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At the Pearly Kings & Queens’ Harvest Festival

September 27, 2010
by the gentle author

On Sunday afternoon, the Pearly Kings & Queens came together from every borough of  London and gathered in the square outside the Guildhall in the City of London for a lively celebration to mark the changing of the seasons. There was Maypole dancing and Morris Dancing, there was a pipe band and a marching band, there were mayors and dignitaries in red robes and gold chains, there were people from Rochester in Dickensian costume, there were donkeys with carts and veteran cars, and there was even an old hobby horse leaping around –  yet all these idiosyncratic elements successfully blended to create an event with its own strange poetry. In fact, the participants outnumbered the audience and a curiously small town atmosphere prevailed, allowing the proud Pearlies to mingle with their fans, and enjoy an afternoon of high-spirited chit-chat and getting their pictures snapped.

I delighted in the multiplicity of designs that the Pearlies had contrived for their outfits, each creating their own identity expressed through ingenious patterns of pearl buttons, and on this bright afternoon of early Autumn they made a fine spectacle, sparkling in the last rays of September sunshine. My host was the admirable Doreen Golding, Pearly Queen of the Old Kent Rd & Bow Bells, who spent the whole year organising the event. And I was especially impressed with her persuasive abilities in cajoled all the mayors into a spot of maypole dancing, because it was a heartening sight to see a team of these dignified senior gentlemen in their regalia prancing around like eleven year olds and enjoying it quite unselfconsciously too.

In the melee, I had the pleasure to grapple with George Major, the Pearly King of Peckham (crowned in 1958), and his grandson Daniel, the Pearly Prince, sporting an exceptionally pearly hat that is a century old. George is an irrepressibly flamboyant character who taught me the Cockney salute, and then took the opportunity of his celebrity to steal cheeky kisses from ladies in the crowd, causing more than a few shrieks and blushes. As the oldest surviving member of one of the only three surviving original pearly families, he enjoys the swaggering distinction of being the senior Pearly in London, taking it as licence to behave like a mischievous schoolboy. Nearby I met Matthew (Daniels’s father) – a Pearly by marriage not birth, he revealed apologetically – who confessed he sewed the six thousand buttons on George’s jacket while watching Match of the Day.

Fortunately, the Lambeth Walk had been enacted all round the Guildhall Yard and all the photo opportunites were exhausted before the gentle rain set in. And by then it was time to form a parade to process down the road to St Mary-le-Bow for the annual Harvest Festival. A distinguished man in a red tail coat with an umbrella led the procession through the drizzle, followed by a pipe band setting an auspicious tone for the impressive spectacle of the Pearlies en masse, some in veteran cars and others leading donkeys pulling carts with their offerings for the Harvest Festival. St Mary-le-Bow is a church of special significance for Pearlies because it is the home of the famous Bow Bells that called Dick Whittington back to London from Highgate Hill, and you need to be born within earshot of these to call yourself a true Cockney.

The black and white chequerboard marble floor of the church was the perfect complement to the pearly suits, now that they were massed together in delirious effect. Everyone was happy to huddle in the warmth and dry out, and there were so many people crammed together in the church in such an array of colourful and bizarre costumes of diverse styles, that as one of the few people not in some form of fancy dress, I felt I was the odd one out. But we were as one, singing “All Things Bring and Beautiful” together. Prayers were said, speeches were given and the priest reminded us of the Pearlies’ origins among he costermongers in the poverty of nineteenth century London. We stood in reverent silence for the sake of history and then a Pearly cap was passed around in aid of the Whitechapel Mission.

Coming out of the church, there was a chill in the air. The day that began with Summery sunshine was closing with Autumnal rain. Pearlies scattered down Cheapside and through the empty City streets for another year, back to their respective corners of London. Satisfied that they had celebrated Summer’s harvest, the Pearlies were going home to light fires, cook hot dinners and turn their minds towards the Wintry delights of the coming season, including sewing yet more pearl buttons on their suits during Match of the Day.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    September 27, 2010

    there will always be an england.
    thank you so much for this.

  2. Mary permalink
    September 27, 2010

    Delightful post! I feel as though I had been there. Thank you for sharing this lovely day with those of us who are very far away, but whose hearts long to be back home.

  3. September 27, 2010

    I was one of the donkey owners – and we love coming every year and joining in the celebration of our traditions.. I’m definitely not a Pearly but love the relationship between the early Costermongers and their donkeys and enjoy bringing it back to life with the donkeys and their vintage vehicles. The cart I had on the day was originally used in Billingsgate, but was happy to be laden with fruit and veg and not fish on this occasion!
    We all got a bit wet, and have spent today drying out our harness, but had a lovely time and will be back, with our donks and carts, to join in again next year!
    More should be made of this event as I am sure more people would come along if only they knew it was on!

  4. October 1, 2010

    me & the misses attended the harvest festival and really enjoyed it…to be honest we have only really heard of george major and a couple others but was funny/strange to see pearly queen of COLCHESTER lol whats that all about????
    enjoyed the service but was a bit disappointed we didnt hear from the pearly children….
    was really glad we went and will do from now on as me and family have so much respect for the pearly kings & queens as they put other people first and work very hard for charity across the country.
    we also have all personly met and associated with george and his family and have never met such a down to earth ,caring,dedicated bunch of people !!!!! keep up the good work cos it wouldnt really happen without you.
    regards jim,rachel,bump,lorraine,graham,iris,denise&howard

  5. john hatchman permalink
    October 2, 2010

    George Major bigging it up 4 PECKHAM.. Well done.

  6. Don and Barb Charlebois permalink
    November 14, 2010

    Thank you so much for a wonderful afternoon at the Harvest Festival. We had just arrived from Canada the day before and were treated to a wonderful event as well as the lovely Church service at St Mary le bow. We want to thank John and Peggy Scott, who took us under their wing that afternoon and then invited us to the Pub afterwards. We so enjoyed all the old songs and the wonderful people we met. My parents and grandparents come from this area and I was raised with all the old stories and songs, and it brought it all back to me. Thank you again for making two Canadians very happy.

  7. May 10, 2011

    I’ve only recently discovered my Burman ancestry and their connection with Spitalfields as Silk Weavers. I knew my mother was born in Lambeth, within ‘Bow Bells’ as she called it, but I never knew about the heritage that goes along with it. I was amazed to have been able to see a TV show recently that showed how a Silk Weaver’s home had been restored and preserved, but to have now been able to see that heritage alive and well and celebrated by so many, (from the other side of the world here in Australia), is beyond amazing… Thanks to everyone for sharing these fabulous pic’s.

  8. katherine lowe permalink
    March 16, 2012

    hi i am interested in finding my family. i am a Lowe and i believe i am originate from pearly kings and queens please tell me i am a pearly princess ! ? #dreamwillcometrue

  9. Janice Humpage permalink
    February 17, 2013

    Thank you so much for showing this wonderful event and the dedication of the Pearly
    Kings and Queens, I am looking forward to seeing them in person for the first time
    this year when the procession is held again,
    Born in North London , I have a sense that my ancestors have roots in the East End —
    I hope so,

  10. January 15, 2017

    Good Morning from MS USA, And we get comments about Elvis Presley jackets, some are quite stylish and some quaint but the Elvis impersonations are over done. Now the Brits have this interesting set of costumes, cultural for some, sectional or regional city, town rural life comparative , but I do find the costumes quite fancy. atk

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