With their incredible embellished outfits, London’s Pearly Queens and Kings have been fundraising ‒ and lifting the capital’s spirits ‒ for more than a century. Kate Thompson meets the women working tirelessly to keep the tradition alive.
In Hackney the Queen boards the number 242 bus, resplendent in her feathered hat, kitten heels and pearls. The entire bus falls silent as she sits down, handbag perched elegantly on her lap. You can hear a pin drop, before a child whispers, ‘Mummy, is that the real Queen?’ It’s not, of course, but Phyllis Broadbent and Her Majesty both share immaculate deportment, a love of pearls and a life devoted to duty. At 94, glamorous Phyllis holds the illustrious title of Britain’s oldest Pearly Queen. She has spent the past 40 years as Pearly Queen for Islington, often seen out and about in her striking mother-of-pearl suit.
‘I became a Pearly Queen after my husband Ernie was diagnosed with dementia in 1980,’ she says. ‘I needed a purpose. I couldn’t just sit in my armchair moping. When my cousin Jackie, the Pearly Queen of Hackney, suggested I become a Pearly, I jumped at it. I started visiting old people’s homes, schools and hospices, entertaining and raising money for charity. It gave me a new lease of life. I’ve so many amazing memories. Appearing in London’s New Year’s Day Parade, walking out with all the Pearlies at the Olympics opening ceremony and I’ve danced and sung for Her Majesty, at her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.’
Phyllis is a link in a long and glittering chain. The tradition of the Pearly Kings and Queens was started in the 19th century by an orphan called Henry Croft. Born in 1862 in a Victorian workhouse in St Pancras, London, he became a road sweeper at 13 and befriended the costermongers – fruit and veg sellers – on the market stalls. Known for their ‘flash boy’ outfits, the outside seams of their trousers featured a row of pearl buttons. When a fellow worker was down on his luck they would organise a whip-round to help him get back on his feet. Inspired by the costermongers’ flamboyant trousers and sense of solidarity, Henry began wearing a suit adorned with mother-of-pearl buttons to raise money for other orphans.
By 1911, every London borough had a Pearly King and Queen, dedicated to helping the disadvantaged in their area. Today, 146 years on from the founding of the Pearly Kings and Queens Association in 1875, this bastion of working-class culture has raised millions for a wide range of causes and charities. And Pearlies don’t just turn up and rattle a tin. Their events usually end in a knees-up and a lung-busting sing-song, featuring all the old music-hall classics, such as ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ and ‘Roll Out The Barrel’. Pearlies proudly share their rich heritage with great showmanship and verve. Celebrity photographer Mario Testino even shot some Pearly Kings and Queens last year for his project A Beautiful World. And although there has been a Covid-enforced break, they are getting ready to dust down their buttons and light up Britain’s streets again.
Their flamboyant suits can be covered in up to 30,000 pearly buttons, which are used to create symbols: hearts for charity, wheels to represent the coster barrows and doves for peace. Each family customises its suits with a host of idiosyncratic designs, meaning that no two are ever the same.
When Phyllis slips on her suit, it’s like watching the unfurling of peacock feathers. Her blue eyes sparkle and suddenly she might be 17 again and stepping her way through London’s wartime dance halls. Her 81-year-old cousin Jackie Murphy is a Pearly by marriage – her late husband Mickey, who died in 2008, was Pearly King of Hackney and could trace his Pearly roots back to 1892. Jackie and their daughters, Linda Murphy, 54, the Pearly Queen of Shoreditch, and Teresa Watts, 53, the Pearly Queen of Clapton, continue Mickey’s legacy. ‘Mum’s the Don Corleone of the family,’ Teresa jokes, ‘safeguarding the old ways and ensuring we stick to the Pearly constitution.’ This ensures that the Association isn’t brought into disrepute and the charities it supports are fully vetted. Once a year the Association meets for the AGM. ‘Not only do the Pearlies do everything at their own expense,’ says Teresa, ‘but we also pay a subscription, which is added to the collection. Every pound that goes in our bucket goes straight to charity.’
After Jackie was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2018 for 55 years of tireless charity work, she was invited to the Buckingham Palace Garden Party, where she told Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, ‘We’re just the same as your family, only skint’. A Blitz baby, born in Hackney during the worst bombardment in British history, Jackie was raised in a time when communities lived collectively and what little you had you shared. It’s this duty of care to those most in need that underpins the Pearlies.
‘Growing up, there would be buttons and feathers everywhere,’ says Teresa. ‘Mum and Dad would get back from work, dress up, pile the gear in the car and head out. This was on top of full-time jobs. So when people ask me, “How do you do that?” when you’re working 60 hours a week, somehow you do. That suit gives me the power to change people’s lives. I feel guilty if I don’t use it to do good.’ Teresa recalls one particular performance in a care home: ‘There was a woman with Alzheimer’s. Her chin was on her chest, she hadn’t spoken for ten years. We started singing the old songs – “I’ll See You in My Dreams”, “The Lambeth Walk” – and slowly she joined in and started singing. All the staff started crying.’
In May this year, Teresa and Jackie’s first post-lockdown gig was to drive up to Newcastle upon Tyne and sing to 101-year-old war veteran Len Gibson for his birthday, on behalf of the cancer charity Daft as a Brush. ‘There were Red Devils parachuting down from the sky, a Spitfire did a fly-past and Mum and I sang “The White Cliffs of Dover”. It felt so good getting out there, doing what we were born to do,’ says Teresa.
The Pearly Kings and Queens Association is not to be confused with the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society, established by the Pearly King and Queen of Crystal Palace, who left the Association in 2000 to form their own Pearly tradition. While the Association passes its titles down to family members, the Society invites individuals without a hereditary link to become a Pearly, provided they have a record of fundraising and community work.
Doreen Golding, the 81-year-old Pearly Queen of Old Kent Road and Bow Bells, found her way into the tradition through the Society. ‘I used to visit my mother-in-law in her care home and I got friendly with the Pearly Queen of Redbridge, who came to entertain. One day she asked my husband Larry and I to be part of her “pride” of helpers.’ Doreen and Larry were crowned King and Queen of Old Kent Road in 1995. Doreen’s schedule is punishing. Consider, too, that a fully pearled ‘smother suit’ can weigh anything up to 30kg. ‘No matter how tired I am, I’m out doing charity work,’ says Doreen.
But what is the future for the Pearlies? Before the war there were over 400, now there are less than 100. Shannon Crowe, 24, was crowned Queen of Haggerston aged 16. ‘I’m so proud to wear the suit,’ she says. ‘The older generation have instilled in us how important we, the next generation, are.’ With spark and swagger that lights up any room, Shannon may be sitting on the shoulders of giants, but the legacy seems safe in this young Queen’s hands.