London

Pearly Queens and Kings of East London to be crowned

London's Pearly Kings and Queens
Image caption Pearly Kings and Queens have been a feature of London life since the late Victorian era

"Sunday will mark six generations of my family wearing buttons and I couldn't be more proud," says Pearly Queen of Tower Hamlets Lorraine Wells.

Miss Wells, 55, beams with pride at the thought that her family, including aunts, uncles, cousins and grandchildren, have carried on the Pearly tradition.

It culminates on Sunday with the largest crowning of Pearly Kings and Queens in 100 years at a pub in Bethnal Green.

The Carpenters Arms, a classic East End pub on Cambridge Heath Road, will host a ceremony blessed by Hackney vicar Father Rob Wickham and it welcomes the new royalty of the boroughs of Stratford, Bow, City of London, Tower Hamlets and Mile End.

Six women and girls and three men will wear their hand sewn button suits for the crowning and then families and friends will enjoy a traditional Cockney celebration.

It is 150 years since founder Henry Croft was born and raised in a Victorian workhouse orphanage in Somerstown, St Pancras.

He left at 13 to become a roadsweeper but became enamoured of the costermongers (street fruit sellers) and their flashy suits, decorated with penny-sized pearls down the outside seam of their trousers.

Henry was fascinated by the way they rallied round helping any "costers" down on their luck with a whip round and the rhyming slang they used.

Pearly inheritance

He decided to go one step further and covered an entire suit with pearl buttons. He became quite a draw for crowds as he went around collecting pennies and half pennies for the orphanage where he grew up.

London's Pearly King was born.

In all, 28 families constituted the original Pearlies, one for each London borough at the time and succession is by inheritance. It continues to this day.

Miss Wells' cousin Vanessa Vallely, 39, is a fourth generation Pearly Queen.

Both she and Lorraine are great-granddaughters of George Hitchens, one of the original Pearlies.

Ms Vallely, a successful City businesswoman who lives in Rayleigh, Essex, will be crowned Pearly Queen of the City of London on Sunday, taking over from her father Stewart.

Her daughters Ella, 13, and Mia, 11, will become Pearly Princesses of Hoxton and City of London.

She is the epitome of the Pearly ethic - a hard-worker and a tireless fundraiser.

"Raising money has been the cornerstone of the Pearlies since Henry Croft started wearing buttons. It is simply what we do," she said.

Taking a King

Image caption Vanessa Vallely is a proud member of original Pearly family, the Hitchens

"Every event we attend and we're going to be busy over the Jubilee, is about raising money.

"Even Sunday's crowning will raise money for Homes for Heroes. I ran the London Marathon last month to help Wellbeing of Women. It is something I, and all Pearlies, are proud of."

Miss Wells, who lives in Romford, agrees: "It's our heritage. Life may change, and London has changed a lot, but it's nice to hold on to some things. We were born into this and it's what we know."

While most Pearlies inherit their titles, exceptions can be made for those that have worked hard enough for charity or married Pearlies.

Miss Wells, whose daughter Nikki will also be crowned, will "take a King" at the ceremony in the shape of 52-year-old Sean Austin.

She said: "He has worked so hard to raise lots of money for charity so he deserves it. I was born into it so it's what I know but Sean has earned it."

Vicky Groves, from Romford, married into a Pearly family. Her husband Paul is a first cousin of Miss Wells and Ms Vallely.

She said: "I will wear buttons for the first time at my crowning and I couldn't be more excited. I've been sewing buttons on my suit since January. My poor fingers.

"I've attended Pearly events and supported the family but I can't wait to be the Pearly Queen of Bow.

"I've been doing fundraising over the years so it will be wonderful to be part of such a wonderful organisation so I can do my bit for those charities that need our help."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites