I found out today that not everyone knows about pearlies. If you have seen the movie “Mary Poppins” you may remember the street band in the “Holiday with Mary” fantasy scene. They were pearlies. This is an old London institution, although fairly recent by British standards. The first pearly was a street sweeper named Henry Croft, who had been raised in an orphanage. He worked among the costermongers at Somers Town Market. The costermongers had a loose organization in place that provided care for their injured, widows and orphans, and they distinguished themselves by sewing rows of pearl buttons on their work clothes. Croft was impressed by the camaraderie and care these rough men showed each other, and wanted to take that kind of fellowship to more people.

As he worked, he often found pearl buttons lost from clothing by passersby. He began sewing them onto his work clothes, until he had covered a shirt and trousers outfit completely with buttons. His outgoing nature and constant presence on the street encouraged people to greet him and pass the time of day. He turned his work and his avocation into a way to raise funds for orphanages and hospitals, and other working class people joined him in this pursuit. They formed into district guilds,wearing their pearl-trimmed outfits and performing traditional songs to solicit the public on behalf of charitable causes.

The tradition is passed down through the generations, with about 30 pearly families participating. Their guilds support more than twenty charities in the London area, and their “home” church is, of course, St. Paul’s, Covent Garden.