“Just before I was 20 I had this dream, and you’ve just walked through it.”
George Major is the Pearly King of Peckham and now, creator and curator of the Cockney Museum, which we’ve just been exploring.
As a young man from a pearly background, Major found himself attending lots of funerals, increasingly concerned that the legacy of the East End’s celebrated ‘pearlies’ would soon die out. “I thought ‘blimey, we’re going to lose our history'”.
For over 60 years, Major collected and stashed a wealth of cockney heritage, from fruit barrows once pulled by donkeys from his time on the markets of Peckham, to pearly costumes laden with mother-of-pearl buttons — what he dubs the ‘Cockney Crown Jewels’.
“I didn’t need plans for this museum,” says Major, “I knew exactly where things were going to go. Being a cockney, when you aim for something, you get it.”
The museum finally opened in August 2020 in Stoneleigh, and with the help of a fundraiser, weathered various lockdowns. Thank goodness it did; this is probably one of the most important museums dedicated to a particular niche of London heritage.
The experience begins on a lamplit ‘street’ peppered with squalid bedsits, young chimney sweeps and the occasional (plastic) rat; the idea is to replicate the poverty-stricken slums of 19th century London.
Thousands of candid photos annotated by Major show the stark realities of life back then: children who’ve lost limbs in accidents, toddlers washing windows for cash, families sleeping 12 to a filthy room.
Hardship is everywhere you turn, although a stoic cockney sense of wit and optimism pervades, thanks to a chirpy soundtrack of knees-up classics, paired with Major’s inimitable notes. Reads one photo caption: “A husband and wife team flogging their flowers. No OAPS in them days you work till you drop.”
This first section of the museum sets the scene for the emergence of London’s pearly royalty, descended from the charitable ‘coster kings’ of London’s 19th century fruit stalls. Coster kings looked out for their fellow costermongers, having whip rounds for those down on their luck. They also wore rows of gleaming mother-of-pearl buttons on their outfits, in cheeky imitation of the West End society they sold fruit and veg to.
Enter Henry Croft, an East End road sweeper and rat catcher. In the late 1870s, Croft took his cue from the costers, covering his entire suit in smoked pearl buttons, and using his newfound attention to raise money for charitable causes, helping London’s poorest live that little bit more comfortably.
The pearly kings and queens were born and in the coming decades, many groups formed to raise money through charitable events — always wearing their coats, trousers, skirts and caps, always stitched by the owner, often with mother-of-pearl derived from Japanese oysters (the finest quality you can get, says Major).
The museum’s piece de resistance is what Major calls ‘The Cockney Crown Jewels’, an array of suits worn by pearly kings and queens through the ages. They include the dress of Rebecca Matthews, Pearly Queen of Hampstead, who “had one of those smiles that light a Christmas tree” and John Heath, Pearly King of Bermondsey, said to have raised ‘more bees and money’ than any other pearly king in his time. [a passing knowledge of rhyming slang helps in this place].
Impressively, the Crown Jewels section even has a suit, top hat and walking cane worn by Henry Croft himself.
The most fascinating part of the museum, though, is the curator himself. A born storyteller and entertainer, George Major does talks at schools and dinners, and has even shared the stage with Madness. If you’re fortunate enough to chat with him, he’ll spin you yarns that’ll have you chuckling one moment, blubbing the next. He might even challenge you to lift his own pearly suit (spoiler: it’s heavy).
Of all Major’s claims to fame, perhaps his most impressive is his links to a certain BBC sitcom. “They called me ‘Del Boy the First’,” he tells us, “There was me, Grandad Fred, and Brian Evans — a big tall, lanky guy, we called ‘the Plonker’. The guy who was writing it, he’d been following us around.”
One of Major’s favourites tales is about the time he and his partners in crime filched a stash of half-pint milk bottles, filled them with fumes from Major’s Robin Reliant exhaust pipe, labelled the bottles up as ‘Pure London Smog’, and flogged them to American tourists on Oxford Street.
“Believe me, we sold the bloody lot,” laughs Major, who suggests John Sullivan got wind of the story, and spun it into the ‘Peckham spring water’ episode of Only Fools and Horses.
A trip to the museum can be rounded off with a plate of pie, mash and liquor in the cafe, sourced from the Manze’s down the road in Sutton.
This is a wonderfully personal museum curated with a lifetime of love — and incredibly rich in material, too. Samll it may be, but visitors have been known to spend a good few hours here. Have a dicky bird with yourself, and come for a butcher’s look.