This incredible little museum is home to the ‘Crown Jewels of Cockney’
“Right before I turned 20, I had this dream, and you just lived it.”
George Major is the Pearly King of Peckham and now the creator and curator of the Cockney Museum, which we just explored.
As a young man from a pearly background, Major found himself attending many funerals, growing concerned that the legacy of the famous ‘pearls’ of the East End would soon be extinguished. . “I was like ‘damn it, we’re going to lose our story'”.
For more than 60 years, Major has collected and hidden a wealth of Cockney heritage, from the fruit wheelbarrows once pulled by donkeys of his time in the markets of Peckham, to pearly suits laden with mother-of-pearl buttons – what he calls the ‘Cockney Crown Bijoux’.
“I didn’t need plans for this museum,” Major said, “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, has weathered various blockages. Thank goodness he did it; it is probably one of the most important museums dedicated to a particular niche of London’s heritage.
The experience begins in a “street” lit by lamps dotted with sordid beds, young chimney sweeps and sometimes (plastic) rats; the idea is to replicate the poverty-stricken slums of 19th century London.
Thousands of candid photos annotated by Major show the harsh realities of life back then: children who lost limbs in accidents, toddlers washing windows for money, families sleeping 12 in a car. dirty room.
Difficulties are everywhere you turn, though a stoic spirit and cockney optimism permeates, thanks to a rousing soundtrack of kneeling classics paired with Major’s unmistakable notes. Photo caption reads: “A team of husband and wife whipping their flowers. No OAPS in them on the days you work until you fall.”
This first section of the museum sets the stage for the emergence of the pearly royalty of London, descended from the charitable “costers kings” of 19th century London fruit stalls. The coster kings watched over their fellow costumers, setting up whip tricks for those in luck. They also wore rows of shiny mother-of-pearl buttons on their outfits, in a cheeky imitation of the West End society they sold fruit and veg to.
Enter Henry Croft, a sweeper and rat catcher from the East End. In the late 1870s, Croft took inspiration from costers, covering his entire costume in smoked pearl buttons and using his newfound focus to raise money for charitable causes, helping London’s poorest to live a little more comfortably. .
The pearly kings and queens were born and over the next several decades many groups formed to raise funds through charity events – always dressed in their coats, pants, skirts and caps, still sewn by the owner, often with mother-of-pearl derived from Japanese. oysters (the best quality you can get, Major says).
Museums main dish is what Major calls “Cockney’s Crown Jewels,” a line of pearly costumes worn by 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 up a Christmas tree” and John Heath, Pearly King of Bermondsey, reportedly raised “more bees and money” than any other pearl king. in his days. [a passing knowledge of rhyming slang helps in this place].
Impressively, the crown jewels section even has a costume, top hat, and cane worn by Henry Croft himself.
The most fascinating part of the museum, however, is the curator himself. A born storyteller and artist, George Major lectures at schools and dinners, and has even shared the stage with Madness. If you have the chance to chat with him, he will tell you stories that will make you laugh one moment, blaspheme the next. He might even challenge you to lift his own pearly costume (spoiler: it’s heavy).
Of all Major claims to fame, perhaps the most impressive is his connection to a certain BBC sitcom. “They called me ‘Del Boy the First’,” he tells us, “There was me, Grandpa Fred and Brian Evans – a tall tall and gangly, we called ‘the Plonker’. The guy who wrote it, he followed us everywhere. “
One of Major’s favorite tales tells about the time when he and his criminal partners stole a supply of half-pint milk bottles, filled them with the fumes from Major’s Robin Reliant tailpipe, tagged bottles like “Pure London Smog” and whipped them. to American tourists on Oxford Street.
“Believe me, we sold the damn lot,” laughs Major, who suggests John Sullivan caught wind of the story and spun it in the “Peckham Spring Water” episode of Only Fools and Horses. .
A visit to the museum can be complemented with a plate of pie, mash and alcohol in the cafe, sourced from Manze’s down the street in Sutton.
It’s a wonderfully personal museum curated with a life of love – and incredibly rich in material, too. It might be, but visitors are known to spend a good few hours here. Have a con bird with yourself and come see a butcher.
The Cockney Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. Email [email protected] to schedule your visit. Stoneleigh is about half an hour by train from Waterloo station.