Estimated reading time:11 minutes, 57 seconds
Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Who knew Islington boasted several Pearly families or what Pearlies even do? Super-fast Cockney wit, a love of London and a great photographic smile are key skills for London’s Pearlies. But as the Pearly King of Finsbury John Walters explains there’s a lot more to being London royalty than being born or married into a Pearly family, or taking your first breath within the sound of Bow bells (that’s St Mary le Bow in Cheapside). Interview by Nicola Baird === As a special treat come and meet the Pearly King of Finsbury on Saturday 25 October, 3-5pm (plus six other Islington characters including the stunning Ethiopian singer Hanisha Solomon). Tickets £5 online from the King’s Head Theatre on Upper Street, or £6 on the day.
Listen to this soundcloud clip to hear the Pearly King of Finsbury start a right Cockney knees up with Hop (pick)ing down in Kent, accompanying the song by Honorary Pearly King Rick Hardy.
“When I’m wearing that pearly suit people trust you. It makes me feel proud that I’m a Londoner and representing Islington,” says John Walters, the Pearly King of Finsbury talking off duty in his Archway home.
Over the years he’s spent countless weekends and annual leave clad in the heavy mother-of-pearl button-covered suits traditionally worn by London’s top notch Cockneys. With his son Prince Darren of Finsbury – and other Pearly Kings and Queens – John has helped raise thousands of pounds. In 2014 the Pearly Society gave away £17,500 for good causes including the premature baby unit and the older persons ward at Whittington Hospital. They have helped other charities fundraise too, just by being willing to chat and smile for photos at London’s tourist hot spots – John’s proud that they helped Marie Curie collect £24,000 on the day the Tour de France went through London. As King of Finsbury John has also been on countless TV shows, starred in a Vogue shoot* snapped by fashion photographer Mario Testino, chatted to Michael Caine, met all the City of London’s mayors (including Boris) and been photographed with almost anyone he’s met and who wants to pose with a Pearly King.
It’s been an amazing life for the boy born in Finsbury in 1947 in Steadman Street (now Steadman Court, EC1) just off Old Street. “I was a homebirth baby with five brothers and three sisters. I’m the last one but my sisters used to joke ‘don’t go into the bedroom, Mum’s having a baby…”
His childhood was very different to modern kids growing up in London. For starters he left school at 15, his extended family lived close by and there was plenty of space for kids to be naughty without ending up labelled as delinquents.
“We were a Finsbury family. There were a lot of bombed out buildings so we had a lot of fun where the Barbican is now, going down to London Wall. As children we never touched these Roman Walls – we knew it was part of our heritage so showed it respect. And we’d go up to the fountain by St Paul’s and had fun unblocking its holes,” remembers John.
John was utterly rooted to Finsbury which during his childhood was a stand-alone metropolitan area. Finsbury only merged with Islington in 1965*. “Islington felt like another country and we couldn’t come up this way,” explains John. “Kids talk now about postcode wars but in my childhood kids were not allowed out of our manor, Finsbury. We went down to the Roman Walls and would build a camp. We made tents out of anything we found at the back of St Giles.”
“We also went down to the beach at the Tower of London. The yeoman would ring the bell when the tide was going out and then lower the steps to the beach. We never swam there – we’d play and find loads of clay pipes. We were mudlarks – now it’s a profession.”
Places the Pearly King of Finsbury loves around Islington
We shop at the Nag’s Head. I and my wife Kathy grow tomatoes, strawberries and potatoes on our balcony. We either get supplies from the 99p store or when we have a Pearly job in Kent. I love to eat gooseberries and runner beans raw. It’s how we were brought up.
The Museum of London is one of my favourite places. They’ve got Pearly King Fred Bliss’ suit on display, and some others in storage. We were asked to go down to the Olympics and join the parade. There was a lot of training for 30 seconds on the TV but now the Museum asked to help with the Olympic cauldron, and we will be back next month for the Sherlock Holmes exhibition (17 October – 12 April 2015).
The cemetery in Bunhill Row is dear to my heart. As kids we found it interesting and there’s the Honourable Artillery Company barracks next door which we’d bunk over the gate and scrump the mulberries until we were chased off. In my childhood if we knew there was a posh do [at Armory House] we’d open the car doors and be given threepence, sixpence or a shilling or told to f*** off – you’d end up with some sweet money.
Me and Darren (John’s son is a Pearly Prince) want to visit every Weatherspoons in London. We’ve done Islington! I like the atmosphere and the fact you can find a seat and have a decent quick meal. If there are children in the pub (eg, at Angel) they come up – I like to see children interested in London culture. The front of the one at Highbury Corner is like walking through five episodes of the Jeremy Kyle Show, but the back is quite nice for a relaxing social drink and a meal.
Hopping in Kent
Every summer John’s mother took her children for a six-week summer holiday to hop pick in Kent. “Hop picking is part of London’s heritage,” says John who has very good memories of that country life. In some ways it was like modern glamping – except that the families stayed in very basic accommodation.
“Pearly families always went to earn a few extra bob. It was good to get away from the smog*. I remember going down Hackney Road and you couldn’t even see your hand in front of you – that was in the daytime. It was worse in the evening.”
“We’d get to Kent and all the mothers would disinfect the cowsheds – they really were cow sheds. We’d collect faggots (bundles of sticks), put a dried coil of hop vines on top and then stuff our paliasses with straw (the paliass was like a duvet cover filled with straw). That was our bed! The kids would pick hops in the morning and then we played in the afternoon. Mum worked all day and cooked dinner for us.”
Smell is such a potent memory trigger I begin to imagine I can smell that distinctive hoppy smell. Then I notice that John has brought in a rope of drying hops he recently brought home after a trip to Faversham Hop Festival in Kent. It is perhaps a real loss for modern Islington-born children – indeed UK kids – that so few have the same close connection with rural life. Our Pearly King thinks so. But he has a remedy – just go out more, locally.
“London is a beautiful city but most Londoners don’t go out or take their children out to see their city. It’s got such a rich history and it doesn’t cost anything to walk around and see the sights. Walk along the South Bank and look at the north bank – it’s all over there. And take a few sandwiches. As a kid I was stuck in one area – I never got to see Buckingham Palace. Now my ambition when I retire is to take a camera and see the parts of London I haven’t seen, and do it in my own time.”
All about the Pearlies by Finsbury Pearly King John Walters
- The title’s from my wife, Kathy’s, family. They were original costermongers* where our founder Henry Croft worked in St Pancras – from then on [1870s] one of her family ended up a Pearly King. I’m Pearly King of Finsbury and the title stays with me until I die, then it’s passed to Darren.
- There are two main groups of Pearly Kings and Queens. John is part of the Pearly Society, http://www.pearlysociety.co.uk/ which has around 25 members – the youngest is his nephew, 10-year-old Prince Harris. The other organisation is the Original Pearly Kings & Queens Association. “All Pearlies have one thing in common and that’s raising money for the charities we support,” explains John.
- About that bell. You have to be born within the sound of Bow bells. That’s St Mary le Bow in Cheapside, not the Bow church in the East End. Just think of Dick Whittington. How could he have heard bells that far away from what’s now Archway? Many people ask me if I was born within the sound of the bells. I normally tell them ‘yes’, but my Mum had the radio on at the time and I didn’t hear them. Of course you would have been able to have heard them in Steadman Street!
Can you sew? I was in the army so I know how to use a needle and cotton! But people Darren’s age (he’s 42) don’t sew. Kings are allowed to help Princes.
- What about the buttons? The cross stands for faith; the anchor is hope and the heart is charity. The wheel signifies the circle of friends with you in the middle. I get the buttons from Cambridge Heath Road but whenever a Pearly King or Queen does an event in a sheltered home you always get an elderly lady giving you some mother of pearl (or akoya) buttons from her collection. Ladies always have a button box, so I try to incorporate them into a new design. We’re big on recycling our buttons from old suits too.
After 42 years working for Islington and many weekends spent busy fundraising for the Pearlies it’s clear that the Pearly King of Finsbury will enjoy recreating that childhood freedom he had roaming Finsbury. But this time he’s going to get to know a much bigger London. Good luck. Now do you mind if I’m cheeky and ask if you could just help me sew on this button?
- Every September (28 September 2014) go see the Pearly Kings and Queens at their harvest festival in Guildhall Yard. It starts at 1pm but arrive early to have a chance to chat to Pearlies or take your selfies. There will be all the Mayors of London, including Boris, with marching bands and “big swimming dogs that pull carts of vegetables”, donkeys and maypoles. Or catch it as the Pearlies parade past St Mary Le Bow.
- More info about the Pearly Society here. http://www.pearlysociety.co.uk/
- Museum of Kent Life, has a hopper’s hut on display. See website http://www.kentlife.org.uk/
Pearly King history here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Croft_(pearly). It’s proper working class history. Currently Islington has the Pearly King of Finsbury, John Walters and the Pearly Queen of Islington, Phyllis Broadbent.
Vogue fashion shoot starring Pearly Kings and Queens was April 2011. See pinterest http://www.pinterest.com/izaroeguia/we-love-mario-testino/
History of Islington on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Borough_of_Islington which was formed in 1965 when Finsbury was merged with Islington. This means that 2015 will be a chance for a 50th year celebration.
Smog – the early 20th century term for the unpleasant mix of smoke and fog that plagued post war London. The smog was so bad in 1952 that it led to Parliament making the Clean Air Act in 1956.
Costermongers – vegetable sellers
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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.