Henry Croft (d. 1930),
the original pearly king
(After repeated vandalism, this tombstone has been
replaced by a marble slab bearing a photograph of this statue.)
One of the most striking monuments in the St Pancras & Islington Cemetery until repeated vandalism caused its replacement was the top-hatted figure of Henry Croft: the original pearly king.
Henry was born in 1862 and raised in a Victorian workhouse orphanage in Somers Town Market, Chalton Street, King's Cross.
When he was thirteen he became a road-sweeper and rat-catcher. He got to know several costermongers and became fascinated by their 'flash boy' outfits. They had a row of pearl buttons, each the size of a penny, sewn to their outside trouser seams from the ankle to the knee, with more pearl buttons on the flaps of their waistcoat and coat pockets and the front of their caps.
Henry decided to go one better and made a suit totally covered in pearl buttons, and he used to wear this to collect pennies and halfpennies to help out the children in the orphanage where he had been raised. He and his suit became a great attraction, and he was approached by hospitals, churches and other organizations to collect for the poor, deaf, dumb or blind. Eventually he had more requests for help than he could cope with single-handed.
Henry's friends the costermongers had a tradition of organizing a whip-round for any of their number who had fallen on hard times, and Henry now asked them to help him with his charity work. They adopted the same style of costume, and so the pearly monarchy and its tradition of raising money for charity began.
When Henry died, in 1930, 400 pearly kings and queens attended his funeral in their costumes. There are fewer than that now, but the Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association still looks after Henry's grave.
Adam Joseph, King of the Pearly Kings: The Story of Henry Croft
Original Pearly Kings and Queens Association, The History of the Pearly Kings and Queens