The king of King’s Cross by Dr Philip Carter

Please note that the article is republished from KQ partner University of London Talking Humanities, SAS blog with the author’s kind permission.

The past decade has seen the rise of a vast property development in the King’s Cross district of central London. As its residential zone nears completion, Dr Philip Carter considers the life of Henry Croft – founder of the Pearly Kings, and a late-Victorian resident of King’s Cross – who features in the development’s marketing campaign. Recreating Henry’s life story owes much to a growing range of digitised resources now shaping microhistorical and prosopographical approaches to the past.

Step out of Senate House in Bloomsbury and you quickly encounter some exclusive real estate. Bedford, Russell, Gordon and Tavistock squares were among the most prestigious property developments of the late-18th and early 19th centuries, and their elegant terraces remain highly desirable. Keep walking from Tavistock Square and you come across their 21st-century equivalent, just north of King’s Cross station.

This huge development covers 67 acres and stretches from the station to Regent’s Canal and well beyond. It’s sufficiently large to merit its own postcode: N1C. The tech giant Google has moved into the development’s business zone. This is also the site of the company’s future ‘landscraper’; of King’s Place, home to The Guardian, and numerous bars and restaurants.

Cross the canal and you enter Granary Square with its entertaining fountains and high-end apartments in manicured grounds. At the centre of this new residential complex is ‘Gasholder Gardens’: four Victorian gasholders, restored and relocated, that serve as a reminder of the site’s industrial past. Three of the four structures now encase 145 apartments that start (for a studio) at £810,000. For an extra £2.75m you can get something bigger.

With this development comes a marketing campaign that draws inspiration from the gasholders, taking ‘heritage London’ as its theme. Billboards show photographs of helpful 1940s policemen and barrow boys going about their business in Austerity N1, as it then was. The aim, no doubt, is to give the new quarter a sense of community and charm. Most of the people who feature in this marketing are anonymous archetypes from an age of keeping calm and carrying on. But a handful of named individuals do appear. They include the 18th-century author Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived in nearby Somers Town, and another – lesser known – resident: Henry Croft (1861-1930), founder of the London Pearly Kings and Queens.

Croft gets a few words on his advertising hoarding, along with a photo of his funeral statue (now at St Martin-in-the-Fields), showing him in a trademark pearly suit and top hat. A few years ago, and before the billboards, I became interested in Henry Croft and researched his then shadowy life, as well as the early decades of the Pearly movement. As a series of familial, social and charitable networks, Croft’s Pearlies continue to thrive across London today.

There’s an irony, given his personal circumstances, that Henry’s now being used to promote luxury property. Croft was born in May 1861 at the St Pancras workhouse and spent his entire life in Somers Town, a working-class district bordered by King’s Cross and Euston stations. In 1892 he married Lily Newton, daughter of a Kentish Town handyman, and the couple had eight children, one of whom – John – was killed while serving in France in 1917. From the early 1890s the family lived at 15 Charles (now Phoenix) Street, just off Euston Road, in a shared 10-room tenement that’s long since disappeared.

For his entire adult life Croft worked as a road sweeper for St Pancras Borough Corporation, from which he retired in 1928. He died less than two years later, once more resident in the workhouse. In these details Henry’s life differed little from many of his neighbours, in a district shaped by the railway and its associated trades.

To read the full article please click here.

Dr Philip Carter is senior lecturer and head of IHR Digital at the Institute of Historical Research. A fuller account of Henry Croft (1861-1930) appears in theOxford Dictionary of National Biography online.