The War of the Pearly Kings

Mary Braid
Saturday 07 July 2001 00:00 BST

"You're the best looking bird I've seen today," says George Major, the reigning Pearly King of Peckham, as he performs a mini Lambeth Walk for me – as it happens, the only bird he's seen today – on the stairs inside his little terraced house. Afterwards, he cocks his leg in the "cheeky-chappy" Pearly way that, he says, brings smiles to the faces of the dying.

We are not, as you might expect, in the insalubrious south-London borough from which Major, 64, takes his royal title, but in leafy Epsom, Surrey. It has been eight years since the Pearly King of Peckham finally gave up on the Old Kent Road and the rest of the kingdom that he inherited from his old dad, and his old dad, and his old dad before him.

"I still miss Peckham something terrible," says Major, voice suddenly trembling. "I held out and was one of the last to go, but I had to think about schools for my children." Few Pearlies, it transpires, still live in London these days.

Mind you, says Major, moving to Epsom has not involved a betrayal of the working-class roots of the Pearly charity tradition, which is at least a century old. The first Pearlies were working-class people who dressed up in buttons to raise money for London's poor. Of the 150 or so remaining Pearlies, every family has its own traditional pearl-button design, and every man, woman and child sews his or her own suit. Oh no, Mr Major hasn't gone all "posh" Home Counties. In fact, he moved from his first home in Epsom because none of his neighbours "shared their lives". Truth be told, they did not even know each other's names. On the council estate where he currently lives, neighbours are closer.

But while circumstances might force the Pearly out of London, they can't, it seems, prise London from the Pearly. The Thames, Big Ben and Tower Bridge look down from Major's living-room walls, along with a painting of jolly Pearlies on their way to Epsom races, taken early last century.

In the the hall there are scores of photographs of Major's dad and granddad, testaments to entire lifetimes spent "in buttons". Even Cindy, the family dog, is featured, wearing her own special canine Pearly suit, along with Major's granddaughter Jade, 12, the fifth Pearly generation. "The first black Pearly princess," says Major proudly. "Her dad is West Indian. I have tried to get him interested in buttons, but he's not really that keen."

Though the kingdom is now a train-ride away, Major's son Sean, 15, plans on succeeding his dad. Sean's walls may be lined with martial-arts posters, but his Pearly suit is folded lovingly in the drawer beneath his bed. Is he ribbed by his friends when he wears it? "No," Sean says; but then, his karate skills are quite advanced.

Major himself is small and wiry and the image of his hero, Sir Norman Wisdom. He and his family – his second wife Cathy had to take on "the buttons" when they married – regularly rattle the tin for charity. But it's the Pearlies' charitable fund-raising that has brought trouble to their jolly, button-suited world. I had always assumed that all those Pearlies – rattling their tins, in the working-class philanthropic tradition of the Victorian Pearly king, Henry Croft – were one big, happy family. I was wrong.

Allegations of financial impropriety have caused a split in the Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association. Patrick Jolly, Pearly King of Crystal Palace, resigned as chairman a few weeks ago, after the Association instructed solicitors to examine the work of Margaret Hemsley, treasurer and Pearly Queen of Harrow. "As God is my maker, the lady has done nothing wrong," he said at the time.

Charity Commission investigations showed that the Association's financial management needed improvement, but uncovered no dishonesty. But Jolly and Hemsley have been expelled, and the matter is still under internal investigation. Now there is much bad feeling between the Association and the Pearly Kings and Queens Guild, of which George Major is president. Jolly claims that a "vendetta" is being waged.

"Calm yourself, George," shouts Mrs Major from the kitchen, as her husband splutters in rage.

"We are out there to bring a little glitter and it gives us all a bad name," he rages. "I just want everyone to know that the stories are about the Pearly Association, not my Pearly Guild."

When asked about the financial investigation, Pam Harman, 59, Association secretary and Pearly Queen of Brent, says "No comment." She is speaking at her home in Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, rather than north London. However, she cannot hold her tongue about Major and his Guild.

"George Major is not a real Pearly," she says. (Major, for his part, is equally dismissive. "I know 'em all and I only call two or three originals," he says.) The Association, according to Harman, is the true home of the Pearly bloodline. Each side accuses the other of polluting the Pearly ranks by making members of "friends of friends".

"Now, those are real Pearlies," says Harman, pointing to the huge black-and-white photograph of an elderly man and woman in buttons and feathers on her living-room wall. "That is my mum and dad." Her dad, Dickie, born at the turn of the century, died in 1988. She gets out the photograph albums – and there she is with Diana, Princess of Wales "three days before she split with Charles", and with the Queen Mum on her 100th birthday.

There's her daughter, Dawn (now 34 and Pearly Queen of Stonebridge), as a little girl, polishing Henry Croft's statue in Finchley cemetery before his marble head was lopped off by vandals at Hallowe'en in 1997. And there is Dawn's daughter, Pearly Princess Kate Elizabeth, 12, with some Chelsea pensioners. "I love my Royals and my Chelsea pensioners, and so does Kate," says Dawn.

Outsiders might find it hard to define Pearly but this family knows exactly what it is. "All my life it's been eat, drink and sleep Pearly buttons," says Pam Harman. Dawn sums it up differently. Her granddad sat in very this room struggling to sew buttons on his jacket even when he was almost blind, she says. "Really, it was pitiful," she adds, proudly.

Pam Harman says that divisions have always existed between Pearlies north and south of the river Thames. But she thinks that it was the Festival of Britain in 1951 that marked a major parting of the ways. By then, the Pearlies had been much reduced in number by the Second World War, and even many of the surviving members were being lured away to distant Australia on a special £10 immigration offer. Only one Pearly couple could reign supreme over the festival period, and north and south were at each other's throats over the nomination.

In the end, the formidable Beat Marriot and her hubby from north London got the nomination, and the old divide deepened.

In 1975, there was a attempt to bring the Pearlies together. But their reunion, under the Association name, did not last long. Afterwards, the north kept its Association, while the southern Pearlies floundered around, doing their own thing. In 1995, Mr Major resurrected the Guild.

The divide is propped up by theological differences that centre on Henry Croft, an orphaned road-sweeper and rat-catcher, who raised money for London's destitute by dressing up in suits decorated with pearl buttons. To the Association, Croft – "a north London boy" – was the first Pearly. "There was nothing before him," says Harman. To the Guild, Croft was not so much messiah, as another prophet. Major insists that Croft simply built on the philanthropic work of the costermongers – fruit and vegetable sellers – who had been raising money for London's destitute for years. He says that the real founder of the " tradition was a costermonger named Samuel King.

By Association legend, Croft collected his buttons from the rubbish he swept up. By Guild legend, Croft came across pearl buttons on the banks of the Thames after a cargo was dumped. The Guild claims that when the costermongers, who already wore buttons on their trousers, saw Croft in his head-to-toe Pearly finery, they realised that it was a great fund-raising gimmick. "When you look at my members, you are looking at the history of the costers," says Major.

Are there any independent records to verify the true ancestors of original Pearly families? I mean, how does the Queen Mum know which Pearlies to invite to her parties? "Oh, she ain't stupid, love," says Mrs Harman. She points to her head. "My records are all up here. Croft was the Pearly founder and my dad was one of his youngest helpers. His helpers became the Pearly kings."

Since 1995, the conflict between the two factions seems to have boiled over into something resembling a low-level war. Major claims that three years ago his own Pearly suit was stolen from a car outside the Duke of Sussex Pub at Waterloo. He pasted posters offering a "substantial reward", but he never saw the suit again.

Pam and Dawn Harman just laugh when I mention this to them. "Who says he lost a suit?" says Dawn. "He probably put up those posters for the publicity."

Pam Harman is more interested in the collection of 25 antique Pearly suits – including Croft's – that Major has stored at a secret address "for their safety". Harman claims that the suits rightfully belong to Association families, since it was their ancestors who made and wore them. Major has been trying for years to open a Cockney Museum, and says that he was given the clothes by a hotel that came across them by chance in a storeroom. Three years ago, Association members gate-crashed the glitzy public hand-over of the collection. "The security guards had to sling them out," says Major, all indignation. Dawn was among those slung. "I was pregnant, but I still went, because I wanted my granddad's suit."

Bitterness also erupted in 1997 during the annual harvest festival service for Pearlies at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, Trafalgar Square. Following an ugly skirmish after the service, Major and his Guild had to find a new harvest festival home. "So we found Bow Bells, the original Cockney church, and we hold our service the week before theirs, so we get all the publicity," he says triumphantly.

With all the money from their collection tins going to charity, there are obvious advantages to a bit of publicity – good and bad. And, indeed, it's not just in the field of fundraising that the benefits of fame can be felt. Pam Harman appeared in East 17's "House of Love" video and flew to Hong Kong to open a Marks & Spencer's. Dawn appeared on Catatonia's "Londinium" video. And George Major has been to the Swiss Alps on a Pearly holiday promotion and to Guernsey to open a pie-and-mash shop.

Both sides insist it is truth, heritage and birthright – not the pursuit of publicity and fame – that so bitterly divides them. But the one thing that unites them it is the conviction that when it comes to pearly showbiz, they are managing nicely by themselves, thank you.

Brian Walker is a professional Cockney music hall entertainer who occasionally dons the pearls as part of his act. Other entertainers do the same, and some even offer themselves for hire as Pearlies for special charity and tourist events.

"They are amateur entertainers and I am professional, and the pearls are my heritage, too," Mr Walker argues. But there are filthy looks from Pearly families, he says, when he dresses in buttons. "You would think with their numbers dwindling that they would encourage anyone who promotes the tradition. But, believe me, they don't."

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