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Henry Croft, Road Sweeper

January 28, 2023
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 underneath 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 for anyone 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 busy 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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6 Responses leave one →
  1. January 28, 2023

    Thank you so much, dear G.A., for making me aware of Henry Crfot’s existence. I’d even go as far as saying that he seems much more interesting than the admiral perched on his column.

  2. January 28, 2023

    How sad that a man who did so much to help others should end his life in the workhouse. I know the workhouse sometimes provided hospitals for the poor. So I hope he died there with his family around him.

  3. Bernie permalink
    January 28, 2023

    My sister, a professional violinist, played in the StMartin’s crypt often in the Boyd Neel orchestra, and I was sometimes in the audience during the 1950’s, but Henry Croft’s statue never came to my attention. Perhaps it was not there then. Or was it in such a retired position? Or were my eyes not open?

  4. Mark permalink
    January 28, 2023

    I know who I would rather have a beer with an it ain’t with that Norfolk nobody. Cheers Henry!

  5. Andy permalink
    January 28, 2023

    It took a special man to recognise the vulnerable.
    Someone who lived it.
    Charlie Chaplin too.

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 29, 2023

    I paid my respects to Henry on a site visit a couple of weeks ago and he is quite difficult to find, but worth it.

    I was also in the crypt of St Martin’s last night for a brilliantly atmospheric concert celebrating 400 years since William Byrd’s death. It was all done by real candlelight with the the musicians gathered around a table as though they were celebrating a secret Catholic mass, and it was interrupted at one stage by a loud rapping on the door and we were plunged into darkness and waited with baited breath to see we would be discovered…

    All very magical in a very special place.

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