If you take the stairs down to the crypt under St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, go past the brass rubbing centre, and explore the labyrinthine crypt-turned-café, you will find the gravestone of Henry Croft, “the original Pearly King,” as it says on the base of the life-size (albeit quite minute) statue.
Henry Croft was born in 1861 in St. Pancras Workhouse and died in 1930 St. Pancras Workhouse, but between those two outlining events, he became the centre of an extraordinary piece of London working class folklore: the Pearly Kings and Queens.
After the workhouse, Croft went to the orphanage where he grew up to be a short man, and at the age of 15, he took up the job of street sweeper, a job he kept for the rest of his life. It was on the job that he met the “costermongers,” street vendors flogging their wares from simple carts, whose own clothes were all but simple: Partly covered with mother of pearl buttons, their suits went by the name of “flash boy outfits.” Croft liked what he saw, adopted the style and started using the title “Pearly King” even though he wasn’t a costermonger himself.
Croft started appearing at fêtes and fairs, collecting money for charity, wearing his pearly suits—either in a so-called “smother suit” on which every inch was covered in buttons or a “skeleton suit” with symbols like horse shoes, anchors and wheels recreated in buttons. This became so popular he couldn’t attend all the events on his own, so he asked his friends for help and, according to legend, the Pearly Kings and Queens were born. The London “Pearlies” has lived on as a working class tradition doing charity work to this day.
The statue in St. Martins’ crypt looks more like it’s in storage than on display, tucked away in a corner, and it is clear that Henry Croft is not here. Croft’s real grave can still be found in St. Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where the statue depicting Croft in his smother suit was revealed in 1934 (four years after his death, because the stone mason wasn’t paid on time). In the 1990s, it was repeatedly vandalized, and eventually the marble statue was cleaned up and moved to its current location in order to save it.