearly king,” who drove about the show clad in his armour suit of a hundred thousand buttons’ – and in an interview from his bed in the London Temperance Hospital, where he was recovering after an operation, in July 1926 Henry instructed the Daily Express, ’Say that I am the only original Pearly King in London, and I am the Pearly King, father of Pearly Prince Arthur and Pearly Princess Elizabeth of the world.’ At his home, Elizabeth (one of twelve children of Henry and Lily) showed an Express reporter an oak chest full of pearly garments and said, ‘He is much upset that his undisputed title has been questioned. Why, he made most of the pearly suits for people who have put forward claims since! Look at this suit and overcoat. The overcoat weighs nearly half a hundredweight, and there are more than 30,000 buttons on the suit.’
Though newspaper reports said that he had always been a teetotaller and non-smoker, Henry died of lung cancer on 1 January 1930, aged 68, in the St Pancras workhouse, where he had been born. Four hundred pearly kings and queens in their costumes attended his burial in St Pancras Cemetery on 7 January, his coffin being carried in a procession nearly half a mile long from his home in Charles Street (now Phoenix Road, by Euston station) in a hearse drawn by four black horses and with purple mort cloths. (Singer Ian Dury requested the same hearse for his funeral in April 2000.) Four pearly kings acted as pall bearers, and the coffin was topped with Henry’s famous pearl-covered tall hat and a black cushion bearing all the medals he had been awarded.
The Tottenham, Edmonton and Wood Green Hospital Aid and Philanthropic Society raised a fund to pay for a memorial, and a life-size statue of him was commissioned for his grave. In November 1931 a crowd of 10,000 people gathered to watch some 400 pearly kings and queens, led by a band of pipers, march past it at a stonemason’s in Tottenham. But it was some time before it was put in place. In September 1933 an Australian visitor to England who had approached The Times for help in finding out out about the annual meeting of the pearlies wrote again to say that in response to his first letter
One correspondent offered to sell me the wonderful costume of Croft, the first Pearly King, entirely covered – tall hat and all – with pearl buttons. Also I was offered a life-size stone statue of Croft wearing this marvellous costume. This statue was ordered some years ago from a Tottenham stone-mason, who had it sculptured in Italy, but could not collect the payment (£200). Both of them are most interesting, but difficult to pack in a suit-case!
Evidently the bill was eventually settled, and, after Henry had been exhumed in December 1933 and reburied in a private plot, on 30 May 1934 the statue was finally unveiled over his grave in a ceremony attended by some 500 people, including pearly kings, queens, princes and princesses from all over London. The Daily Mirror reported that ‘A crippled Pearly King, who arrived late, accompanied by a nurse, hobbled up the long drive with the aid of a pearl button-studded stick.’ The Bishop of London, the 72-year-old A. F. Winnington-Ingram, popular for his earlier work in the East End, had apparently been asked to perform the unveiling, but on the day the task fell to the Revd Albert D. Belden, of Whitefields Central Mission in Tottenham Court Road, who spoke of Croft’s work in raising money for ‘suffering humanity in London’s hospitals’:
The statue was repeatedly vandalised in the mid-1990s and was eventually replaced by a marble slab bearing a photograph of what had been there.
After restoration, in 2002 the statue itself was placed in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields church, where the Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association holds annual pearly memorial and harvest festival services.
• Philip Carter, ‘Croft, Henry (1861–1930)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2012
• Daily Express, 11 June 1907 (’The “Pearly King” at Olympia’), 29 June 1912 (‘Horse Show’s Last Day’), 13 July 1926 (‘“I am the Pearly King”’)
• Daily Mail, 2 November 1931 (’30,000 Buttons on Statue: Memorial to “Pearly King”’), 3 November 1931 (‘“Pearlies” March Past’)
• Daily Mirror, 2 May 1922 (‘Varied May Day Observances in Three Great Cities’), 3 November 1931 (‘400 Honour a “Pearly King”’), 12 February 1934 (’Pearly King Statue’), 23 May 1934 (‘Pearly King’s Statue’), 1 June 1924 (‘Pearly King Statue’)
• The Era, 3 February 1883 (‘The London Music Halls’)
• Hull Daily Mail, 21 July 1910 (‘“Mail” Mustard and Cress’)
• Adam Joseph, King of the Pearly Kings: The Story of Henry Croft (London: Cockney Museum, 1975)
• London Pearly Kings and Queens Society website
• London workhouse admission and discharge records at ancestry.co.uk
• Manchester Guardian, 4 January 1930 (’Death of Original “Pearly King”), 8 January 1930 (’The Pearly Kings’), 22 May 1934 (‘The First Pearly King’), 1 June 1934 (‘“Pearlies” in Procession’)
• Nottingham Evening Post, 7 January 1904 (‘Pearly King’)
• Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association website
• Pearly Kings and Queens Guild website
• ‘St Pancras, Middlesex, London’, The Workhouse website
• St Pancras Gazette, 10 January 1930 (‘Mr. H. Croft’)
• Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 19 May 1910 (‘The Pearlie King’)
• Spitalfields Life blog, 22 May 2015 (‘The Man Beneath Trafalgar Square’), 20 September 2015 (‘At The Pearlies’ Harvest Festival‘)
• Strand Magazine, vol. 23, no. 134 (February 1902), ‘Curiosities’, p. 236
• The Times, 26 May 1914 (’Costers’ Donkey Show’), 16 June 1924 (‘Aid for St Dunstans’), 3 November 1931 (‘“Pearly King” Honoured’), 26 August and 12 September 1933 (‘The Pearlies’, letters from A. M. Reeves), 1 June 1934 (‘Statue of a “Pearly King”’)