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Pearlies: It’s time for a plaque to our founder King Henry

Campaign to honour founder of a working-class tradition that has raised millions for charity

01 June, 2018 — By Samantha Booth

Pearly Kings and Queens at Islington and Camden Cemetery with Camden Mayor Jenny Headlam-Wells

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

Now, there are calls for Henry Croft, 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 became a working-class tradition across London, with hundreds of Pearlies at its peak.

Pearly King of Finsbury John Walters believes Mr Croft deserves more recognition. He is hoping a plaque can be sited at St Pancras Hospital, the former workhouse in St Pancras Way where Mr Croft was born in 1861.

Pearly King of Finsbury John Walters with son Darren at the memorial to Henry Croft

Mr Walters, who lives in Archway, said: “Henry Croft was the one who started it. He really deserves some recognition. Millions of pounds have been raised since his death as Pearly Kings and Queens carried on his tradition.

“It’s working class because in Victorian times, when 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.”

Pearlies, including Mr Walters’ son Darren, Pearly Prince of Finsbury, reintroduced an annual visit to their founder’s grave at Islington and Camden Cemetery, in East Finchley, at the weekend.

Henry Croft. Photo: Pearly Kings and Queens Guild

Mr Walters wishes he had a “crystal ball” to foresee the future of the Pearlies, a tradition usually inherited through family lines, but others can be “adopted” in.

“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 of 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: “We would ask that the Pearlies contact us so we can offer advice on their proposals.”

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