Today (October 13) in London History – That Was Some Cat!

October 13th could only be Dick Whittington Day. As this Today in London History podcast makes clear.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

No question about this one. 

October 13th belongs to Dick Whittington. Here’s why.

The Lord Mayor of London serves for a year. So far there have been 693 Mayors and Lord Mayors of London. The appellation varied in those early years. Sometimes the office was called the Royal Warden. Or even The Royal Nominee. The very first one of a very long list – the very first Mayor of London – was Henry Fitzailwin, a draper. He got the show on the road in 1189. He served 24 terms. That, needless to say, is a record. He died in office in 1212.

In 1285 Sir Ralph Sandwich – great name – served the first of his nine terms.

In 1274 Gregory de Rokesley served the first of his eight terms. 

In 1231 Andrew Buckerell served the first of his seven terms.

In 1289 John le Breton served the first of his seven terms. 

In 1319 Sir Hamo de Chigwell – there’s another great name for you – served the first of his seven terms. 

In 1222, Richard Renger served the first of his six terms. 

In 1214 Serlo le Mercer served the first of his five terms.

In 1227 Roger le Duke served the first of his four terms. 

And we’ll let Roger le Duke represent his class of four-termers. Let him represent them because there are too many four-termers – 

let alone three-termers and two-termers – to mention here. 

One four-termer excepted.

The preliminary point being that in the first 130 years multiple terms of office were the rule rather than the exception.

And then it began to change. Over a long period of time. As I said, there were a lot of four-termers. Plenty of three-termers. And even more two-termers. The last multiple termer was Sir Robert Fowler. He served two years. His second and final year was 1885.

And in the interests of strict accuracy, the first Lord Mayor of London was Sir Thomas Legge. He served his first term in 1347. That year he was the Mayor. He served his second term of office in 1354. That year’s a pivot point. That year Sir Thomas Legge wasn’t just the Mayor of London, he was the Lord Mayor of London. The first ever Lord Mayor of London. Sounds grander, doesn’t it.

Ok, the stage is set. That brings us to October 13, 1397. And to October 13, 1406.  And to October 13th, 1419. All three of them election day victories for Dick Whittington, the most famous Lord Mayor of them all. That’s why Dick Whittington owns October 13th. And for the record, he actually did a partial fourth term as Lord Mayor. In June of 1397 the elected Mayor died and Richard II appointed Dick Whittington to the vacancy.

So in all, Dick Whittington was Lord Mayor for three full terms and a partial fourth term.

And he’s the one. He’s the man. The one everybody knows. He’s the subject of nursery rhymes and Christmas pantomimes and children’s stories. He’s got a London hospital named after him. And a London park. And of course the monumental stone and statue of his cat on Highgate Hill. Oh, and not forgetting the Whittington Stone Pub.

So what’s the story? It’s a lovely tale. One of the great London stories. It’s rich rags to riches fare.

Story has it that the lad Richard Whittington was an orphan from the west country. The youngster thought London was paved with gold. Came to London to seek his fortune. Turned out London wasn’t paved with gold. He was having a bad time of it. He was working as a scullion in a scullery. Scullion, it’s not a word that’s much in use today. A scullion was a bottom-rung servant. A scullery was a small kitchen or room at the back of house used for washing dishes and other dirty household work.

Dick Whittington despairs of his situation. He can’t bear it. Decides to run away, go back to where he came from. On his way – he’s going up Highgate Hil – he hears Bow Bells – the famous Bow Bells – the bells seem to be pealing to the words, “Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London.” He acts on the bells’ advice. And just as well, too, because not long after he gets back the Unicorn returns from Africa and Dick Whittington is a wealthy man.

Thanks to his cat.

Here’s the rest of the tale, the back story. Whittington’s employer – the man who hired him to slave away as a despairing little drudge in the scullery, was a wealthy merchant named Hugh Fitzwarren. An overbearing cook makes the lad Whittington’s life a misery. The wealthy merchant’s daughter, Alice, befriends young Whittington, shields him against some of the torments and mistreatment the cook heaps on him.

Alice’s father, the wealthy merchant, owns a trading ship, the Unicorn. He sends it fully laden on a trading voyage to Africa. Each of his servants is allowed to make a contribution to the vessel’s cargo. The only thing Whittington can offer is his cat, which he’d bought for a penny. The cat and the rags on his back – that’s the extent of the poor kid’s worldly possessions.

When the Unicorn docks on the coast of north Africa, the king there, who’s got a serious problem with rats and mice – they’re overrunning his palace – buys the cat for ten times more than the whole of the rest of the ship’s cargo. All of that is going on while poor Whittington back in London is despairing of fame and fortune and taking and acting on the decision to run away, to leave London for good. An act which Bow Bells counteract.

Anyway, the Unicorn comes back to London, bearing the money from the sale of the cat. On the strength of his newly acquired fortune, Dick Whittington is able to marry his master’s daughter and rise to be lord mayor. 

Well, it’s pure folklore of course. 

The historical figure Richard Whittington – thrice Lord Mayor – or if you’re counting that partial term – four times Lord Mayor – the historical, flesh and blood Richard Whittington was a somewhat austere, remote, even isolated but very wealthy London merchant. A mercer. He dealt in silk, linen, fustian, luxury small goods and of course wool and woollen cloth. He was importing and exporting. To that he added money lending (he made major loans – nearly 60 of them – to the crown). He was loaded. But the thing about him was, he was civic-minded. He gave to good works throughout his life. A library at the London Greyfriars. A refuge for unmarried mothers at St Thomas’s Hospital. An almshouse. A long house at St Martin Vintry. Shall I translate long house? You’ll be sorry you asked. It was a public lavatory, with many seats side by side. 

And when he drew up his will, he left his entire fortune to charity, to the poor. So, austere he may have been but there’s no gainsaying his sense of civic and humanitarian duty. 

There’s every reason why Dick Whittington should be the shining light of the 693 London Mayors.

He deserves this day, deserves to be remembered.  

And a Today in London recommendation? Maybe take a look at the Bloomsbury Festival. It’s just about to get underway. Starts on October 14th. A ten-day celebration of the area’s pioneering creativity. Arts, science, literature, performance, discussion and reflection. What’s not to like. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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