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The Pearly Kings & Queens’ Harvest Festival

September 28, 2019
by the gentle author

Tomorrow is the annual Pearly Kings & Queens’ Harvest Festival, gathering in Guildhall Yard at 12:30pm followed by a service at St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside

On the last Sunday afternoon in September, the Pearly Kings & Queens come together from every borough 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.

On my visit, 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 opportunities 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 the 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.



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10 Responses leave one →
  1. September 28, 2019

    Lovely to see these traditions still being enjoyed. Valerie

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    September 28, 2019

    As last year ( & several before that ) I will be there, performing ( & probably getting wet )

    For last year’s show see – we appear at about 47.30 in ……

  3. September 28, 2019

    I’ve been vaguely familiar with the concept of “pearly” garments over the years — but THIS is a visual bonanza. For the first time, I really caught the vibe of intense individuality expressed through costume — plus the collective kindred spirit of this tradition. Each garment is spirited and full of expressive swagger. And I can’t help but think of the hours required to skillfully create each garment. ( Almost reminds me of the Mardi Gras “Indian” regalia here in the US, replete with
    endless sequins.) The “making” is almost as important/significant as the “wearing”.
    As a History of Costume buff, this is so wonderful. And as a human-seeking-positive-vibes,
    this is SO wonderful. You’ve made my day — again!
    Thanks, as ever, for the optimism.

  4. September 28, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a colorful, rich tradition these Pearlies maintain. Especially admired “Queen Victoria” with her little veil (although I am sure that has a special name) and the children. They were all so spirited. Where did they get all those buttons? From my experience, they are a scarce commodity on this side of the pond.


  5. Robin permalink
    September 28, 2019

    Wonderful! What a visual treat. Long may the Pearly Kings and Queens reign!

  6. September 29, 2019

    I Loved the Wonderful Clothing the Families wore. It was Very Amazing!! ????????

  7. Mary permalink
    September 30, 2019

    Magnificent! Thank goodness some of our great British traditions are still alive. It is lovely to see the children’s involvement so hopefully the Pearlies will continue and thrive.

  8. September 30, 2019

    A beautiful tradition which is followed there!

    Love & Peace

  9. October 28, 2019

    What an amazing sight it all must have been. I would have loved to have witnessed all the mayors in a spot of maypole dancing!

  10. October 24, 2023

    Oh my lordy! This is just such a magnificent festival! I go every time that it is held! I absobloodylutely love the maypole dancing and the hobby horsing. Though I may be too old for that, I still enjoy watching my great grandchildren enjoying themselves at this beautiful festival. I am so thankful that so many people can now recognize the Pearly Kings and Queens festival because of you! When I visited the United States, I was so dumbfounded that nobody knew what this festival was! How bizzare! Thank you for your wonderful service.
    Tiddly WInkie Woo.

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