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The practice of wearing clothes decorated with so-called pearl, actually mother-of-pearl buttons originated in the 19th century. It is first associated with Henry Croft, an orphan street sweeper who collected money for charity. At the time, London costermongers (street traders) were in the habit of wearing trousers decorated at the seams with pearl buttons that had been found by market traders. Croft adapted this to create a pearly suit to draw attention to himself and aid his fund-raising activities. In 1911 an organised pearly society was formed in Finchley, north London.
Croft died in January 1930 and his funeral was attended by 400 followers from all over London, receiving national media coverage. In 1934 a memorial was unveiled to him in St Pancras Cemetery and at a speech to mark the occasion he was said to have raised £5,000 for those suffering in London's hospitals. The statue was later moved to the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster. The inscription reads:
In memory of Henry Croft who died March 16th 1930 aged 68 years. The original Pearly King.
The pearlies are now divided into several active groups. Croft's founding organisation is called the Original London Pearly Kings and Queens Association. It was reformed in 1975. who hold the majority of the original pearly titles which are City of London, Westminster, Victoria, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Shoreditch, Islington, Dalston and Hoxton. Other groups have also been established over the years. The oldest is the Pearly Guild, which began in 1902; modern additions include the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society which started in 2001 following a disagreement, another is the Pearly Kings and Queens Guild. Despite the rivalries, each group is associated with a church in central London and is committed to raising money for London-based charities. A parade of real-life Pearly Kings and Queens was featured at the 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony.