A Grand Day Out in London Town

April 22, 2020

by Bognor Regis Town Crier Jane Smith.

What a great day I spent in the capital early in October with the Original Pearly Kings and Queens.  The occasion was the annual Harvest Festival – both a celebration of bounty and a means of raising money for charitable causes.

For many years our appropriately named Pearl Capewell (Town Crier of Peterborough) cried at the Festival.  Having now relinquished the role I was honoured to be asked to take her place this year.

The venue as always was the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square.  A church was built here in the 13th century – when there were fields between Westminster and the City – although the present building dates from 1726.  It happens to be the Parish Church for Buckingham Palace (with a box for the use of the royal family.

The Kings and Queens explained to me that they were descended from Victorian costermongers born within earshot of the Bow Bells.  Costermongers initially sold apples, the word deriving from costard, an apple, and monger, a seller (as in ironmonger or fishmonger). 

Being the “Original” Kings and Queens they can trace their heritage to 1875 when the first Association was formed.  Interestingly this was not in the East End but around King’s Cross.  In those days there were no high rise buildings and the sound of the Bells could be heard as far away as Hampstead.

The North London costermongers did not speak in Cockney rhyming slang, but devised a system of backslang.  “Boy” therefore became “yob” – the origin of the word in common parlance today.

The first Pearly King was one Henry Croft.  Finding a cache of mother-of-pearl buttons he sewed thousands onto his suit and top hat.  Now the costermongers followed the working-class tradition of helping each other and also raised money for hospitals and orphanages.  To this end they regularly organized parades and carnivals.  It was soon found that the presence of Henry in his suit smothered in pearls greatly increased the donations to their good causes – and the notion of the Pearly Kings and Queens was born.

The right to be a Pearly King and Queen has been passed down through the generations.  “You’re either born into it or married into it”, they said.  There’s no requirement that a King or Queen should still live in London, so there’s now a big worldwide family of Pearlies across the globe.  

Being a Pearly is, in the words of Queen Diane Gould, “about being united, spreading love and looking out for those who can’t do it themselves… Sometimes people need a little help.  That’s what the Pearlies do – the traditional, real pukka Pearlies.”

The challenge facing the Association today, they told me, is to persuade inactive Kings and Queens to pass on their birthright.  It seems too many enjoy the kudos of being a Pearly King and Queen, but not the inherent responsibility.

Of course the Pearlies also follow the London working-class tradition of finding plenty of good excuses for a knees up.  And I can vouch for the wonderful welcome and hospitality I received.  

Needless to say the day could not finish without an adventure on the way home.  As we all know, travelling in full rig is invariably an eventful experience, and so it proved.  My arrival at Victoria Station coincided with an influx of inebriated Arsenal supporters celebrating a home victory.

It soon became apparent that four fans were heading towards my platform, and they immediately demanded an explanation as to who I was and what I had been doing.  Escape seemed impossible.   No help being forthcoming from any fellow passengers my heart fell.  That was until one of the fans spotted the words “Bognor Regis” on my scroll – as it turned out their home town.  Instantly I had found myself four self-appointed “minders”.  

Having obliged them with a spot of repartee and a number of selfies, I did not then travel with them on the train.  “Why?” you may well ask.  Well, their suggestion that I join them in a first-class compartment I felt obliged to decline – I did not think the Guild or my Town Council would be too impressed if I were prosecuted for “upgrading” my second-class ticket!

And so ended a long and memorable Grand Day Out in London Town.  Roll on 2020.

Editors Note – Many thanks for this story Jane, you may have traveled second class, but it sounds like you had a magnificent first class Pearly Queens ride!