Bert Matthews: Rat Catcher and Pearly King

Explore Pearly traditions and consider other groups with a strong identity, culture and tradition
Discuss changing attitudes to social justice and community responsibility.
Discover where Bert and Becky Matthews lived in Hampstead.

Subject Areas

History Britain since 1930: exploring modern Pearly cultural traditions and their origins
Victorian charity and the rise of the modern welfare state to replace it
Citizenship Different values and customs; attitudes to social justice and community responsibility
Art and design Exploring Pearly costumes and creating a representational piece

Possible Topics/ Activities

  • Changes in Public Health and Welfare services since 1948. Why were rat-catchers so important? Is Bert’s job still necessary and, if so, who does it now?
  • Research the Pearlies (or other cultural groups and organisations with strong traditions) and identify key similarities and differences from your own experiences
  • The Pearly Kings and Queens adopted their costume to attract attention. What other uniforms do people wear to work that express a clear visual identity? Why is that important?
  • The Pearly Kings andQueens raised money for charity, but they weren’t very well off themselves. People looked after each other. In what ways is life the same or different today?
  • A popular image ofLondon in the 1950s was a red London bus and a Pearly King and Queen. What are the iconic images of London in 2012? How would you promote London to tourists in Olympics year?
  • Trace the places mentioned in the Matthews’ life and see where they lived, how far they moved and identify places that have been demolished or altered
  • Make a hat or a belt or a scarf for a Pearly King or a Pearly Queen using buttons or sequins

Background to the Pearly tradition

Pearly procession in Southwark Pearly procession in Southwark, © ## Evans Picture Library##

The “Pearly” tradition probably started amongst the costermongers (ie market and street traders in fish or fruit and vegetables) in the mid 19th century. The traders in each area used to elect a leader to organise them against being bullied by the growers and wholesale market authorities where they bought their supplies, and they would decorate their clothing with buttons to distinguish themselves. They were poor but generous people, and mutual self help was a key part of what bonded their community together.

The costermongers’ form of dressing was taken up by Henry Croft (b 1862, d 1930), an orphan, who was a sweeper and rat catcher in Somerstown market. He adopted the costermongers’ tradition of decorated clothing to draw attention to the good causes he worked hard to support, and was helped in his work by the coster community. He is the originator of the modern Pearly movement, and his costume became the basis for the traditional decorated Pearly clothing that we see today (the “smother” suit).

Although there is now a Pearly King and Queen for each of theLondonboroughs, its traditions are associated with the East End of London and traditional East End music and language. In modern times their role mainly involves collecting money forLondon’s destitute, including charities for the poor and local hospitals. However, the growth of the welfare state has shifted the areas of need from their traditional community base.

Further Resources


  • Henry Mayhew, “London Labour and London Poor (1851-62)” provides very detailed information about the Costermongers and their lives
  • Round about Three Palace Green”, Estella Canziani (Methuen, 1939). Chapter 18: A Pearly Festival (pages 277 – 294) describes visits to Pearly ceremonies and homes, including one to the Matthews


  • Along with other Pearlies, Bert and Becky took part in the film “London Town” with Arthur Askey and Petula Clark (see this clip on YouTube)

Pearly Society websites

Pathe news clips

Art and costume

  • Notes on five preliminary studies of Pearlies, held by the Folklore Society”, by Estella Canziani (Portfolio Society) – these include colour sketches of Bert and Becky Matthews. The couple are also depicted in Canziani’s 1935 piece Birds of a Feather.
  • Article on the 2019 Pearly Harvest Festival in Cheapside, featuring photos of modern Pearly costumes.


This page was last updated on November 30th, 2020.

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