Hidden in the labyrinthine crypt-turned-café beneath St. Martin-in-the-Fields is the gravestone of Henry Croft, “the original Pearly King.” The life-sized (albeit quite minute) statue stands along a wall in a narrow passageway, tucked away from the visitors munching on their cafe meals.
Croft was born in 1861 in St. Pancras Workhouse. He grew up in an orphanage, and at the age of 15, took a job as a street sweeper, a job he kept for the rest of his life. It was on the job that he met the “costermongers,” street vendors who hawked their wares from simple carts. These vendors sometimes wore “flash boy outfits,” which were suits modestly adorned with mother-of-pearl buttons.
Croft liked this look and adopted the style, though he himself wasn’t a costermonger. He also enhanced the look, creating a suit covered with flashy pearls. He began using the title “Pearly King” and used his bedazzled outfits to draw attention to himself while raising money for charities.
Croft started appearing at fêtes and fairs, collecting money for charity and wearing his pearly suits. He’d either don a so-called “smother suit” covered in thousands of buttons or a “skeleton suit” with symbols like horseshoes, anchors, and wheels created in buttons. His shtick became so popular that he was asked to appear at more events than he could handle on his own, so he asked his friends for help.
This, according to legend, is how the Pearly Kings and Queens were born. The tradition of the London “Pearlies” survives today. You can still see people clad in pearl-covered clothing doing charity work to this day.
But though the tradition Croft started is still going strong, the statue of him feels forgotten, looking more like it’s in storage than out on display. Croft’s real grave can still be found in the St. Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where the statue depicting Croft in his smother suit was originally revealed in 1934 (four years after his death, because the stone mason wasn’t paid on time). In the 1990s, after the marble statue was repeatedly vandalized, it was cleaned up and relocated to its current spot.
Know Before You Go
The crypt is quite small. As you walk into the cafe with the brass rubbing place on your right, take the first right and walk back to the small hallway with other grave markers and stones of remembrance.