Pearly Kings and Queens

A sparkle in the roots of the east end

Many people associate the East End with Pearly Kings & Queens.  The Pearlies developed from the ‘Coster Kings & Queens’, who originated in the 18th century. The ‘Costers’ in turn began life as ‘Costermongers’, London’s street traders, who have been around for over a 1000 years

The Costermongers have been an important feature of London life since the 11th century and for most of that time they were unlicensed and itinerant. Like some market traders of today, they would shout out to attract customers to view their wares – although, in doing so, they would often upset some of London’s better off society. The costermongers began to adopt an innovative method of attracting attention to themselves. Many would have a row of pearl buttons, each the size of a penny, sewn to their outside trouser seams from the ankle to the knee. Other went further with more pearl buttons on the flaps of their waistcoat and coat pockets and the front of their caps.

At that time, Victorian London was riddled with social problem. The poor or those too sick to work enjoyed no healthcare provision, and the welfare state was a long way off. For many, the Workhouse was the only way of food or lodgings, but it was considered the last resort among the poor as treatment was harsh and conditions almost as squalid as life on the street.

It was into this environment that Henry Croft enters the story….

Henry Croft was born in 1862 and raised in a Victorian workhouse orphanage in Somers Town Market, Chalton Street, King’s Cross.

Henry decided to go one better and decided to have a suit totally covered in pearl buttons. He then used to wear this to collect pennies and halfpennies to help out the children in the orphanage where he had been raised. He soon became a great attraction, and he was approached by many charitable organizations to help collect money for the poor, or disabled.

The costermongers had always had a tradition of organizing a whip-round for any of their number who had fallen on hard times, and Henry now asked them to help him with his charity work. They adopted the same style of costume, and as a result, the pearly monarchy and its tradition of raising money for charity began.

When Henry died in 1930, 400 pearly kings and queens attended his funeral in their costumes. There are fewer than that now, but the Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association still looks after Henry’s grave – a representation of a top hatted figure of Henry Croft that was originally situated  in the St Pancras & Islington Cemetery – until repeated vandalism caused its replacement…

Pearly Kings & Queens originated in the 19th century from the 'Coster Kings & Queens', who originated in the 18th century, who originated from the 'Costermongers', who originated from London's 'Street Traders', who have been around for over a 1000 years... with that out of the way let's get down to the nitty gritty!


The Life and Slow Death of London’s Pie and Mash Shops

Any Londoner will tell you that the city’s food & culture is inclusive as much as exclusive - Pie 'n Mash is born of the working class.

Once a fixture of the East End, surviving shops now serve the people squeezed out to suburban Essex and coastal hinterlands by rising rents.

London’s pie and mash shops are not for everyone. But they never were.

In 1851, London was a divided city. 

The air was thick with industrial pollution, and a prevailing west wind blanketed the East End in choking smog. Social classes followed the inky breeze: The rich and privileged moved west, into clean air; the poor were not so lucky. As the working class became established in the East End, so did the food they ate: pig trotters and pies stuffed with beef, mutton, kidney, and eel. The dishes were sold on the street, straight into eager hands: eels that had been writhing in the dank depths of the Thames that morning now steaming on its banks.

In the same year, social historian Henry Mayhew wrote that “men whose lives are an alternation of starvation and surfeit, love some easily-swallowed and comfortable food, better than the most approved substantiality of a dinner table.” In a Victorian society that valued respectability and cleanliness, street food was not “approved substantiality.” While the poorest of the poor had little choice, the aspirational working classes—plumbers, traders, and merchants living on the east side—looked to a newly established, firmly middle-class dining establishment, the restaurant, for inspiration. The workers wanted their comforting grub served within four walls, too. The eel and pie house, which today is called a pie and mash shop, was what they built.

The first opened in 1844, and as photographer and historian Stuart Freedman tells me, pie and mash shops were the first de facto working-class restaurants in London. “It was aping the bourgeois idea of a restaurant,” he says. Freedman has long documented the sociology of pie and mash shops, culminating with his book The Englishman & the Eel.

These places served hot, cheap, and sustaining food: eels stewed or jellied, mincemeat pies, plain boiled mashed potatoes and “liquor.” The latter is not what you’d think, with no alcohol in sight, but an oozy boil of eel juice and parsley, thickened with flour—a pallid green sauce with briny depth. As Freedman emphasizes, these early restaurants were sparkling establishments: White tiles winked, and sawdust was sprinkled on the floor to stop patrons slipping on spat-out eel bones.

Over time, three families took control of the pie, mash, and eel market: the Manzes, the Cookes, and the Kellys. 

Joe Cooke was allegedly the first to pair pie and mash with the liquor in 1862, and it remains the archetypal plate to this day. Each of the dynasties still has at least one shop in the city, but history has been unkind. In the 1940s, World War II bombings devastated the East End; 1980s housing policy and gentrification were equally ruinous. Surviving shops now serve the people squeezed out to suburban Essex and coastal hinterlands by rising rents; London proper has very few. Eel prices rise and stocks fall. Bones rarely hit the floor anymore.

Freedman is unequivocal when he states that you can’t reinterpret pie and mash for modern times. “It is what it is,” he says firmly. “It’s a very simple pie, a very simple mash.” His thoughts are echoed by Joe Cooke, owner of F Cooke in Hoxton, East London: “It hasn’t altered. It won’t alter.” Such lived history leaves rules and realities unwritten. Freedman compares ordering pie and mash to entering a betting shop. “If you’ve never placed a bet, it’s quite an intimidating thing to do: What are the rules?” The rules are as follows: It’s a “shop.” Never a “restaurant.” Mash has no butter. Gravy is forbidden. Ask for either, and in Cooke’s words, “You are gone.” Pie and mash is served with a fork and spoon. Request a knife and it’s not unlikely that you’ll be told to fuck off.

"Request a knife and it’s not unlikely that you’ll be told to fuck off"