Phyllis Broadbent, the Pearly Queen of Islington, with Leanne Black behind the counter at G Kelly's pie and mash shop on Roman Road. Image credit: Eddie Snooks
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The Pearly Queen of Islington, Phyllis Broadbent, visits the Roman for pie n’ mash at G Kelly’s 

As the oldest Pearly Queen in Britain, 96-year-old Phyllis Broadbent is glamorously shouldering a historic East End tradition, keeping a fading Cockney culture alive. 

She may be The Pearly Queen of Islington, but yesterday Phyllis Broadbent headed eastwards towards Bow. Garbed in the archetypal feather hat, black skirt, waistcoat and jacket, Broadbent was a shining, graceful vision as she walked down the Roman, covered head-to-toe with over 20,000 hand-sewn mother-of-pearl buttons.

Broadbent travelled to Tower Hamlets from her home in Clapton Pond at the invitation of The Geezers, a community group of elderly gentlemen in Bow. The Geezers treated Broadbent to a hearty helping of pie n’ mash with liquor at G Kelly’s on the Roman – giving her a taste of the quintessential grub of the East End.

The Pearly Kings and Queens are the second oldest charity in England and a historic symbol of enduring Cockney pride. Today, you’ll spot pearlies dressed in their eccentric threads at festivals, parades and horse races raising money for various good causes, but the tradition dates back to 1875.

Henry Croft, ‘the original pearly king’, was an orphan born and raised in a Victorian workhouse on Charles Street, Somerstown. At 13 years old, he became a street sweeper and worked alongside the market traders, known as costermongers. He was struck at how the traders would line their trousers, pocket flaps and caps with mother-of-pearl buttons in a witty imitation of West-End luxury.

Legend has it that Croft, inspired by the eccentric fashion of the traders, created his own unique ensemble, meticulously sewing 60,000 gleaming buttons onto his jet-black suit and top hat. Croft would then showcase his flamboyant attire at charitable events such as pageants and carnivals, leveraging his appearance to generate funds for local hospitals.

Throughout the 20th century, the Pearly Kings and Queens became true pillars of working-class community and philanthropy in East London. Today, many fear the culture is a relic of a bygone era, but old-timers like Broadbent keep the flame alive, reminding us of a simpler time when people seemed to look out for each other.

Eddie Snooks, the Chair of The Geezers, said: ‘She’s absolutely stunning. She’s so photogenic and so sweet, and she’s got so many good stories.

‘She’s had an interesting life, and The Geezers have adopted her. Pearly Kings and Queens go back so far in East End history. Unfortunately, we don’t know who the Bow Pearly King and Queen are at the moment, or if they even exist, so it would be nice to track them down.’

Broadbent’s parents lived and fought through the two World Wars, and many of her earliest memories are clouded by the trauma of growing up during the Blitz.

She was raised in Palmer’s Green in North London and attended St George’s College, but schooling was constantly interrupted by incessant drills of running to the air raid shelter. Her school was bombed in 1941, causing Broadbent to leave education and get her first job cutting grass at a school in Harrow.

In 1963, she moved to Australia alongside her husband and children. Despite not having medical experience, she began working as a mental health nurse in a psychiatric hospital, breaking gender stereotypes at the time which encouraged women with children to stay at home. Broadbent remained in the job for a decade, and taught her patients how to sew, empowering them with creativity during their treatment.

It wasn’t until returning to England that Broadbent became a Pearly Queen, dedicating her days to lifting spirits at old people’s homes, schools and hospices and raising money for charity. She spends six months craftily sewing her own costumes, as well as the garbs of several other Pearly Kings and Queens across London.

‘She’s not a Pearly Queen, she’s a diamond queen. What she stands for is brilliant. London. She presents London,’ said Joy Feltwell, a self-reclaimed ‘mascot’ for The Geezers.

‘But is her next generation carrying it on? Because it was always from generation to generation. You used to see the kids all dressed up, the grandchildren.’ Feltwell said it’s sad that the Pearly tradition isn’t being passed on to today’s youngsters, threatening the future survival of the culture.

Barrie Stradling, another Geezer, said: ‘The East End is so different now, so to see the old history is good. It’s back to what the East End used to be. [The area] has changed radically. All the pubs have gone.’

‘When you look at the age of our Pearly Queen here, it’s exciting, it’s almost like re-living Queen Elizabeth’s longest reign,’ said John Forster, a member of The Geezer’s club. ‘It’s becoming a forgotten era, there’s not enough youngsters in the families of the Pearly Kings and Queens trying to keep it going on.’

While she only visited for a fleeting afternoon, Broadbent’s appearance brought the community of Bow together in nostalgia and celebration for our Cockney roots. Roman Road Market might have changed dramatically from its bustling heyday, but the pearlies are a living, glittering reminder of working class spirit and endurance in the 21st century.

Phyllis Broadbent, Pearly Queen of Islington, inside G Kelly's pie n' mash shop on the Roman Road.
Phyllis Broadbent, the Pearly Queen of Islington, at G Kelly’s pie n’ mash shop on the Roman Road. Image credit: Alan Tucker
Phyllis Broadbent garbed in a mother-of-pearl outfit and pink feather hat with Geezer member Paul Dixey crossing the Roman Road
Phyllis Broadbent with Geezer member Paul Dixey crossing the Roman Road. Image credit: Eddie Snooks
The Geezers with Phyllis Broadbent, Pearly Queen of Islington, after enjoying pie and mash from G Kelly
The Geezers with Phyllis Broadbent, the Pearly Queen of Islington, after enjoying pie and mash from G Kelly’s
Phyllis Broadbent sharing old photographs of her time as a Pearly Queen in The Common Room on Old Ford Road
Phyllis Broadbent sharing old photographs of her time as a Pearly Queen in The Common Room on Old Ford Road

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