A Pearly King and Queen toured Shaftesbury’s pubs on Friday night. Dave and Paula Hemsley are members of a tight-knit group of families that carry on the fundraising tradition started by a East End road sweeper during Queen Victoria’s reign.
The pair dazzled drinkers as they entered The Kings Arms dressed in suits and hats covered with thousands of bright buttons. “They are all genuine mother-of-pearl or bone. We can’t use any plastic. You can always tell a Pearly King because they have their title – where they are from – on their back,” Dave explained.
Both Dave and Paula’s jackets revealed that they were Harrow’s Pearly ‘royalty.’ The pair made a noise, similar to walking with a pocketful of coins, when they moved their jackets. And the buttons gave their clothing quite a heavy weight. “My suit is a smother suit, which means that there is hardly any cloth on view. It’s covered. It weighs a pound less than two stone,” Dave said.
Not all of the Pearly Kings and Queens can wear this clothing easily. The heavy buttons can be difficult for older people to bear. “Because of their age, they cannot take the weight of the suit. There are around 25 active Pearlies,” Dave explained.
Dave told me that, until recently, protocol meant that he couldn’t take off his jacket in the company of an older Pearly King or Queen who was still wearing their jackets. That could be physically uncomfortable on a warm day, because older people sometimes don’t feel the heat so much. Dave is used to it, thought. He’s worn a form of the pearly clothing since he was a baby. “I was christened in a pearly christening gown and was pearly from an early stage.”
Dave says the Pearly tradition can be traced back to 19th century London and an East End orphan. “Henry Croft was brought up in an orphanage and when he reached thirteen years of age, he was put out to work as a rat catcher and road sweeper,” explained Dave. “As he was sweeping up at the end of the day, he would empty his barrow out and there’d be rags, paper and buttons. He used to sell those items to make his money up and he’d put the buttons he had collected down his trouser leg. That made him stand out against other road sweepers. He then added buttons to his coat cuffs.”
Dave said that his fame on the streets meant he made more tips from the gentry. “Instead of putting it in his pocket, he wanted to give it back to the orphanage that brought him up, because it was struggling,” said Dave. “His immediate friends around the markets had a similar arrangement where, if one of their own could not work, they would club together and give a day’s pay. They put pearl buttons on their suits and began collecting for needy charities such as hospitals and children’s homes. Towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, they became acknowledged and Parliament was made aware of them. There were 28 Pearly families, one for each borough of London of the time. Croft’s immediate friends were made Pearly Kings and Queens.”
Dave is a member of one of those original families and Paula has married into Pearly royalty. “It’s slightly harder than being born into it, because I have grown up wearing the weight of the buttons and understanding the traditions and dos and don’ts,” said Dave. “I knew what I was getting into,” laughed Paula.
Dave and Paula’s children are now Pearly Princes and Princesses. When they reach the age of 18, if there is a vacant title, they can become a King or Queen. They could take on a grandparent’s title, for instance.
Like most Pearly Kings and Queens, Dave and Paula raise cash for charity all over the country. They had been to Stratford-upon-Avon earlier in the day before travelling to Shaftesbury. Luckily the couple, although officially representing Harrow, now live just over the Wiltshire border. And they are keen to help local good causes.
“Today we are supporting Homestart, which has a local office in Sturminster Newton. They help families with children. If there is a child in the family under the age of five and the family is having problems, they will send somebody in for six months to help the family get back on track,” said Paula.
Dave and Paula’s sparkly, shining clothing was attracting attention and pub goers were giving generously, which was pleasing, seeing as the pair were giving up their Friday night for the charity.
Dave told me that it can be difficult for younger Pearlies to play their part because they need to balance fundraising time with work and family duties. But it’s good to know that, unlike many English traditions, the Pearly empire, and it’s strong charitable effort, is still going strong.