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The Man Beneath Trafalgar Sq

December 1, 2020
by the gentle author

Henry Croft

Trafalgar Sq is famous for the man perched high above it on the column, but I recently discovered another man hidden beneath the square who hardly anybody knows about and he is just as interesting to me. I have no doubt that if you were to climb up Nelson’s Column, the great Naval Commander standing on the top would have impressive stories to tell of Great Sea Battles and how he conquered the French, though – equally – if you descend into the crypt of St Martin in the Fields, the celebrated Road Sweeper who resides down there has his stories too.

Yet as one who was born in a workhouse and died in a workhouse, Henry Croft’s tales would be of another timbre to those of Horatio Nelson and some might say that the altitude history has placed between the man on the pedestal and the man in the cellar reflects this difference. Unfortunately, it is not possible to climb up Nelson’s Column to explore his side of this notion but it is a simple matter to step down into the crypt and visit Henry, so I hope you will take the opportunity when you next pass through Trafalgar Sq.

Henry Croft stands in the furthest, most obscure, corner far away from the cafeteria, the giftshop, the bookshop, the brass rubbing centre and the art gallery, and I expect he is grateful for the peace and quiet. Of diminutive stature at just five feet, he stands patiently with an implacable expression waiting for eternity, the way that you or I might wait for a bus. Yet in the grand scheme of things, he has not been waiting here long. Only since since 2002, when his life-size marble statue was removed to St Martin in the Fields from St Pancras Cemetery after being vandalised several times and whitewashed to conceal the damage.

Born in Somers Town Workhouse in 1861 and raised there after the death of his father who was a musician, it seems Henry inherited his parent’s showmanship, decorating his suit with pearl buttons while working as a Road Sweeper from the age of fifteen. Father of twelve children and painfully aware of the insecurities of life, Henry launched his own personal system of social welfare by drawing attention with his ostentatious outfit and collecting money for charities including Public Hospitals and Temperance Societies.

As self-appointed ‘Pearlie King of Somers Town,’ Henry sewed seven different pearly outfits for himself and many suits for others too, so that by 1911 there were twenty-eight Pearly King & Queens spread across all the Metropolitan Boroughs of London. It is claimed Henry was awarded in excess of two thousand medals for his charitable work and his funeral cortege in 1930 was over half a mile long with more than four hundred pearlies in attendance.

Henry Croft has passed into myth now, residing at the very heart of London in Trafalgar Sq beneath the streets that he once swept, all toshed up in his pearly best and awaiting your visit.

Henry Croft, celebrated Road Sweeper

At Henry Croft’s funeral in St Pancras Cemetery in 1930

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At The Pearly Kings & Queens’ Harvest Festival

A Pearly Remembrance

Pearly Portraits

10 Responses leave one →
  1. December 1, 2020

    What an inspiring story, especially at these strange times that we are experiencing.

  2. Penny Gardner permalink
    December 1, 2020

    A sad reflection on how our graveyards are plundered. I remember visiting Highgate Old Cemetery and seeing mausoleum stained glass windows being carried off by tourists.

  3. April permalink
    December 1, 2020

    Truly, a man for all seasons. I do hope his (presumably) many descendants are very proud of him.

  4. paul loften permalink
    December 1, 2020

    Thank you for this touching remembrance of a good hearted man . Nelson’s statue is so far above the clouds one has a job seeing his face. I think Henry has the best of it.

  5. Mark permalink
    December 1, 2020

    Interesting story and man. The pearly KIngs & Queens usually leave me cold but this fella was seminal. Worth 50 Norfolk Nelson’s.

  6. Lynn MacKay permalink
    December 1, 2020

    Thank you for this. I’ve long loved this statue in St. Martin’s crypt, but now realise the man was even more admirable.

  7. Pamela Traves permalink
    December 2, 2020

    Thank YOU So much, this was So Lovely!!????????

  8. Fiona Green permalink
    December 3, 2020

    A marvellous story : I will pay my respects when I next come up

  9. December 8, 2020

    You may enjoy our little video we did last weekend of the Cockney Museum, curated by the Pearly King of Peckham himself, George Major. Contains an interview with the great man himself.

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 9, 2023

    I must remember to visit this gentleman when next in the area. I was attending a concert at St Martin in the Fields some years ago, and went into the crypt restaurant for refreshment before the concert started. It was a bit disconcerting to see MICE running up and and down the walls while there. We didn’t linger for long!

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