Pearly Kings and Queens date back to the 19th century, originating from the Coster Kings and Queens, who in turn originated in the 18th century from the costermongers.

These famous street traders of London have existed for more than 1000 years!

When London was just one square mile

Within that square mile were the slums which bred poverty and the street markets to serve them. the costermongers “better known as market sellers” who served the poor, sick, and needy, they were discouraged from entering shops, as it upset the better off customers, and any way the costermongers were much cheaper and would cut a cabbage in half and other vegetables where the shopkeeper would not do that, the shops were trying to stop the markets as they considered that the costermongers were not paying rates, for most of the time they were unlicensed and itinerant and at times hounded by the police and authorities.
Bearing in mind that the costermongers were almost as poor as the poor that they were serving.

“From a very early age of four I had the opportunity of mixing and learning the market life”

One of the things I learned was loyalty, and listened to the old stories that they had to tell, one story that impressed me was how the first leader of them markets first appeared in the market and why such a leader was chosen. The biggest enemies of the costermongers was the police and local authorities, it was them that kept them moving from their pitches with their barrows, and the costermongers wanted a leader picked for his strength, personally and someone to stand up for them from the bullies who tried to take over their pitches, and to help change the unjust laws stacked against them and the police and authorities, which was stopping them from earning a honest living and feeding the poor, sick, and needy, with the coster pointing out “who else could feed the poor the government won’t” in the late 1700s onward the first elected coster was Samuel King, and he was given the title of “Coster King” after coster-monger and king after his surname as the coster’s loved royalty.

So started the first king, now other elected leaders were chosen in other street markets as coster kings, so started a tradition of coster kings, with many coster kings passing their titles down through their families and their wifes as coster queens.

This was the start of the pearlies kings and queens history , in turn the coster kings had started their own costermongers union, to protect the costermongers against the bullies, police, and authorities. and the early start of the cockney slang, in order to confuse the police and authorities with this new language.

I learned my loyalty from working the markets, where we cared for each other.

The coster’s had their meetings with ideas on how best to go about changing the unjust law, with their secretary writing to the authorities and mp’s explaining their grievances and the unjust laws against them, what made it harder for them was the lack of education, they had help from well known people at the time, as an example, “ a coster king was walking down the frog and toad (road) on his shoulder was a sack and he tripped over with the sack falling on the ground at the feet of Lord Shaftesbury exposing a baby boy that was dead, at that point Lord Shaftesbury was so shocked that he asked the coster king,
Why have you been carrying that baby in a sack?
Well sir, I am taking my baby boy to a pauper’s grave as I can’t afford a proper funeral for my son.
But why can’t you have a proper funeral?
Well sir because I pay so much for the rent of my barrow which takes most of my earnings, apart from fines I have to pay for illegal trading but all I’m doing is helping the poor, sick, and needy as they are not encouraged to enter shops.

Lord Shaftesbury was so moved about this that he had barrows made with his crest of arms, and rented them out for peppercorn rent, he also showed his support in the house of lords to change the law for the costermongers, and remained friends until his death.

Costermongers Pearly Harvest Festival

St. Mary-le-Bow church, Cheapside

George Major the Pearly King of Peckham was the sole person of getting the costermongers harvest festival moved to St. Mary-le-Bow, in Cheapside.
Some self made Pearlies stopped “who are not born into the pearly tradition”, from entering St Martins in the fields Trafalgar Square, stopping him and his genuine pearlies “the pearlies kings and queen guild” from entering. On the guild’s next meeting George was asked to sort it out the cockney way, so George arranged to have a meeting with the so called pearlies and the vicar, a meeting was set with the new vicar by the end of the meeting the vicar and the so called pearlies said to George get your own church, “now never challenge a cockney for he or she will take you on and prove you wrong” so George approached St Mary-le-Bow and arranged a meeting with the vicar of St. Mary-le-Bow, George also knew that St Mary does not open on Sunday, at the first meeting George used a soft start, explaining what the pearlies did in the late 40s early 50s when they raised a lot of money to have the bells renewed after the second world war, on the second meeting he tried the medium touch, the third meeting he used his market style and said to the vicar “do you agree with me that god works seven days a week” of course I do he replied so do I George said, and i only want one sunday a year, at that the vicar said for your cockney cheek you can have it for one sunday of the year, and George knowing that for every year the harvest is on the first sunday of october, so George arranged the harvest festival on the last sunday of september in 1999 and has been still going now twenty two years in 2021.

The costermongers harvest festival started in the 1887 to 1938 at St Magdalene church in Congreve Street behind the Old Kent Road, Bermondsey.

The bow bells are referred to rhyme “oranges and lemons, Sir Christopher Wren who designed it, the bow church was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666, the bow church has 12 bells.

It is a known fact that George Major has done more for the pearlies history than anyone in keeping the pearlies history alive.

Just how bad was conditions in london in the 1800s and early 1900s

In 1815 london was without question the largest city in the world, the slums dominated its eastern reaches, and gave home to the beggars and traders cruelty that exists in any city but london more than any other, decease with virtually no help from the state and no chance of escape, life was rock bottom of london’s poor, the victorian ore was so absorb as to be worthless.

Thousands of men, women and children lived in conditions that are hard to imagine today. one reforme estimated there were 30,000 naked, filthy, roaming, lawless and deserted children, with no homes, no families and no prospect of escaping poverty, people living among narrow brawling torrents of filth and poverty and sin.

Today politicians often talk of a 21 st century housing crisis, yet in the mid-19th century London the reeking slums were so overcrowded that as many as 30 people shared a single room.

Many poor Londoners drank water from a local ditch, into which they also emptied their waste and effluent. People died from tuberculosis every year, while one in five children died before the age of five, for most people, illness and unemployment were near-fatal calamities.

In state run workhouses, established in 1834 as home homes for the destitute, conditions were deliberately harsh, many girls as young as 13 resorted to selling their bodies instead, some historians think there were as many as 80,000 prostitutes on the streets of victorian london, risking their health every night in the cold and rain, among them thousands of teenagers, yes we have problems and we should never allow ourselves to be complacent.

Britain is one of the richest countries in the world, with a generous welfare state and a comprehensive health service free at point of use. In this context, to claim that we are returning to the conditions of our dickens is just simply ridiculous.

Yes, my dream of a cockney museum is to steal in my thoughts, and mostly not just for charities but in memories of their very sad days, so be thankful for life today.

In Cleveland Street is the building of the workhouse as it was, it’s a building that needs to be preserved. “Lord, keep my memory green” was a Dickens watchword. It reminds us of forgetting the horrors of the 1800’s life, and helps us appreciate how far we’ve come.

The Kids (Dustbin Lids)

“Definitely worth a visit. George Major has done a fantastic job and is great to listen to, so informative such a lovely man could chat to him for hours.”
Tina Rabbetts