Found: Donated by Pearly Queen of St Pancras
Date: c. 1970s
The Pearly kings and queens of St Pancras — and indeed all London Pearlies — owe their royalty to one man.
Henry Croft (1861-1930) was Somers Town born and bred, and for many years resident at 15 Charles Street (now Phoenix Road). There he lived with his wife, Lily, and their twelve children.
In the census and on his death certificate, Henry is remembered simply as a road sweeper who spent his entire working life with the St Pancras vestry and borough council.
But to many Londoners Henry was much more: the ‘Original Pearly King’, founder of a culture and community that continues to thrive across the city.
Henry’s origin as the first Pearly King, and the early development of Pearly dress, is only partially documented. In the mid- to late 1870s, he began decorating his clothing with mother-of-pearl buttons — likely imitating the modest decorations worn by Somers Town costermongers, or the more elaborate suits of music-hall singers.
What’s clear is that Henry took this practice of pearl decoration much further, with the creation of ‘smother suits’ using many thousands of buttons. In full Pearly dress, Croft started taking part in charity events, like that for the London Temperance Hospital in the 1880s — one of the first he attended as the Pearly King. In 1902 he featured in The Strand Magazine as ‘Pearlie King of Somers Town’ in a suit of nearly 5000 buttons.
Later public appearances included the Horse of the Year show, Olympia (1907), when Henry was presented to Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. His charity work in the 1910s and 20s focused on servicemen (his eldest son was killed during the First World War) and temperance, including the Sons of Phoenix Society. On these occasions Henry was regularly described as ‘the Pearly King of the World’.
The network of Pearly royal families grew rapidly in the early 1900s. By 1911 each of London’s 28 boroughs boasted a king, queen and family — numbering about 300 individuals. In that year, the Original Pearly Kings’ and Queens’ Association, was founded at Britannia Street, King’s Cross, while families south of the Thames were connected to the Pearly Kings’ and Queens’ Guild.
To what extent Henry was involved in these organizations remains unclear. However, he clearly treasured his founding role, asserting himself to be ‘the only original Pearly-King in London’ in a newspaper article from the mid-1920s.
Henry Croft died at St Pancras workhouse in January 1930. His funeral cortège, filmed by Pathé News, began at Charles Street and was led by pipers and 400 Pearly kings, queens, and family members. At nearly half a mile in length, the procession was described as ‘one of the largest that London has seen for many years’. A turnout and tribute befitting Somers Town royalty.
By Philip Carter
- Read a full life of Henry Croft (1861-1930) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Listen to a podcast recording of this life of Henry Croft in the Oxford DNB
- Watch the Pathé News footage of Henry Croft’s funeral procession (1930) and the unveiling of his statue memorial at St Pancras Cemetery in 1934.
- Read a blog post by Philip Carter on the use of Henry Croft’s image in the recent development of King’s Cross: ‘The King of King’s Cross’ (Talking Humanities blog, University of London, 2017)