Skip to content

Pearly Portraits

April 5, 2012
by the gentle author

Photographer James Pearson-Howes did these beautiful portraits of the Pearly King & Queens and Novelist Sarah Winman, author of “When God Was a Rabbit” went along to meet the Pearlies on behalf of Spitalfields Life.

“Saturday morning in Covent Garden and low grey cloud deposits rain in torrents upon streets still warm from a previous day’s sun. I stand under cover, a little cold now, and waiting – waiting for the first sight of my storytellers, to hear tales of charitable lives, and to hear about a way of life that was born in 1875 in the heart of a thirteen year old orphan boy called Henry Croft. But the rain thumps down and the crowds thin and even a performer’s rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ cannot warm our disappointed spirits. But just as I turn to go, just when I think that the weather has won, as if on cue those swollen clouds retreat and a sunburst falls upon the square catching the glorious sway of twenty thousand pearl buttons in its golden light, in a moment, dare I say it, bordering the divine.” – Sarah Winman

Arthur Rackley, Pearly King of Upminster

I’ve been a Pearly for thirty-two and a half years. My sister-in law Marie was born a Pearly Princess and she married my brother Jim in 1970.  All three of us lived together, and when my brother died in 1980, she turned to me and said, “I’ve lost my Pearly King.” I said, “Never mind, I’ll carry on where he left off,” and for the next seven years I had a Pearly apprenticeship.

She was a Victorian lady. If she said, “Stand still,” she meant “Stand Still.” It was a regimental beginning, but a good beginning. I listened to the older members in those early days, learnt to build a story. By the time Marie passed away in 1987, she had given me a very good start.

I’ve always been with charity-minded people. My mother was a good neighbour and wherever she was wanted, she would go. My family gave me a good grounding and that’s what it’s all about. My father was a very busy man – a motor fitter from 1920-1930. I never saw a lot of him, but everyone spoke highly of him. At dinner time we’d sit down and they’d be plenty of cross-chat as we learnt what one another of us was doing. Today, children don’t get that sort of grounding. No one knows what their children are up to.

You haven’t asked me my age. Well, I’m eighty-seven, so obviously I’ve had a lot of life experience, and whenever I can pass that on, I do. I’m very proud to have met most of the royal family. My sister-in-law used to go and visit the Queen Mum, and once she took her niece’s baby with her. The Queen Mum gave the baby a biscuit and it got crumbs everywhere. The Queen Mum said, “Never mind, I’ve got a couple of hoovers here,” pointing to the dogs.

I’ve got a good memory and I like to be on my own and think back over my life. I am very busy. What am I doing now? Making a magazine rack for a friend.

I am known not only as a Pearly King, but known as someone who would help anyone.

Carole Jolly, Pearly Queen of Crystal Palace and Freeman of the City of London

I was elected to be a Pearly Queen thirty-five years ago. It means so much to me. It’s about the helping, the doing good : making a difference. It takes up a lot of time, but I’m delegating a lot more now – especially with the Jubilee year. We’re asked to go everywhere really: old people’s homes, hospices, schools – we talk about the Pearly history and traditions, or sing a lot of old London songs. Those songs bring smiles and flickers of memory back to people with dementia or Alzheimer’s, and that means so much.

My proudest moment was in the old days, when we were in the ‘Association’. They used to put on a charity ball and we had quite a run of royalty attend. At one we had Princess Alice, she was a lovely royal and I had the honour of looking after her. I presented her with a carved plaque of her husband and she was thrilled, had tears in her eyes.

This is my life, my entertainment. This is my family.

Patrick Jolly, Pearly King of Crystal Palace and Freeman of the City of London.

I was elected forty years ago in 1972. I used to run a judo club for kids where I met Fred Hitchin who was the Pearly King of Westminster. He took an interest in what I was doing. The club was struggling through lack of funds but over two years we started to go from strength to strength, and our club was chosen to represent Lewisham by the Mayor. Fred then asked me to become a Pearly King. I said, “No! You won’t get me walking around like that!” Two years of persistence and I put up me hands up.

I haven’t looked back. It’s been amazing. It means everything to me. I’ve achieved things I thought I’d never achieve. I’ve met and helped so many people.One of my proudest moments was in the eighties, we put on a Charity Ball at Chelsea Town Hall and Princess Anne attended. It was great. And then in the nineties, I met her again. I was at St James’s Palace with my eldest grand-daughter Stephanie. Princess Anne came down the line and was introduced to my grand-daughter and then she looked at me and said, “I believe we’ve met before. Chelsea.” I thought, “She remembered me!” It gave me such a buzz.

Peggy Scott, Pearly Queen of Highgate

I was elected to be a Pearly Queen five or six years ago, but I’d been doing voluntary work and charity work for thirty odd years previous. My motto is that you’ve got to give and take in this world, and always listen to someone – they’re often worse off than you and everyone’s got a tale to tell. I love life in general. I’m as nutty as a fruitcake, but if I can make one person smile a day, then I’m happy. It’s not the status of being a Pearly, I just love helping people. I’m a people’s people. You got buttons on, so what? If I had a tracksuit on I’d still be doing the same thing. I’ve got grandchildren and great-grandchildren and I’m proud of them all, and they are coming up in the world doing the same thing, and I’m bringing them up with the same ideals. Today people are too frightened. Too frightened to stop and talk. Too frightened to listen. Most people just want someone to talk to, that’s what I’ve found when I’ve been collecting.

It’s important that the East End traditions are kept alive. Our heritage and our values must not be forgotten. We’ve always looked after one another, family and friends, we’ve been brought up that way. I’m cut from nothing, but my mum was always there. She was a darling. I think she’s got wings on…

John Walters, Pearly King of Finsbury

I have been a Pearly King for about seven years now. My wife’s family were Pearly Kings and Queens in the Victorian times – they were Costermongers in Charlton Street Market, and her Nan was one of the old flower sellers of London. They had a shop called Cooper and Sons. My wife didn’t take up being a Pearly, but she encouraged me to do it. I used to sing in pubs and clubs years ago, but I gave it up because it got pretty rough back then and I thought I was a lover not a fighter.

It was then that the Pearly King of Smithfield said to me, “Why don’t you transfer your skills to the Pearly Kings and Queens?” So I did, and I never looked back.For about twenty-five years beforehand I had done charity work. Did a lot for Great Ormond Street and for the Anthony Nolan Appeal. I love doing things for children. A child being born today could be the answer to our prayers tomorrow. I work for the council and we did something for the Children’s Cancer Unit at St Bart’s Hospital. We walked from Archway to St Bart’s collecting money on the way. One of my most humbling moments was when we took that money on to the children’s ward and saw all those children happy and smiling, despite all they were going through.

Being a Pearly, well, it’s a tradition – a great London tradition. You’re representing your Borough, not just London, and the other Pearly Kings and Queens. You must behave as expected, give people time, treat people with respect. If you cut a Pearly’s heart in half it should have CHARITY written through it like a stick of Brighton Rock.

Larry Barnes ( May 16th 1926 – July 2nd 2011), late Pearly King of Thornton Heath and one of Variety Theatre’s last specialist acts.

Carole Jolly on Larry Barnes – “Larry was such a great character, a great entertainer. He came and did a job at a school fun day with Pat and me, and I’ll never forget it. Pat was asked to abseil down from the school roof. They hadn’t allowed for the weight of the buttons, and next thing we know, Pat’s hanging upside down and screaming, swinging around! He never did it again. Larry was also a magician and escapologist. He used to do an act called “Beat the Bomb”. Basically he had to escape from chains before the bomb exploded. I was on the timer. He only ever just made it. He was very knowledgeable. We loved his pipe. We miss him dearly.”

Pat Jolly on Larry Barnes – “I knew Larry in the 1960’s. I worked in Soho in a club and he’d pop in for a Guinness after a show. We lost contact for a bit, and then met up at a Pearly event with Roy Hudd. I asked Larry to be my ‘Pearly Pride’ – that’s a helper. Then he became a Pearly Consort, and then finally he became Pearly King of Thornton Heath. He was one of the few people who knew me, understood me. He always found the time to sit down and listen. Even in the darkest moments. We were life-long friends till the day he died.”

Arthur Rackley on Larry Barnes – “I often collected with Larry in Covent Garden. If it was cold, Larry would start up a song, and we’d both sing and move our feet to keep warm. He taught me this song two weeks before he died:  (Tune of My Old Man) “My old man said nick what you can, And don’t get nobbled by the law. I copped a purse with a fiver in it, He said, “Good work, love, I’ll see you in  a minute.” He grabbed some pyjamas, a crate of bananas, a dining set of polished chrome. I heard him holler when the Law felt his collar, So he won’t be coming home.”

Photographs copyright © James Pearson-Howes

Some of these Pearly Portraits are included in James Pearson-Howes’ new book British Folk II which can be obtained for just £10 including shipping by clicking here

Learn more about the Pearlies at the London Pearly Kings & Queens Sociey website

Read my account of the Pearly Kings & Queens’ Harvest Festival

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Alice permalink
    April 6, 2012

    Enjoyed this report very much.
    There is also a charming book, written quite a few years ago by Pearl Binder called
    “The Pearlies-A Social Record” which your readers might enjoy, regarding these wonderful people.

  2. April 6, 2012

    thanks for posting this g.a ,I remember distinctly seeing these amazing people on clapham common at a steam rally my great aunt took me to as a child , I knew they were special and always love to read about them.
    …they seem to come from another era , that of the music hall ,the working mens clubs,carnivals and their appearance reminds me of all my favourite chidhood films , mary poppins etc !
    long may they continue to enchant us with their spectacle and good works .

  3. Cherub permalink
    April 13, 2012

    Well, I’ve learned something – I lived in Upminster for 18 years and never knew we had a Pearly King!

  4. Ned permalink
    March 16, 2021

    Such wonderful people that we need to know about

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS