Teresa is the Pearly Queen of Clapton and a true Cockney, ‘born within the sound of Bow Bells’. She grew up in Leyton, East London, and now lives in Loughton, just outside of London in Essex, but her family is from all over East London, ‘so that is where our heart is’.
Teresa comes from a long line of Pearly Kings and Queens. Her great-grandfather received his first title as the ‘Pearly King of Westminster’ in 1892, about 20 years after the first ‘pearly king’ Henry Croft started his charitable work for the poor of the East End in his mother-of-pearl button-studded suit.
The Pearlies are not just intrinsically linked with London and the East End in particular, they also represent traditional Cockney culture and values, including the way of speaking. Just as Cockneys have been deemed extinct in London, the Pearlies were at one point seen as a thing of the past. People said to them: ‘Oh I thought you lot are all dead’, Teresa recalls, but ‘no, we’re still here alive and kickin’ – just about’, she laughs. ‘About 10 years ago, it got really quiet.’ There were hardly any bookings for the Pearlies and people seemed to lose interest. ‘So we just put ourselves out there and we worked so hard’, she says. And it was rewarded.
When she goes out in her working outfit now, she can hardly get to the station in Loughton before she is stopped by people asking for a picture. Their charity work has been recognised on the national stage: her mother Jackie, the Pearly Queen of Hackney, received the British Empire Medal and was named a Point of Light by prime minister David Cameron. They were part of the Olympic opening in London in 2012, featured in magazines, photographed by fashion photographer Mario Testino. ‘We’re just busy’, Teresa says.
Every single penny they receive – be it from engagements at corporate events, bingo nights or East end weddings, or from people’s donations into their collection boxes – they give to different charities. ‘We don’t keep anything for ourselves’, not even to reimburse themselves for parking fees or tube tickets, and it is no wonder that ‘we get a warm welcome whereever we go. We’re all loved’.
She is aware of the responsibility and expectation that comes with the tradition. ‘We just try to make people’s lives better if we can, and our suits give us the power to do that. It’s not actually about you, it’s about the suit and what it represents.’
Teresa speaks ‘Cockney’ and ‘Cockney rhyming slang’. She says, people expect it of her as a pearly, too. They sing the old Cockney songs at their events and sometimes do rhyming slang competitions with the children at their assemblies, thus teaching it to the next generation. She notes that Cockney rhyming slang has changed. Not only were new expressions invented for new items (e.g. Ruby (Murray) for curry), but also older expressions replaced by new ones, for example, the rhyming slang for pub, which is no longer rubber (duck), but battle (ship) (which leads to cruiser which conveniently rhymes with boozer).
‘Our type of language, where we come from, is very quick. We don’t pronounce our words very clearly, we cut out a lot.’ A photographer from Manchester, who regularly accompanies the Pearlies to their events, has even blamed her Pearly family to ‘bastardise the English language’, she laughs. But to her, speaking in Cockney and using rhyming slang is part of her culture. ‘You can no longer be a Cockney now, because everything is so built up and there isn’t a maternity unit within the square mile of St. Mary-le-Bow church.’ She thinks that this has partly led to the revived interest in Cockney culture and the Pearlies: ‘When something comes to an end, it becomes very popular. All of a sudden everyone wants to be a Cockney.’