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Henry Croft: Calls for plaque to Pearly Kings and Queens founder

Founder of tradition was born in St Pancras workhouse in 1861

01 June, 2018 — By Samantha Booth

Pearly kings and queens visiting Henry Croft’s Islington and Camden Cemetery grave with Camden mayor Jenny Headlam-Wells

HE started an eye-catching tradition of men and women donning clothes and hats swathed in hundreds of buttons to raise money for charities.

Now, there are calls for the legend of Henry Croft, the founder of Pearly Kings and Queens, to be remembered with a plaque at his birthplace. Mr Croft was a road-sweeper who started to wear his pearly suit in the late 1870s while fundraising.

The custom was adopted as a working-class tradition across London, with hundreds of men and women donning pearl-button outfits for their local area. At its peak there were hundreds of pearlys in London and The Pearly King of Finsbury, John Walters, said Mr Croft deserves more recognition.

He is hoping a plaque can be installed at St Pancras Hospital – the former workhouse in St Pancras Way where Mr Croft was born in 1861.

Mr Walters, who lives in Archway, said: “Henry Croft was the first one who started it. He really deserves some recognition. There have been millions of pounds raised since his death as Pearly Kings and Queens carried on his tradition. It’s working class because in the Victorian times, as the ladies used to wear quite posh clothing. So the working class thought, we can do that as well. He gave the working class a voice. We don’t want him to be forgotten.”

Henry Croft [Photo Pearly King and Queens Guild]

Pearlys, including Mr Walters’ son Darren, the Pearly Prince of Finsbury, reintroduced an annual visit to their founder’s grave in Islington and Camden Cemetery in Finchley at the weekend. Mr Walters said he wished he had a “crystal ball” to foresee the future of the pearlys, a tradition usually inherited through family lines but that members can be “adopted” into.

“A lot of the younger generations don’t want to go into buttons which is a little bit sad,” said Mr Walters, who alongside his son was granted the Freedom of the Borough in Islington this year. “You do get a lot of people saying, ‘how do I become a Pearly King?’, but you have to be loyal. Some people just want to become a pearly to have their photo taken and attend events, and don’t do the graft we have to, such as standing for hours in public to raise the money.”

Camden culture chief, Councillor Jonathan Simpson, said: “Camden is proud to have been the birthplace and home to a wide range of notable individuals, ranging from authors to artists and Pearly Kings. We have guidance available for anyone who is proposing to install a memorial to guide them through the process that they need to follow.”

He added: “A good example of this in action is the independent plaque scheme run by the Marchmont Association in Bloomsbury. Since 2009, with council guidance, they have successfully unveiled a number of these to raise awareness of the area’s varied social history. We would ask that the Pearlies contact us so that we can offer advice and guidance on their proposals.”

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