Donated by owner’s daughter, The Pearly Queen of St Pancras
The highly decorated suits associated with the Pearly figures are said to derive from the costermongers’ desire to imitate the fashions of wealthy West End society in the later nineteenth century: on Sundays, the well-heeled displayed their pearls and finery on promenades through London parks. Emulating this flashiness, pearlescent buttons were sewn onto hand-me-down waistcoats and caps and the trousers worn for heavy work on the markets. Road sweeper and rat catcher Henry Croft is said to be the first to do this in the 1880s – but it is unclear where he found his pearly bits. Some say he may have found a washed up shipload of pearly buttons in the mud of the Thames. In any case, he attached around 60 000 to an old suit and included symbols and also slogans, such as ‘All for charity and pity the poor’.
This outfit belonged to the former Pearly Queen of St Pancras, Mary Dole. Mary met her husband to be, Alf Dole, while hopping in Kent, as was traditional for working families, who took six weeks of the Summer to earn money in the countryside. His grandfather was George Dole, the first Pearly King of St Pancras. Alf put on his first pearly suit, when he became Pearly Prince of St Pancras, at the age of seven.
Mary passed away at the age of 95 in 2014. At that point, her daughter Diane Gould, gave up the title of Pearly Princess of St Pancras to become its Queen.
By Esther Leslie