Pearly King



(Above is a photo of Mary Le Bow Church)

Everyone that knows me is aware of my Irish lineage, so for the Dress a Doll competition at this years Sasha Celebration weekend I thought it would be nice to represent my Mothers side of the family . My maternal Grand father was a cockney blacksmith born within the sound of Bow Bells in the late 18th century.

I remember when as a child, he would say. I am going up the apple and pears to rest my plates of meat on Uncle Fred. Which is cockney rhyming slang for : I am going upstairs to rest my feet on the bed.

This is the history of cockneys, costermongers and Pearly Kings and Queens.


Are you aware of the origin of the word Cockney?  Apparently during the 1700s, country folk would tell a story about people they called Cockaignes.  It seemed that the Cockaignes believed that the streets of London were paved with gold and that the houses were made of cake!  As a result, anyone that moved from country to live in London began to be called Cockaignes.  The name became corrupted into Cockneys.  It was either Fuller or Miller, also during the 1700s, who wrote that the definition of a Cockney was related to Bow Bells (the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow).  A Cockney was anyone born within the furthest point where the sound of the bells could be heard plus the length of the Lord Mayor’s mace!


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!



Street traders, or ‘Costermongers’ as they became known, have been an important feature of London life since the 11th century – and for the best part of 900 of those years they were unlicensed and itinerant – at times hounded by the authorities & bureaucracy. They cried their wares to attract customers with vigour and panache – much to the annoyance of London’s ‘well-to-do’ society – yet they provided an essential service to London’s poor; mainly selling their wares in small quantities around the streets & alleyways – at first from baskets, then progressing to barrows – then permanent static pitches from stalls – until they finally evolved into today’s familiar and popular Markets. Oh yes, we owe a great deal to our ancestral costermongers – but like so many things we take for granted today, their fight was long and hard.


(above: a costermonger carrying his wares and notice the buttons sewn on his clothes to attract customers attention)


Because of London’s unique geographical position it grew and thrived as a trading centre – the City grew up not just around its financial market, but around its famous markets that provided the necessities of life – markets such as Billingsgate (where the fish were landed), Smithfield (for cattle & livestock) and Covent Garden and Spitalfields (for fruit, veg & flowers).



(Above: a costermongers barrow)


Although each Coster family traded independently, they remained loyal to other costers – collecting for those that fell on particularly hard times. Their philosophy of life was one of fate – some you win, some you lose – when things went bad you just had to pick yourself up and start all over again. They liked a gamble – be it on boxing matches, pigeon racing, dog fighting and even rat-killing matches! Most of all, of course, they liked to indulge in a tipple or two. Not because they enjoyed a good old booze-up and sing-song, you understand – ‘no guv’, more to do with being suspicious of water, what with cholera & typhoid and all that! Besides, the Ale Houses, Gin Palaces & the Penny Gaff Music Halls were warm & welcoming compared to their squalid lodgings. By now most of London’s poorer working classes were hoarded together outside the thriving City – dockers, sailors, immigrants & factory girls – all living in slum conditions with little or no sanitation.

As London grew beyond the boundaries of the walled City – costermongers in each Borough elected a ‘Coster King’ – they were chosen to fight for their rights – the first form of trade union, if you like. Coster Kings needed to be a hardy breed with leadership qualities, strong personalities, physical strength and also be loyal and quick-witted. And it wasn’t just the men – the female Billingsgate fishmongers were regarded as fearsome characters! Coster Kings and Queens brought up their ‘Royal’ children to follow in the tradition and inherit their titles.


Costers admired style & panache. They had evolved a showmanship and cheeky banter that boosted their custom. They also developed their own secret language – Coster back-slang – which pre-dated Cockney rhyming slang. They used this language to good effect, confusing their punters and the police when they wanted! With typical coster cheek they imitated the wealthy West End society who by early 19th Century had developed a fashion for wearing pearls – only the costers took it one step further by sewing lines of pearl ‘flashies’ on their battered hand-me-down waistcoats, caps and working trousers!


The transformation to the complete Pearly Costume as we know it today finally came in the 1880s when a road sweeper and rat-catcher by the name of Henry Croft completely smothered a worn out dress suit & top hat with smoked pearl buttons – incorporating patterns, symbols and slogans – one of which was ‘All For Charity’. Henry was a life long friend of the costers and he was particularly influenced by their outlook on life – which was all about helping one another and those less well off, even if you had little yourself. He joined the costers on their hospital fund raising Parades and Carnivals.


(above a photo of Henry Croft)


Because Henry Croft was an orphan he had no one to help him with his suit so he had to learn how to sew. Since then, it is tradition that each pearly is responsible for the sewing of their own suit.

Pearly Kings
London’s East End in the 60’s Pearly Kings and Queens

Each suit will have a own unique pattern and if a pearly gives you a twirl you’ll see not only their title spelled out in buttons on their backs, but also a shape or design that’s personal to them.


George Dole had a large six-spoked, wooden wheel to denote the horse and barrow he used as a coster. Other designs commonly found include doves (symbolising peace), hearts (for love and charity), wheels (the circle of life) and playing card symbols (life is a gamble).


Horseshoe = Luck




Doves = Peace


Heart = Charity


Anchor = Hope


Cross = Faith



Symbols of Playing Cards = Life is a gamble


Flower Pots = Costermongers


Donkey Carts = Costermongers


Wheel = Circle of Life


Below is a cockney song:

Ring Out The Bow Bells of London

Ring out the Bow Bells the Bow Bells of London
Ring out the Bells of St Mary le Bow
Ring out the Bow Bells the Bow Bells of London
Ring out the Bells of St Mary le Bow.

If you were born within the sound of Bow Bells
You’re a Cockney, through and through
A Cockney seldom wonders from where he dwells
For to London, a Cockney’ s always true.

Ring out the Bow Bells the Bow Bells of London
Ring out the Bells of St Mary le Bow
Ring out the Bow Bells the Bow Bells of London
Ring out the Bells of St Mary le Bow.

The Pearly Kings & Queens are London’ s treasure
With a language all their own
Communities that always stick together,
And London is always home sweet home


Here is some cockney rhyming slang and what it means:

 The cockney slang is on the left and the meaning is on the right

  Adam and Eve Believe Would you Adam and Eve it?
  Alligator Later See you later alligator.
  Apples and Pears Stairs Get up those apples to bed!
  Army and Navy Gravy Pass the army, will you?
  Bacon and Eggs Legs She has such long bacons.
  Barnet Fair Hair I’m going to have my barnet cut.
  Bees and Honey Money Hand over the bees.
  Biscuits and Cheese Knees Ooh! What knobbly biscuits!
  Bull and Cow Row We don’t have to have a bull about it.
  Butcher’s Hook Look I had a butchers at it through the window.
  Cobbler’s Awls Balls You’re talking cobblers!
  Crust of Bread Head Use your crust, lad.
  Daffadown Dilly Silly She’s a bit daffy.
  Hampton Wick Prick You’re getting on my wick!
  Khyber Pass Arse Stick that up your Khyber.
  Loaf of Bread Head Think about it; use your loaf.
  Mince Pies Eyes What beautiful minces.
  Oxford Scholar Dollar Could you lend me an Oxford?
  Pen and Ink Stink Pooh! It pens a bit in here.
  Rabbit and Pork Talk I don’t know what she’s rabbiting about.
  Raspberry Tart Fart I can smell a raspberry.
  Scarpa Flow Go Scarpa! The police are coming!
  Trouble and Strife Wife The trouble’s been shopping again.
  Uncle Bert Shirt I’m ironing my Uncle.
  Weasel and Stoat Coat Where’s my weasel?


  • Almond Rocks = socks
  • Apples and pears = stairs
  • Aris = Aristotle = bottle & glass = arse (a two-stage rhyme) [see Plaster below]
  • Artful Dodger = lodger
  • Ascot Races = braces
  • Aunt Joanna = piano
  • Bag of fruit = suit
  • Baked Bean = queen
  • Baker’s Dozen = cousin
  • Ball and Chalk = walk
  • Barnaby Rudge = judge
  • Barnet = Barnet Fair = hair
  • Boat = boat race = face
  • Bob Hope = soap
  • Boracic (freq. contracted to brassic) = boracic lint = skint (i.e. penniless)
  • Bottle = bottle and glass = arse (i. e. courage; Courage also happens to be the name of a brewery)
  • Brahms = Brahms and Liszt (classical composers) = pissed (i.e. drunk)
  • Brass Tacks = facts
  • Bread and Honey = money
  • Bricks and Mortar = daughter
  • Brown bread = dead
  • Bubble = Bubble & Squeak = Greek
  • Butcher’s = butcher’s hook = look
  • Chalfonts = Chalfont St Giles = piles (i.e. haemorrhoids)
  • Chalk Farm = arm
  • China = china plate = mate
  • Cobblers = cobblers’ awls = balls or ‘bollocks’ (i.e. testicles , but usually meant in the sense of ‘rubbish’ as in “You’re talking a load of cobblers”)
  • Cock and Hen = ten
  • Creamed = cream crackered = knackered (i.e. exhausted or beaten)
  • Currant bun = sun
  • Daisies = daisy roots = boots
  • Darby and Joan = moan
  • Dicky = dicky dirt = shirt
  • Dicky or Dickie = dickie bird = word = as in “not a dickie”, or even “not a dickie bird”
  • Dog = dog and bone = phone
  • Duck and Dive = skive
  • Duke of Kent = rent
  • Dukes = Duke[s] of York = fork, i.e. hand, now chiefly when balled into a fist
  • Dustbin Lid = kid
  • Farmers = Farmer Giles = piles (slang for haemorrhoids )
    Flowery Dell = ( prison ) cell
  • Frog = frog & toad = road
  • George Raft = draught
  • Ginger = ginger beer = queer
  • Gregory = Gregory Peck = neck, or cheque
  • Gypsy’s = Gypsy’s kiss = piss
  • Hampsteads = Hampstead Heath = teeth
  • Half-inch = pinch (i.e. steal)
  • I suppose = nose
  • Jack = Jack Jones = alone (“On my Jack” = “On my own”)
  • Jam jar = car
  • Jam tart = heart
  • Jimmy = Jimmy Riddle (unknown person, not the character killed during the Waco siege)= piddle or widdle (urinate)
  • Jugs = jugs of beer = ears
  • Khyber = Khyber Pass = arse
  • Kick and Prance = dance
  • Lady Godiva = fiver (i.e. five- pound note)
  • Lionels = Lionel Blairs (English variety performer) = flares (as in flared trousers)
  • Loaf = loaf of bread = head (“use your loaf”)
  • Lucy Lockett = pocket
  • Minces (or mincers) = mince pies = eyes
  • Mutton = Mutt and Jeff = deaf = named after Mutt and Jeff , two early 20th century comic strip characters
  • North and South = mouth
  • Oily rag = fag (i.e. cigarette)
  • Ones and twos = shoes
  • Peckham Rye = tie (i.e. necktie)
  • Pen and Ink = stink
  • Pigs ears = big beers (large glasses of Ale )
    Plaster = Plaster of Paris = Aris = Aristotle = bottle = bottle and glass = arse (a three-stage rhyme)
  • Plates = plates of meat = feet
  • Porky = pork pie = lie, e.g. “He’s telling porkies!”
  • Pony = pony and trap = crap (note: Cockneys also use “pony” to mean £25 – hopefully the meaning is clear from the context)
  • Rabbit = rabbit and pork = talk
  • Raspberry = raspberry tart = fart (as in “blowing raspberry/ies” = making rasping noises with your mouth)
  • Richard = Richard the Third = turd (lump of faeces)
  • Richard = Dicky Bird = bird (slang for girl) but also Dicky Bird = word
  • Rosie = Rosie Lee = tea e.g. “Have a cup of Rosie”
  • Round the houses = trousers
  • Rub-a-dub-dub = pub = public house
  • Ruby = Ruby Murray (popular singer in the 1950s born in Belfast ) = curry
  • Salmon and Trout = snout
  • Scarper = Scapa Flow = go (as in “run for it!”)
  • Sexton Blake = cake
  • Sherbet Dab = (taxi) cab
  • Skin = skin and blister = sister
  • Sky = sky rocket = pocke
  • Syrup / sirrup = syrup of figs = wig(s)
  • Tea leaf = thief
  • Taters = Potatoes in the mould = cold
  • Titfer = tit for tat = hat
  • Tod = Tod Sloane = own (as in “on your tod”, meaning “alone”)
  • Tom and Dick = sick
  • Tomfoolery = jewellery
  • Treacle = treacle tart = sweetheart
  • Trouble = trouble and strife = wife
  • Vera = Vera Lynn (famous British wartime singer)= ‘skin’ or cigarette paper, eg, “got any Veras?”, or chin, or gin
  • Whistle = whistle and flute = suit = as in “a nice whistle”

Below is a cockney poem, see if you can understand it.


Barrow Boy

Up the Apple and Pears
Cross the Rory O’more
Up to see the dear old trouble and Strife
(That’s the Wife) On the Cain and Able
You will always see
A pair of Jack the Rippers
And a cup of Rosy Lee
What could be better than this a
Nice old cuddle and kiss
Underneath the pale moon light
A little Tommy Tucker and up to Uncle Ned
Oh what a lovely night tonight.


All my life I’ve Wanted to be a barrow boy
A barrow boy I’ve always wanted to be
I push me Barrow I sticks to it with pride
I’m a Coster a Coster from over the other side
I turns me back upon the old society
Take me where the ripe bananas grow
They are only a dozen a shilling
that is how I earn my living
I ought to have been a barrow boy years ago
Get off me barrow, I ought to have been a barrow boy years ago.

Ding ..Dong ..Ding ..Dong
Ring out the Bells of St Mary le Bow
Ding ..Dong ..Ding ..Dong
Ring out the Bells of St Mary le Bow

Here at some photos of Mr G modelling his Pearly king outfit. Vicky Chapman kindly provided the blank suit for me to work on. I sewed every button and sequin on by hand using my breaks at work to get it finished. I am so happy that it took 3rd place at the Sasha Celebration weekend.

IMG_2339 (2)


(Above is a front view of Mr G’s Pearly King outfit with symbols of the heart and wheel of fortune on the legs and flowers at his ankles)


(Above is a back view of Mr G’s Pearly king outfit showing his title as The “Pearly King Of Bow” and a little sequin bell to add to the detail.)


(A side view showing his waistcoat and anchor image on his sleeve. his neck tie known as a Kingsman was brightly coloured to draw attention )


(Another side view this time showing the cross symbol on his other sleeve)


( affront view of his hat showing the symbols of the cross, heart and horse shoe)


(A rear view of hiss hat showing symbols of a flower pot, playing card and bird)


( Above Mr G with his barrow full of vegetable’s all made from clay and painted)

To finish off below is the Pearly Prayer.

Pearly Prayer

When i die and go to ‘eaven, it will be much betta there,
Our good lord will meet me, and say, “come in, pull up a chair.
You spent your time and energy, collecting money for the poor,
To give to them all the little fings, they never ‘ad before.
You covered your clothes wiv buttons, so that all could see,
That you are a very proud member, of the pearly society.
And now your tired and weary, and your body’s past it’s best,
I faut i’d bring you up wiv me, to ‘ave a well earned rest.


“so when you get your breff back, i’ll take you by the ‘and,
And show you why my ‘eaven, is called the promised land”
We’ll go and wander raund the streets, i knew when i was young,
And listen to the jokes they told, and all the songs they sung.
I’ll see all the ‘appy people, what used to be araund,
And listen to the ‘orse and carts, wot made that loverly saund.
The air would be full of the costermongers loud and cheerful calls
Wiv all the fings they ‘ave for sale, all piled upon their stalls.


I’ll meet all the other pearly’s, wot went up there before,
Wiv their ‘appy smiling faces, and buttons all galore.
I’ll go and meet my parents, they departed long ago,
And see all my friends and relatives, i also used to know.
It will be just like the old times, to ‘ave a good old chat,
I never faut the day would come, when i could do all that.
And then i’ll look araund me, and realise it is true,
You get back what you give in life; so it’s really up to you

I hope you have enjoyed reading this and I would like to thank  The Pearly King and Queen association for all their help in researching this . Thanks for looking.





  1. Wow Theresa, how fascinating to read that Pearly history, I enjoyed your post immensely. Mr. G’s costume is even more remarkable to me now, all that work you put in and all the symbols and their meanings. You were a very worthy winner in our competition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Janet I enjoyed it for some strange reason I find sewing very relaxing and I thought the Pearly King was very apt not as their main role these days is raising money for charity.


      1. Mr G’s costume is a work of love for sure – there is something intensely personal about sewing something bespoke like this and embellishing with your very own patterns and designs. I knew a lot of this history of Costermongers and Cockneys as my father came from Enfield and my husband’s family also lived in the area.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s