At The Pearlies’ Harvest Festival
Today I preview the Pearly Kings & Queens Harvest Festival which takes place this year on Sunday 27th September, commencing with high jinks in the Guildhall yard in the City of London from 1:30pm followed by a procession to St Mary-le-Bow
On the last Sunday afternoon in September, the Pearly Kings & Queens come together from every corner of London and gather in the square outside the Guildhall in the City of London for a lively celebration to mark the changing of the seasons.
When I visited 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.