Born in the 135Os, Dick Whittington was a poor boy even if, eventually, became a wealthy merchant and three-time Lord Mayor of London.
According to legend, he made his fortune thanks to the extraordinary ratting abilities of his cat.
The story of Dick Whittington and His Cat is the folk tale surrounding the real-life Richard Whittington (c. 1354–1423) and it is not just a fairy tale, but it is part of the folklore of London.
Today, near the foot of Highgate Hill is the famous Whittington stone, which is supposed to mark the point where Dick, on his way out of London, heard the sound of bow bells chiming “turn again” and decided to return to the city.
The present sculpted cat on the top of the stone was not added until the 20th-century.
According to the story, Dick was was a poor boy who lived in the days of Edward III whose mother and father have both died. He lived in a poor parish and had nothing to eat and no work. He has heard exciting stories about a glorious city called London, whose streets, the stories said, were paved with gold. So one day, when a wagon came through the village on its way to London, Dick befriended the wagoner and traveled with him.
When he arrived in London, however, he was very disappointed to discover that the streets were not paved with gold at all, but with dirt.
And there was no work, and no food.
The best he could manage was employment as a scullion in the Kitchen of a wealthy merchant, Mr Fitzwarren. Bullied by the cook, and plagued by the rats that infested his attic, the poor lad was thoroughly miserable. Hoping to deal at least with the latter of his problems, he bought himself a cat, which soon rid his room of the troublesome furry pests.
Eventually, a frustrated Whittington was about to give up on life in London and return home to Gloucestershire, when he thought he heard the bells promising that, if he stayed, he would one day become mayor of the city.
His luck turned when he made a fortune in gold by selling his cat to a far off rat-infested country.
Versions of the story differ here as to how he began to build his fortune and what happened to his cat. In another, he earns enough from shining shoes to pay for the cheapest bed in the dingiest, most rat-infested boarding house, where he then rents out the rodent-ridding services of the cat.
The owner of the lodgings is so impressed that she buys the cat, and Dick then has enough to begin trading again. Having learnt from his mistakes the first time round, he soon earns enough to buy back his cat friend. Soon Dick has established the first code of fair trade, which makes London a better place to do business and eventually gains him enough respect to be elected Lord Mayor.
And so, Dick and his cat live happily ever after.
Obviously some of this may not be historical fact, but there are certainly some pieces of truth in there. Sir Richard Whittington was definitely real: we know he died in 1423 and was buried in the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, though his tomb was lost in the Great Fire of 1666. At the time of his death, he was very wealthy, said to be richer than the King himself, and was widely admired.
Among the many legends that still today surround Old Highgate and Hampstead, there is an old belief that if Whittington’s Stone is ever removed from the original spot where Dick Whittington turned once more toward London, or if any harm should befall it, great change and disaster will fall upon the neighbouring area.
Of course, this myth is probably based upon the fact that the Stone is one of Highgate’s oldest landmarks, and therefore, it would naturally be bad luck to remove it, but if the present mania for redevelopment continues, this old assumption could well prove to be correct.