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Pearly kings and queens: The other royals of London

By Atika Shubert, CNN
June 5, 2012 -- Updated 1058 GMT (1858 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Pearly kings and queens are a recognizable London institution
  • Distinguished by pearl buttons sewed on to clothing, group raises money for charity
  • As well as fundraising they act as role models and ambassadors in London areas

On June 3 - 5, the UK's Queen Elizabeth II marks her Diamond Jubilee year with a series of parties and pageants. Join CNN's Becky Anderson and Richard Quest at the festivities June 5: 0900 (ET), 1400 (CET).

London, England (CNN) -- If you've been in London for the queen's Diamond Jubilee, you'll almost certainly have seen the city's "other royals": the Pearly Kings and Queens of London.

"We'll all be out in full-swing where we're needed," Vanessa Vallely, the pearly queen of the City of London told CNN before the celebrations kicked off. "We are a recognizable part of London. I have a vision that when people go out to buy souvenirs like red-letter boxes and things like that. Well, maybe one day, there will be a little pearly queen fridge magnet!"

With their colorful feathered hats and hand-sewn pearl button suits, the pearlies are an instantly recognizable London institution dating back 150 years.

It all started with Henry Croft, an orphan turned street-sweeper and rat-catcher in Victorian London. At first, the young Henry Croft struggled on the streets of London but he found help with the Costermongers of Spitalfields Market -- apple sellers in London's East End.

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The Costermonger's sewed pearl buttons down the seams of their trousers to distinguish themselves in the busy markets of London. Inspired, Croft decided to create his own version -- covering every inch of a three-piece suit and top hat with pearl buttons.

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His theatrical flair attracted a lot of attention and Croft found he was soon earning more money than he needed. So, he donated much of it to charity, funding the London orphanage where he grew up.

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When he died in 1930, hundreds of mourners attended the funeral. Croft's charity work had become so well-known that he appointed a Pearly King and Queen in each of London's boroughs before he died to carry on his works.

Sights and sounds of the Royal Pageant

The pearlies have been working ever since, handing down their inherited titles and duties from generation to generation.

In May, several pearlie families gathered at the Carpenters Arms pub in East London for a pearlie coronation. Nine pearly kings and queens were crowned. In fact, it was the biggest pearlie coronation since the 1960s.

Read more: Pomp, pageantry and pouring rain

Vanessa Vallely and her 13-year-old daughter Mia were crowned the pearly queen of the City of London and the pearly queen of Hoxton, respectively.

Traditionally, each pearlie sews their own pearl button suit before being crowned, often decorated with family symbols: a heart for charity, a horseshoe for luck, for example. Vanessa Vallely pairs her new suit with a sleek set of jet black Manolo Blahnik shoes but admits she had a little help sewing on the hundreds of pearl-buttons.

"It's a fantastic tradition. It's a role model ambassador. We stand for the good old days. What you're seeing is a real cockney knees-up." She said "Wherever basically we can pitch up and raise money."

"My friends think it's really cool." Mia chimes in, "Some of them think it's kind of strange. But most think it's cool and something really fun. Which it is!"

Interactive: 60 years of royalty, discovery and global events

A "cockney knees up" is exactly what draws many people to the Pearlies. Tourists crammed into the modest pub, pints in hand, to catch a glimpse of the coronation proceedings. With lots of laughing and a bit of shouting, nine shiny, plastic crowns and polyester-ermine cloaks were placed on the heads and shoulders of the new pearly kings and queens.

The coronation itself is brief but the celebration last long into the summer evening. The music strikes up and the pearlies begin their rounds with plastic buckets, collecting spare change for charity. It may not seem like much but it adds up.

Jackie Murphy, the pearly queen of Hackney, raised more than $100 thousand dollars for her charity last year. She proudly displays her suit of 19 thousand pearl buttons she sewed herself. On the lapels, are the pins of at least a dozen charities she has helped.

"We don't ask for a fee, but we charge a donation for our chosen charities." She explains proudly, "Now, my daughter's a pearly queen and my grandchildren are princes and princesses. It's a lovely tradition."

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