The incredible true(ish) story of Dick Whittington

Dick Whittington

Pantomime season is nearly upon us, so we take a festive look at at the story of this year’s pantomime – and the real one behind it.

“Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London.
Turn again, Whittington, thrice Mayor of London”.

According to the fairy tale, Dick Whittington heard these words spoken by the famous bells of Bow Church as he prepared to run away from London. According to the story, Dick was a poor country boy who went to London to seek his fortune, believing the streets to be paved with gold. Instead, when he got there, the only work he could find was as a servant in a rich merchant’s house, where he was badly treated and bullied. He decided to run away, but as he left the city early the next day, he heard the voice of the bells calling him back.

He decided to follow their advice, and return to London. Shortly after this, he accompanies his master on a sea voyage, to Morocco, taking with him his cat. When they arrive at the Sultan’s court, it is overrun with rats. The cat – an animal never before seen in the country – kills the rats, leading the Sultan to pay Dick a large sum of money for this marvelous creature. Dick is now a rich man, able to set up his own business. He goes on to marry his master’s daughter and in the best tradition of pantomimes, they live happily ever after – and Dick of course, becomes Mayor of London three times.

That’s the story as it began to appear in popular books and ballads from around the 1600s. The first recorded pantomime version was in 1814, and featured the great clown, Joseph Grimaldi, as  dame. A few changes were made to the original story to turn it into a pantomime. The talking bells are turned into the Fairy Bow-Bells, who helps Dick. Of course, every pantomime requires a villain, and one was duly added to the story in the shape of King Rat, who tries to thwart our hero at every turn.

But what about the real Dick Whittington? Yes, he did exist – although he isn’t quite the same character as the one who appears in the story. Richard Whittington was a merchant and politician who lived from 1354–1423, and who was Mayor of London no less than four times (the first time he wasn’t elected, but took over after the previous incumbent died suddenly, which may be why the legend says ‘thrice mayor of London’, not four times.) He was  the younger son of a knight, rather than the poor servant boy of legend. Richard’s real-life wife, Alice Fitzwarren, remains his love interest in the pantomine.

However, there’s no evidence that he ever travelled to Morocco (although as a merchant he might have traded in exotic goods) or owned a cat. How a cat came to feature so prominently in the story attached to him is unclear, as there’s no evidence he owned one. It may be that as a merchant he may have traded using the small boats known as ‘cats’. Interestingly though, when Newgate prison was rebuilt at his bequest, a cat was carved over one of its archways – so perhaps the real-life Dick Whittington had a fondness for moggies after all.

Dick Whittington, starring Stephen Mulhern, Ben Roddy and Lloyd Hollett is at our theatre between Friday 25 November – Sunday 8 January. Book here.

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