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Thursday, 28 April 2016

Michael Faraday, 19th century scientist



Michael Faraday holds a very important place in the history of science, notably for his discoveries in the fields of electricity and magnetism and for his work in science education.

Early life

He was born on 22nd September 1791 at Newington Butts, Surrey, the son of a blacksmith and his wife. Newington Butts is now part of the London Borough of Southwark.

His education was only rudimentary and his first job was as an errand boy who delivered newspapers.

At the age of 14 he entered a 7-year apprenticeship to a bookbinder, and it was while perusing the pages of books that he became interested in chemistry. He followed up this interest by attending lectures, and during his final year as an apprentice he was given tickets for lectures at the Royal Institution given by Humphrey Davy, the Institution’s Professor of Chemistry.

Faraday wanted to leave bookbinding for a career in science, although the people he approached advised him to stick with what he knew. However, while still a bookbinder he was able to help Humphrey Davy on a casual basis when the latter was temporarily blinded after a laboratory accident, and Davy remembered the young man when a permanent position became available in February 1813.

From October 1813 to April 1815 Faraday accompanied Davy and his wife and maid on a tour of continental Europe, visiting chemical laboratories in France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Faraday was thus able to meet many leading European scientists including André-Marie Ampère and Alessandro Volta.

Back in London, Faraday resumed his job as an assistant at the Royal Institution, helping to set up demonstrations and helping Humphrey Davy with the latter’s development of the miners’ safety lamp.

Faraday began giving his own lectures, at both the City Philosophical Society and the Society of Arts, where he became joint chairman of its chemistry committee.
Work at the Royal Institution

At the Royal Institution Faraday worked on chemical analyses – often to provide expert testimony for legal and insurance purposes. It was while working on an analysis in 1825 that he discovered a new compound of hydrogen and carbon that was later given the name benzene.

In 1821 Michael Faraday married Sarah Barnard, the daughter of a silversmith, and the couple set up home in the Institution building, where Faraday had just been appointed as acting superintendent.

1821 was also the year in which he made his first major scientific discovery, namely that of electromagnetic rotation. This was the realisation that a vertically mounted wire carrying an electric current would rotate continuously round a magnet protruding from a bowl of mercury. This was the principle of the electric motor. The discovery also showed the value of experimentation as opposed to relying on mathematics to produce a complete account of electromagnetism.

Relations between Michael Faraday and Humphrey Davy began to become strained from 1823, when Faraday published a paper without Davy’s permission. Davy then opposed Faraday’s election to a fellowship of the Royal Society but Faraday obtained this anyway.

Faraday was appointed to the position of Director of the Royal Institution Laboratory in 1825, and was keen on furthering the educational work of the Institution. One of his initiatives, in 1826, was to begin an annual series of lectures aimed at children, held at around Christmas time. The tradition of the Christmas Lectures has continued right down to the present day.

Faraday found the late 1820s to be a frustrating time in that he was required to perform duties that took up time that he would have preferred to devote to research. In particular, he had to work on methods to improve optical glass, which was a task that had more to do with furthering Humphrey Davy’s career than his own.

In 1829 he was appointed to a professorship at the Royal Military Academy. This was a part-time post, but it paid well enough to give some financial independence from the Royal Institution. This appointment, together with the death of Humphrey Davy, meant that Faraday could at last abandon the glass work and devote himself more fully to research in his chosen field.

Major discoveries

In August 1831 Michael Faraday discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction based on wire coils and magnets. He thereby invented the first transformer and dynamo and made possible the practical use of electricity.

He then spent a number of years investigating the nature of electricity, particularly in its relation to chemistry. This led to discoveries in electrolysis, namely the deposition of substances in a solution on to a substrate when an electrical current is passed through the solution. He devised the “Faraday cage” – a 12 foot cube covered in wire – to investigate electric charge.

In the 1840s he became particularly interested in trying to discover the nature of magnetism, beginning with the question of why it appeared that only iron and nickel possessed this property. He sought to prove that it was a property of all matter (diamagnetism) and that it was non-atomic in that it operated across space. He was also interested in the magneto-optical effect.

As a result of his experiments, Faraday laid the foundations for the field theory of electromagnetism, in that he described the concept of lines of magnetic force.

Other investigations were into the magnetic properties of gases and the way magnetism worked within crystals. Faraday believed that compass needles reacted as they did because of the magnetic properties of oxygen, although this theory would prove to be incorrect.

His last major investigation was into fluorescence, although he was not able to explain why the wavelengths of light changed when they passed through certain substances.

His later life

During the 1850 and 1860s Faraday spent a lot of time working on behalf of Trinity House to improve the efficiency of lighthouses by electrifying them. The work consisted of evaluating and improving the designs of others, but the practical applications, particularly at the South Foreland lighthouse in Kent, proved not to be sustainable.

Michael Faraday’s health declined during the 1860s and he was forced to abandon his various activities, for example giving his last series of Christmas lectures in 1861/2. He turned down an opportunity to become President of the Royal Institution in 1864. He died on 25th August 1867 at his home near Hampton Court, at the age of 75.

Michael Faraday’s work on electromagnetic induction has ensured his permanent place on the scientific and engineering roll of honour.
He is the only person to have had two SI units named after him (the farad for capacitance and the faraday for electric charge). His name has been used for awards, lectures and university buildings, and he is one of only handful of people to have been featured on a Bank of England banknote.

© John Welford



Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce



It may surprise many people to learn that the first object that can reliably be called a photograph was created as long ago as 1826. It shows, in a very grainy image, a view from a window in which it is possible to make out a tree and other buildings (see above). It was the creation of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who can with some justification be described as the father of photography.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was born in 1765 into a well-to-do family in eastern France. His father was a wealthy lawyer who was able to buy a large estate, the income from which allowed his sons to spend their time in scientific research. The family wealth caused problems when the French Revolution broke out in 1789 and wisdom dictated that the family abandon their estate. However, they were able to return to it in the post-Revolutionary period.

Joseph and his older brother Claude were interested in two main projects, one of them being to develop an early version of the internal combustion engine, which was patented in 1807. This became Claude’s main priority, although he later went mad and died after spending far too much money on trying to develop it.

The photography problem

The other project was photography, with the aim being to produce a permanent image. The principle of projecting an image on to a glass screen had long been known, with the “camera obscura” having been used by artists such as Johannes Vermeer to transfer an image to a screen that could then be traced over to form the basis of a painting. The invention of the camera obscura has been credited to Leonardo da Vinci.

Experiments to capture such images were made by Thomas Wedgwood and Humphrey Davy, who presented a joint paper in 1802 that explained how they used silver nitrate to produce images on glass plates, but these faded rapidly when exposed to light. The challenge was to find a way of not only developing images but fixing them as well.

Niépce solved this problem by coating a polished pewter plate with a bitumen-like substance. This was able to fix the image. The famous 1826 image was made using a pinhole (i.e. lens-less) camera and allowing an exposure time of eight hours.

Further progress made by Daguerre

Having made the breakthrough, one might have expected Niépce to go to town on publicising it. However, he was unwilling to do this, which would have meant disclosing all the details of his invention, until he could guarantee his financial returns. Although he was invited to present his work to the Royal Society in London, this restriction meant that the Society was unable to validate it.

Instead, Niépce began work with Louis-Jacques Daguerre on making improvements to the design, and also on developing improvements to cameras. Unfortunately he was unable to see their joint efforts bear fruit because he died in 1833 at the age of 68, leaving Daguerre, who was 22 years younger, to carry on alone.

It was therefore Daguerre who got full credit for a process that used copper plates coated with silver and which needed exposure times of minutes rather than hours. The “daguerreotype” process was announced in 1839, and this is generally regarded as the first truly practical photographic process, although it was fated to be superseded in its turn within twenty years.

The role of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was therefore that of pioneer. He laid the foundations for practical photography, but it would be left to others to provide the superstructure.


© John Welford

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Ethelred the Unready, King of England



The nickname given to King Ethelred (who ruled England from 978 to 1016) is one of the great jokes of British history. This was the king who was so unprepared for what was going to happen that he would forever be known as “Unready”.

Ethelred – Ready for Nothing?

Maybe, but that is not what the name meant. A better translation of “unred” is “ill-advised” and the nickname was a pun on his own name, which meant “well-advised”.  It was only after his death that “Unready” was added to his name, and it was done so as a condemnation of his behaviour. It was not as much that the advice was bad but that he failed to take heed of advice that was good.

Ethelred was certainly no great shakes as a king. England was coming under considerable pressure from the Danes who had left England in peace for decades but sensed an opportunity for plunder now that a weak king was in charge.

Ethelred displayed incompetence as a military leader and seemed to manage to have his army in precisely the wrong part of the country whenever a new raiding party turned up. Perhaps there was indeed a sense in which he was “unready” in the generally understood meaning of the word.

There had been Danes living in England for many years, these being concentrated mostly in the eastern part of the country known as the “Danelaw” because English law was not enforced in those areas. Ethelred decided that the Danes already settled in his country were a dangerous fifth column and must be removed. In 1002 he therefore ordered their wholesale destruction.

This was a disastrous step to take. For one thing, it was guaranteed to infuriate the Danish raiders even more, and for another there was little chance that the policy would work. Ethelred could never have carried out this act of ethnic cleansing without the support of his lords, and only a few were keen to participate. Some local scores were settled, but that was about it.

However, one victim of the massacres that did take place was Gunnhilda, the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, the Danish king. Sweyn was determined to punish Ethelred for this act, and, after several campaigns, he did so. Ethelred was forced into exile in 1013.

On Sweyn’s death in 1014 Ethelred had to negotiate with the Anglo-Saxon council of lords (known as the Witan) to be allowed back into the country to resume his monarchy. He had to promise that he “would govern more justly than he had before”, and this is therefore the first example in British history of a king agreeing to rule with the consent of the ruled.

Ethelred’s resumed rule did not last long because he died in 1016, and so did his son Edmund later that same year. Sweyn’s son Cnut then became king to make England part of the Danish empire for a time.

Ethelred was one of the worst kings to rule during the pre-Conquest period and he well deserved to be remembered with an unflattering nickname.


© John Welford

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Jean-Henri Riesener, cabinet-maker to King Louis XVI



Jean-Henri Riesener was one of the finest cabinet-makers of his age, which, unfortunately for him, coincided with the French Revolution. The opulence that he played a major role in creating was fine for the court of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but when his aristocratic customers lost their heads, or at least their fortunes, his own fortune went downhill with theirs and he eventually died in poverty.

Jean-Henri Riesener was a German (with the names Johann Heinrich), born near Essen on 4th July 1734. He moved to Paris as a young man and joined the workshop of Jean-Francois Oeben, who was cabinet-maker to King Louis XV. When Oeben died, Riesener, at the age of 29, took over not only the workshops but Oeben’s widow, whom he married.

Riesener’s first tasks were to oversee the completion of several projects that Oeben had left unfinished, including a magnificent desk, the “bureau du roi”, that Louis had ordered for his palace at Versailles. Riesener paid particular attention to the marquetry panels (designs using inlaid veneers of different coloured woods, etc) on the desk, which he signed.

On Louis XV’s death in 1774, Riesener was appointed cabinet-maker to the new King, Louis’ grandson who now ruled as Louis XVI. An early order was for a commode (a broad low chest, usually for bedroom use) to be decorated with marquetry and ormolu (gilding), and a second commode was ordered the following year, this one being even grander and more highly decorated.

Riesener made a number of writing-desks and tables for the royal apartments, some of them being cleverly designed to adapt to other functions at the push of a button. During the decade to 1784, Riesener’s workshop turned out a whole series of magnificent pieces, on which no expense was spared. Riesener himself became both prosperous and famous as a result, not only in France but throughout Europe.

However, things started to go wrong in 1784, when the royal household was forced to cut back on its expenses, a consequence of the financial crisis caused by France’s support of the Americans during their War of Independence. Royal orders for furniture were placed with cheaper cabinet-makers and Riesener was forced to make drastic price cuts for pieces already under construction.

He therefore decided to give up his official position and concentrate on taking private orders for members of the aristocracy, although he also did important work for the Queen, Marie Antoinette. The latter included a commode and writing-desk that incorporated lacquer panels rather than the more expensive marquetry that he would have produced previously.

However, the Revolution that started in 1789 marked the beginning of the end for Riesener. The new rulers had no interest in destroying the luxurious items that had been commissioned by royalty and aristocracy, but they had no use for them either. In 1795 Riesener was called upon to remove all royal emblems from his furniture, as these were deemed the “trade marks of the feudal system”.

Many pieces were sold off, and Riesener even tried to buy some of them himself, with a view to selling them on at a profit, but this scheme came to nothing.

Tastes were changing, with neo-classical becoming the style of choice in preference to the lavish opulence of the Louis XVI style that had marked the work of Riesener and his colleagues. Eventually he had no choice but to close his workshop. He died on 8 January 1806 at the age of 71.

Riesener’s pieces were typified by their exquisite marquetry, their generous use of ormolu, and their graceful lines. Riesener’s work was very varied and often experimental. Many of the pieces made for the royal apartments feature ormolu mouldings and figures in high relief on the corners, the decoration almost overpowering the woodwork. However, his furniture always displayed a sense of harmony, balance and proportion, even at its most ostentatious.  He employed only the very best craftsmen and clearly allowed nothing to leave his workshop unless it was perfect in every detail.

A number of pieces by Riesener survive and can be seen at former French palaces such as Chantilly and Versailles, the Louvre, and several overseas museums including the Wallace Collection in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.



© John Welford

Saturday, 16 April 2016

How Grace Darling lost her hair



Grace Darling was a true 19th century heroine.  She earned her fame on 7th September 1838 when she took part in a daring rescue off the coast of north-east England, her actions turning her into a household name.

She was the daughter of William Grace, the keeper of the Longstone lighthouse, where she lived with her family, including two brothers. The lighthouse guarded the Farne Islands of Northumberland. These low-lying islands, renowned for their colonies of seals and puffins, lie just off the Northumberland coast and present a real hazard to shipping.

On the night of 6th September 1838 the paddle-steamer SS Forfarshire, sailing north from Hull, suffered engine failure during a storm and foundered on Big Harcar, one of the Farne Islands about three quarters of a mile from the lighthouse. Some of the passengers and crew managed to get about the ship’s lifeboat, but nine people could only scramble to safety on the rocks of Big Harcar, where the huge waves threatened to sweep them off into the sea.

When, at first light, Grace Darling spotted the wreck and the people on the rocks, her father decided to mount a rescue by rowing his boat across to the island, but he could not do it alone. His two sons were away at the time, which only left Grace, aged 22. They managed to reach Big Harcar through the storm, and Grace then had to keep the boat safe from being smashed against the rocks while her father climbed on to the island to help the stranded people to safety.

Grace’s courage and prowess, when the general public got to hear about it, gave her instant celebrity status. The young Queen Victoria (who was four years younger than Grace) gave her fifty pounds. Both William and Grace were awarded the silver medal of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

And, of course, a flood of congratulatory letters arrived at the lighthouse. Many of these asked for a lock of Grace Darling’s hair, which was the Victorian equivalent of requesting an autograph signature. Grace, knowing no better, sent off the locks as requested.

However, the letters asking for locks of hair were so numerous that Grace’s hair could not grow fast enough to supply the demand. Grace seriously considered buying a wig to cover the bald patches that were starting to appear.

Unfortunately, Grace Darling was not able to enjoy her fame for long, because she died of tuberculosis only four years later. However, her posthumous fame continues to this day, and she is remembered fondly by the RNLI, which always has a “Grace Darling” lifeboat in service.


© John Welford

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Queen Mary I



17th November is not a date that is generally celebrated in England but perhaps it should be. In 1558 a hated monarch died and a new age – the Elizabethan Age – was born. The queen who died – Mary the First – was mourned by few.

Queen Mary hardly stood a chance

There are some monarchs who were dealt a bad hand from the start. One of these has to be Queen Mary I, although it was only after she reached the age of 17 that her real problems started.

She had been born on 18th February 1516 to King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine. This was a matter of great joy to her parents, following a series of miscarriages and still births, with the only cloud being the fact that she was a girl rather than a boy.

However, as she got older, and no other children were born, it soon became clear that her father was getting steadily more anxious about the lack of a male heir. The idea that Mary would become a reigning queen was never regarded as a desirable outcome.

From when Mary was aged ten there was little doubt that her father wanted to divorce her mother. Mary felt more comfortable with her mother than her father, and this led to growing friction with King Henry.

When the divorce happened and Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533, Mary’s world fell apart. Not only was she declared illegitimate and no longer a princess, but her mother was banished from court and Mary was forbidden to have any further contact with her. There were even calls in Parliament that she should be executed.

A dynastic pawn

Mary had no function other than to be a pawn in her father’s power games. Henry could make and break diplomatic arrangements with other crowned heads by having Mary betrothed to whoever he liked, and breaking such engagements as he saw fit. At one time Mary was betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was 15 years older than her, and at another time her intended was 11 years younger, namely Philip II of Spain – who did actually become her husband much later in life.

Another indignity Mary had to face was being forced to defer to her sister Elizabeth, who was born to Anne Boleyn in 1533 and was therefore 17 years younger than Mary. This situation eased after Anne Boleyn was executed in 1536 and Elizabeth was also declared illegitimate. Mary was advised to make her peace with her father and she was accepted back at court.

The birth of her half-brother Edward to Jane Seymour in 1537 did at least seem to settle one thing, namely that Mary could forget about ever becoming queen in her own right, as could Elizabeth. She was, however, restored to her place in the succession after King Henry had entered his sixth and final marriage in 1543.

An uncomfortable subject

Edward became king (as Edward VI) in 1547, at the age of nine, and embarked on a policy of making England a fully Protestant country. Mary had always retained her Catholicism and so was therefore completely at odds with Edward, who demanded obedience from his half-sister who was 21 years his senior. His instructions included that she practice Protestant rites in her worship, which she persistently refused to do.

Mary therefore withdrew from public life to sulk in private over the way the country was going. Although there were serious revolts against King Edward and his “Lord Protectors” there is no convincing evidence that Mary was active in supporting them.

Queen at last

Mary must have assumed – at did everyone else – that Edward would have a long reign and would marry and produce heirs. However, this was not to be. In February 1553 Edward was taken ill – the symptoms suggest tuberculosis – and he never recovered. He died on 6th July at the age of only 15.

Steps had been taken by Edward’s “minders”, but with his consent, to exclude Mary from the succession. As a result, when Edward died he was succeeded by his cousin Lady Jane Grey, who was as much a dynastic pawn as Mary had been earlier in her life. 16-year-old Lady Jane had no wish either to be queen or to be married to the son of the Duke of Northumberland, who was Edward’s chief minister.

As it happened, the unpopularity of Northumberland meant that Jane’s “reign” only lasted for six days. Mary was seen by the people as the rightful successor to Edward, and when she entered London she was received rapturously and the Council of England had no choice but to give way. Mary therefore became queen at the age of 37.

Mary was prepared at first to be merciful to Lady Jane, but the prospect of a revolt in Jane’s favour meant that Mary had little choice but to have her executed the following February.

Bloody Mary

However, now that Mary was queen in her own right, with all the powers of an absolute monarch, she set about – as she saw it – her God-given task of returning England to the true faith.

This meant executing Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Bishops Ridley and Latimer, who had been active proponents of the English Reformation. They were found guilty of treason and heresy and burned at the stake in Oxford.

However, they were neither the first not the last victims of the “Marian Persecutions”. During Mary’s reign some 300 people, both male and female and of all classes, were executed by burning for refusing to recant their Protestant views. Their stories, many of which were recounted in the “Book of Martyrs” by John Foxe, make harrowing reading. They included a woman in Derby who had been blind from birth, two women in Suffolk whose crime had been to take food to an imprisoned priest, and a woman in the Channel Islands who was heavily pregnant.

The executions began early in 1555 and continued until 15th November 1558, two days before Queen Mary’s own death. Many of the executions were of groups of victims, such as the ten “Sussex Martyrs” who died at Lewes on 22nd June 1557 and several groups of “Canterbury Martyrs”.

Relief at last

Whatever their religious beliefs, there can surely have been few people who did not rejoice that Mary’s reign was shorter than her brother’s. She died from influenza – although it is also possible that she had ovarian cancer – on 17th November 1558 at the age of 42. Her half-sister Elizabeth, who had been living quietly at Hatfield, was immediately welcomed as the new Queen.

With Mary dead, the process of healing could begin, although Elizabeth would create a goodly number of Catholic martyrs during her reign to set alongside the Protestant martyrs of Mary’s.

That said, Elizabeth was greeted as the new Queen with enthusiasm and she would generate genuine love and support from her subjects, which Mary had signally failed to do.


© John Welford

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Elmer the flying monk



You probably think that wingsuit flying is a very new extreme sport that has only been going for a few years. As a sport, you would no doubt be right, but the idea of attaching fabric to your body and using it as sort of parachute, in the way that a flying fox does, is not new at all.

Elmer of Malmesbury

Elmer was a young monk at Malmesbury Abbey (Wiltshire, England) in the early 11th century. He was very interested in science and enjoyed stargazing and birdwatching. He also read a great deal, including stories from Greek mythology. One myth that fascinated him was the story of Daedalus and Icarus who escaped from their prison tower by making wings for themselves and flying like the birds. Icarus flew too close to the Sun and the wax that held his wings together melted, with fatal consequences.

Elmer determined to go one better than Icarus and survive the attempt to glide like the birds he could see from the Abbey tower. It would appear that the equipment he made for himself was something between a wingsuit and a paragliding parachute. He stretched parchment or fabric across a lightweight wooden frame which he then attached to his arms and feet. It may have looked like the design in the memorial window pictured here, but there is no certainty about this.

Modern wingsuit flyers jump from high buildings (such as bridges) or mountain crags. The top of Elmer’s tower could only have been about 18 metres (59 feet) high, which does not sound a lot in terms of how much time would be needed for the parachute effect to take effect before he hit the ground. However, despite this obvious defect in Elmer’s scheme, he survived the attempt!

Elmer’s flight is recorded in the writings of William of Malmesbury, a fellow monk who was a celebrated historian but who lived about a century later than Elmer. Although William could not have interviewed any eye-witnesses of the event, he could quite easily have spoken to elderly monks who had known Elmer in their youth, because the latter lived into old age.

William records that Elmer glided for about 200 metres and, had he held his nerve, would probably have been able to control his wings well enough to land gently on his feet. However, it appears that the updraught of air that rose not far from the tower panicked him and he landed in an undignified heap, breaking both his legs in the process.

Medical science being what it was in those days, Elmer’s broken bones were not reset properly and he spent the rest of his life with badly deformed legs that made walking difficult. It was no doubt the sight of the elderly monk limping around the abbey that prompted the novice monks to ask him how he had got that way, and Elmer was apparently willing to tell his story, which was later passed on to William of Malmesbury.

According to William, Elmer always reckoned that he could have succeeded if only he had fitted a tail to his birdman apparatus.


© John Welford

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London



Turn again, Whittington, thou worthy citizen,
Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London.
Make your fortune, find a good wife,
You will know happiness all through your life.
Turn again, Whittington, thou worthy citizen,
Turn again, Whittington, thrice Mayor of London.

During the pantomime season in the UK there are plenty of productions of Cinderella, Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk that pack in the crowds at theatres around the country. However, there is one pantomime story that is based on a real-life character, and that is Dick Whittington.

Richard Whittington was born in a Gloucestershire village in about 1354. In both legend and fact he had been told that the streets of London were paved with gold, so he set off, when still only a boy, to seek his fortune in the big city, although he soon learned that – then as now – fortunes nearly always have to be earned.

He worked hard as a trader in textiles and built a very successful import-export business, with exotic materials such as silk cloth coming in and English wool going out. He made such a fortune that, by 1397, he was able to lend money to the king, Richard II, who rewarded him by making him Lord Mayor of London, a position that he retained for a second successive year.

However, King Richard was deposed in 1399 and Whittington was convinced that his good fortune had also come to an end. He therefore set out to return to his home village. According to the popular story he had only got as far as Highgate Hill when he heard the bells of Bow church pealing and seeming to call him back as though they were saying “Turn again, Whittington”.

He did so, and found that he was just as successful under Richard II’s successors, Henry IV and Henry V, as he had been before. In the famous nursery rhyme the message of the bells concludes by saying that he will be “thrice Mayor of London”, which is slightly inaccurate because Richard Whittington was to have two further spells as mayor, making four in total.

The story of Dick Whittington is not just one of a poor boy becoming enormously rich and working his way into royal favour, because he did much more with his money than just stash it away. He donated vast sums to good causes, including providing fresh water and decent sanitation in slum areas of London, and funding refuges for homeless people and a ward for unmarried mothers in St Thomas’s Hospital. He built a library at Greyfriars as well as rebuilding the London Guildhall. He never lost the common touch, which is why he insisted on being addressed as Dick, the name by which he is always referred to today.

His good works lived on after his death in 1423, because he left the equivalent in modern terms of several million pounds to build yet more improvements for the city.

Dick Whittington was popular with all classes of people and fondly remembered – hence the stories that have lived on ever since. In the pantomime story Dick Whittington’s cat is an essential element, although there is no historical evidence to confirm its existence, which is a bit of a shame!

All in all, Dick Whittington set an example that many others after him might have followed in public office, but unfortunately only a few have done so.

The photo accompanying this article is of a statue of Dick Whittington and his cat in the Guildhall, London (photograph by Elisa Rolle).


© John Welford