Pearly Kings and Queens
by Ellen Castelow
One of the great traditions at the Epsom horseracing course, on the southern outskirts of London, on Derby Day is the arrival of the Pearly King and Queen in their decorated donkey-cart. The Pearly Royals started in Victorian days and some still reign today in their various London districts.
The ‘Pearlies’ were costermongers…street vendors of fruit and vegetables, and their distinctive costumes are said to have sprung from the arrival of a big cargo of pearl-buttons from Japan in the 1860’s. It seems that one of the costers sewed some of the buttons round the edge of his wide-bottomed trousers, and the fashion caught on.
Traditionally, costers elected ‘Kings’ to lead them against bullies seeking to drive them from their pitches.
Pearly King (and pearly taxi!) in Greenwich, London, 2010
Each individual area of London had a king and his ‘donah’, (as the wives are called) and both were elaborately turned out.
The magnificent suits, hats and dresses, handed down together with hereditary titles, are sewn with mystic symbols, stars, moons, suns, flowers, diamonds, Trees of Life, Eyes of God and fertility designs. Each outfit can have as many as 30,000 buttons on it and can weigh as much as 30 kilograms or more.
These suits are worn at charity events, christenings, weddings and funerals. Where there is a special charity drive the kings and queens ride in splendour on their decorated carts. At the annual autumn Harvest Festival service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in London, the Pearly princesses take bouquets of vegetables as thank – offerings.
Today around 30 Pearly families continue the tradition to raise money for charity, and remain a very colourful part of London’s history.