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Henry Croft, Road Sweeper

May 9, 2024
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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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Marcia Howard permalink
    May 9, 2024

    I went to a concert at St Martin’s in the Fields in January 2010, but on arrival, we started off with a hot drink down in the Crypt. I don’t recall seeing Henry Croft at all sadly, probably because we were more concerned about the mice running up and down the walls there (which almost made me freak out!). I must return at the earliest opportunity and pay my respects to Henry!

  2. Ste_12 permalink
    May 9, 2024

    Thank you Gentle Author,
    A reason to visit St Martins and pay one’s respect and thanks to Henry.
    I understand it’s tradition to leave a single flower with a couple of pearly buttons attached.

  3. May 9, 2024

    Surely, the stories behind the “pearly” garments are some of the most charming of all British Folk traditions. (and you’ve got a zillion of ’em…………) And I love the idea of the modest little shirt buttons as embellishments. I envision a heavily-festooned pearly suit hanging quietly at the back of a closet, just “waiting” for an occasion to strut and pose.

    A good friend of mine once gifted me with his mother’s button box and mending basket. Inside was a foot-long garland of old white shirt buttons, on a strand. Better than Tiffanys!

    Long live the Pearly royalty!

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