Famous Londoners: Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington

In the first in an occasional series on famous Londoners, we take a look at who Dick Whittington really was.

While he’s remembered by many today as a poor boy who made a fortune by cleverly trading his mice-catching cat, Richard Whittington was in fact born into a noble Gloucestershire family around 1350 and, after coming to London, rose in power and influence to become a four time Mayor of London who, after his death, set a new standard in philanthropy.

Sir Richard was born in the 1350s as the youngest son of Sir William Whittington, Lord of the Manor of Pauntley. As the second son, he was not able to inherit and so left home when his father died to seek work in London. There he served as an apprentice, before becoming a mercer (a dealer in costly fabrics) and subsequently became a supplier of valuable materials like silks and cloth of gold to King Richard II and later King Henry IV as well as other members of court.

Growing in wealth and influence (as well as dealing in cloth, he lent considerable sums to both kings and as a result was granted part of the wool tax collected at various ports), Whittington became a city alderman in 1393 and was chosen by the king as mayor in 1397 when the incumbent, Adam Bamme, died. He was subsequently re-elected in 1398, again in 1406, and in 1419.

Whittington died in 1423 and, as he and his wife Alice (who had died before him) had no children, he left his substantial fortune – estimated at some £5,000 – to charity. The money was used to establish almshouses (entrusted to the care of the Mercer’s Company, of which Sir Richard was master three times), as well as libraries and other public works including rebuilding Newgate Gaol and building a public lavatory known as ‘Whittington’s longhouse’. The Charity of Sir Richard Whittington is still operational. It’s undoubtedly his charity which touched so many Londoners which led to his fame.

While many versions of Whittington’s life have been told since the first recorded retellings in the late 16th and early 17th century, the story as we generally know it today (and one which has become a panto favorite) is that he was a poor boy from Gloucestershire who walked to London to seek his fortune and indeed found work there in the home of a rich merchant, Fitzwarren. He slept in the attic and kept a cat to keep down the numbers of mice.

Fitzwarren is said to have invited his servants to invest in a sailing voyage and as Dick had no money, he offered his cat, usually named ‘Tommy’, instead. Some time later he decided to leave London for his home and set out on foot but when on Highgate Hill on his way out, he heard the bells of London summoning him back, saying ‘Turn again, Whittington, three times Lord Mayor of London’. (Although Whittington actually served as mayor four times, the first two times were back-to-back, meaning some may have considered it as three).

So he did and returning to the merchant’s house, he found the ship had returned and that his cat had played a starring role in saving the court of the King of the Barbary Coast from being overrun with mice. The king apparently paid a large sum to buy the cat and Whittington became a wealthy man, marrying Fitzwarren’s daughter Alice and, as the bells prophesised, becoming ‘Lord Mayor of London’ (actually mayors at the time of the real Dick Whittington weren’t given the title Lord).

These days a statue of Whittington’s cat – the Whittington Stone (picture above) – still sits on Highgate Hill, marking the site where he apparently ‘turned again’ (among other references to Dick Whittington in London is the Dick Whittington ‘ale trail’ – a free downloadable pub guide).

As to whether he actually had a cat? While there’s apparently no evidence he did, it’s nice to think there was a real cat behind the myth (even if he didn’t rid the Kingdom of Barbary of its mice)!