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

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