“You’ve got to have the confident swagger to pull this costume off. I mean look at me…it takes a lot of nerve to dress up as a Pearly.” I’m here with the very personable Jimmy Jukes, also known as Pearly King Jim of Camberwell and Bermondsey. Giving his lustrous pearly suit a good once over with my magpie eyes I can’t imagine why anyone would think his attire anything less than resplendent. I’m actually rather jealous. But yes indeed, he does get mocked at a fair bit. “I just brush it off. I’m really not that bothered by it. I’ve got a job to do, and I just get on with it.”
There are many misconceptions about the Pearly Kings and Queens of London and I’d be the first to admit the discrepancies. For one thing, its not just about getting dressed up to go and have a knees-up and a good ol’ singsong down the pub to rouse the locals. The life of a Pearly is, in fact, a life dedicated to raising funds for nominated charities. The Pearly suits are all hand made with thousands of tiny little pearl buttons and, in the nicest possible way, are supposed to be a send-up of the upper class’ attire. Jimmy explains that it is their way of saying “I’m just as good as you, just as ‘posh’ as you, or just as royal as you.” Hence the over-the-top plumage, pearls, diamante, tailoring, flowers, shiny badges and rich bursts of colours that adorn their costume. It all began around the 1870’s by an orphaned boy called Henry Croft who became enchanted by the tough-talking market Costermongers. He made up his own suit to mimic the pearl-lined seams of the Costermongers from picking up the pearl buttons from the roads he swept. He soon became a great attraction in his locale of St. Pancras and was able to raise considerable amounts of money for the local hospitals, poor houses and orphanages. Suddenly unable to cope with the amount of the work needed to be done, he enlisted the help of his Costermonger friends from various street markets, thus starting the 28 Pearly families, one for each borough of London. The line is hereditary and many of these families still exist today.
I join Jimmy at his son’s pub, the ‘Adam & Eve’ on Bermondsey’s Brunel Road, as he readies himself to collect funds for his charity ‘UK Homes 4 Heroes’ at the 2011 London Marathon. This is my first marathon and immediately I notice how emotional the situation is. Everyone is running for a personal cause and most usually in the memory of a deceased beloved. A spirited and positive air presides: the bands are warming up; the boy scouts are twittering excitedly; banners of encouragement are held up high; the DJ’s already blasting out Land of Hope and Glory; water for the runners lies stacked high along the pavements; and the crafty few have already positioned their foldout chairs in prime spots. Jimmy, however, is not looking happy. “They blocked off all the major roads already so none of the other Pearlys can get here”. He’s texting frantically while his friend Lorraine Wells, Pearly Queen of Tower Hamlets, chatters and laughs with a local police officer. The rest of the Pearlies (the Watts family of Clapton, the Murphy’s of Hackney and the Rowe’s of Shoreditch) eventually arrive in time to see the first runners break through.
It is only when they stand together that I notice the minute differences in their clothes. Their badges on their jacket illustrate their loyalties, locale and many charities that they front. Most wear skeleton suits (with lined and detailed designs) whilst some of their caps and waistcoats are in the smother suit style (totally covered in pearl buttons). They literally wear their hearts on their sleeve. I ask Jimmy if any of his own family has any interest in following in his steps. He says, sadly, – “No. Times have changed and many people no longer have the time or the will to do what I do. It’s in dire danger of dying out.” He goes on to explain that his life choice has actually been a blessing, -“When something comes from the heart you don’t think about the consequences for yourself. You also become more driven. You accept your lot and just get on with it. At the end of the day, you make your life what it is. This is what I have chosen to do with my life and I stand by that choice.”
The marathon runners are slowly starting to thin out but the DJ is still going strong. The Pearly’s are shaking their fund boxes to test the weight of their gains. They seem justifiably pleased and as I say my goodbyes they seem surprised… “But the party is only just beginning”, Jimmy jokes. I doff my imaginary pearly cap and promise to come along to one of their singsongs soon. Having still remembered the words to ‘My old man’ and ‘The Lambeth walk’ from childhood, it’s a promise I hope yet to keep.