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Last Updated: Friday, 2 June 2006, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Girl with a pearl costume
By Marie Jackson
BBC News

Stephanie Jolly, pearly queen
Stephanie had to prove her maturity before becoming Queen

If Stephanie Jolly ever gets any grief from fellow students about how she spends her weekends, she resorts to the Mary Poppins myth.

"You know those funny-looking people covered in buttons who sing Supercalifragilistic-expialidocious with Julie Andrews, they're my Nan and granddad," she tells them.

Of course, it's not true. Her grandparents are not old enough but they are the Pearly King and Queen of Crystal Palace.

And at 22, Stephanie is the youngest Pearly Queen in London.

Four years ago she acquired her royal title for Highgate, a role she is honoured to perform and committed to for life.

This means she spends weekends rattling her tin, presents talks about this peculiar 136-year-old London tradition, and helps to raise money for countless charities, while dressed head to toe in buttons.

'Always in buttons'

It is a way of life that she has grown up with.

"It's always been around. My grandparents have been Pearlies since the 1970s. My cousins had Pearlie christenings. On family outings, we were always in buttons."

Younger Pearlies are known as princesses and princes and can only graduate once the elders are sure of their maturity, knowledge of the group's history and commitment to the job.

Even then, there has to be a title available - there is only one king and queen for each area of London.

For Stephanie, Highgate became available when a King was lured away by the more prestigious title of Finsbury Park.

Princess Anne with Pearly Kings and Queens
Pearly suits tell a story

"Queen of Highgate was new or had not been used for a while. And as families die out, they are changed and swapped around.

"It's very rare for someone so young to be made a Queen."

So what do people make of her unlikely pastime?

"Most are OK, you do get a couple of sniggers. I suppose it's the same as people dressing up as chickens to run the London marathon.

"You really need the hat otherwise people think you are wearing a really weird outfit. You get lots of funny questions and people are always trying to take pictures of you."

The Pearly suit, now a vivid symbol of the Cockney tradition, is decorated with hundreds of pearl buttons and worn with a feathered hat.

We get the basic suit in a dark colour that fits and has a bit of wear in it - it's nicest in velvet
Stephanie Jolly

It dates back to 1875 when Londoner Henry Croft was looking for a way to draw attention to his charity work.

He took inspiration from the flashy market stallholders with smoke pearl buttons sewn on the seams of bellbottomed trousers, and over jackets, waistcoats and caps.

"Suits tend to tell a story," says Stephanie.

"Granddad's has wheels for the wheels of barrows, bells for Bow Bells and crosses for the church."

Her own is described as a skeleton suit with buttons along the cuffs, collars and seams, and her own take on her grandfather's bells.

"It's hard work. We get the basic suit in a dark colour that fits and has a bit of wear in it. It's nicest in velvet. You lay out the pattern and build it up slowly."

Rattling tins

For Stephanie, the sewing has at times almost defeated her.

With one week to go before meeting Princess Anne, Stephanie, a journalism student at City University, was sewing buttons onto her jacket during lectures and on the bus with minutes to spare on the way to St James Palace.

So far, she has helped at children's parties and events for the elderly, raises thousands of pounds and selected a charity to receive donations - again a process that is guided by the group's elders.

Pearly Kings and Queens
The older generation guide Stephanie in choosing her charity

Every fortnight, she joins fellow Pearlies in Covent Garden where they rattle their tins to raise proceeds for nearby St Paul's Church.

Although, many Pearlies have Christian backgrounds, it is not a pre-requisite - one Queen is Jewish.

So what of the future and finding a king for a queen?

While Stephanie has found being Queen quite demanding, she is sure she would never give it up completely.

"It's so much fun. You know that you are doing something worthwhile. It is also nice being with different generations. Most are a laugh and it shows that getting older is all right."

And if her future husband does not fancy the idea of becoming king, she says she is more than happy to do it by herself.

"I will definitely do this for the rest of my life," she says.


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