Last week, I finally visited the Cockney Museum, which had been closed for refurbishment over the winter. It’s just outside Southwest London in Stoneleigh, on the trainline from Waterloo to Dorking. George Major, the Pearly King of Peckham, opened it in 2020, after collecting exhibits for his dream of a Cockney museum all his life.
The museum hosts an incredible collection of historic photographs of Londoners and London neighbourhoods – the walls are covered with images of cityscapes and Londoners of all ages at work or in the streets, each carefully captioned with a description. Cockney rhyming slang is explained in several exhibits. The museum replicates a turn-of-the-20th-century East London neighbourhood, with terraced houses (‘two-ups two-downs’), original kitchen and living room, a market square and a pie-and-mash shop.
George was born in the Old Kent Road in South East London in 1938 and, like a true Pearly king, has devoted his life to ‘helping the sick, poor and needy’.
He told me his version of the history of the Pearlies, which started in the 1700s with the costermongers, the market traders of London. They wore pearl buttons on the seams of their trousers and jackets ‘to keep the evil out and the goodness in’ and ‘had the gift of the gab, like a DelBoy’. The costermonger union chose a leader called Samuel King, who they then called ‘Coster King’. By 1850, these original coster families had become the Pearly kings and queens, counting 400 kings, queens, princesses and princes. ‘Today, there’s two handfuls’, George says, referring to the Pearlies who received the title through birth. ‘My grandfather was the Pearly King of Mile End, his father was a Coster King.’
George was a marked trader himself: ‘I’ve been on the markets all my life since the age of 4. Petticoat Lane, East Street, Roman Road – you name it, I was at them’, selling ‘anything that sold good’. He says, ‘they called me DelBoy, DelBoy the first’, referring to the character of the 1980’s sitcom Only Fools and Horses about two brothers from Peckham trying to make money from (generally dodgy) trades. A ‘DelBoy car’, a yellow three-wheeled Reliant Regal Supervan, is parked outside the Cockney museum.
Even though, according to George, ‘Cockney London is dead now’, he makes sure that the Pearly and Cockney traditions live on in his museum and his family. George has 7 children, 14 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren ‘and all wear pearls’ and he hopes that they will keep up the museum.
Even though Cockney culture may have moved out of London, to Essex, Kent, or Stoneleigh, it is interesting that George is one of the first to ‘welcome’ travellers to London: as one of the iconic Londoners displayed on posters in the Heathrow airport arrivals hall. ‘They gave me 5 grand for it, which I donated to charity’, he says.