Dick Whittington and His Cat is an English folk tale that has often been used as the basis for stage pantomimes and other adaptations. It tells of a poor boy in the 14th century who becomes a wealthy merchant and eventually the Lord Mayor of London because of the ratting abilities of his cat. The character of the boy is named after a real-life person, Richard Whittington, but the real Whittington did not come from a poor family and there is no evidence that he had a cat.
Richard Whittington, the son of Sir William Whittington of Gloucester, was a wealthy merchant and philanthropist in London, who served as Lord Mayor of London at times between 1397 and 1420. The legend of Dick Whittington and His Cat was first recorded in writing in 1605 and was adapted as a play the same year, The History of Richard Whittington, of his lowe byrth, his great fortune. The story was soon included in several collections, including the fairytale collections of Joseph Jacobs. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in 1668, "To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet show of Whittington, which was pretty to see". The artist George Cruikshank published an illustrated version of the story in about 1820.
The story is only loosely based on the life of Richard Whittington. Although Alice Fitzwarren, Dick's love interest in the play, is named after the historical Richard Whittington's wife, there is no historical evidence that Whittington ever had a cat. Possible sources of the cat in the legend were the type of boat that Whittington used for trading, known as a "cat", or the French word achat, meaning a purchase. Alternatively, Whittington may have become associated with a Persian folktale about an orphan who gained a fortune through his cat. This attribution of the cat story may have originated from a fifteenth century Italian source, the Novella della Gatte. Aware of this source, William Gore Ouseley, in the nineteenth century, traced the story back still further, to a Persian manuscript, which he summarised as follows:
|“||In the tenth century, one Keis, the son of a poor widow in Siraf, embarked for India with a cat, his only property. There he fortunately arrived at a time when the palace was so infested by mice or rats, that they invaded the king's food, and persons were employed to drive them from the royal banquet. Keis produced his cat; the noxious animals soon disappeared, and magnificent rewards were bestowed on the adventurer of Siraf, who returned to that city, and afterwards, with his mother and brothers, settled on the island, which from him has been denominated Keis, or according to the Persians, Keish.||”|
In any case, about 1442, when Newgate Prison was rebuilt or renovated according to the terms of Whittington's will, a cat was carved over one of the gates. Also, in 1572, a chariot with a carved cat was presented by Whittington's heirs to the merchant's guild. Today, on Highgate Hill in front of the Whittington Hospital, there is a statue in honour of Whittington's legendary cat on the site where, in the story, the distant Bow Bells call young Dick back to London to claim his fortune.
Dick Whittington was a poor orphan. Hearing of the great city of London, where the streets were said to be paved with gold, he set off to seek his fortune in the city. Once there, of course, Dick could not find any streets that were paved with gold. Hungry, cold and tired, he fell asleep in front of the great house of Mr. Fitzwarren, a rich merchant. The generous man took Dick into his house and employed him as a scullery boy. Unfortunately, Dick's little room was infested with rats. Dick earned a penny shining a gentleman's shoes, and with it he bought a cat, who drove off the rats. One day, Mr. Fitzwarren asked his servants to send something in his ship, leaving on a journey to a far off port, to trade for gold. Reluctantly, Dick sent his beloved cat.
Dick was happy living with Mr. Fitzwarren, except that Fitzwarren's cook was cruel to Dick, who eventually decided to run away. But before he could leave the city, he heard the Bow Bells ring out. They seemed to be saying, "Turn again Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London". Dick retraced his steps and found that Mr. Fitzwarren's ship had returned. It turned out that the ship had visited the court of the King of Barbary, whose palace was overrun with mice. Dick's cat had been hailed a hero for ridding the court of the vermin, and the King had purchased the cat for a great fortune. Dick was a rich man. He joined Mr. Fitzwarren in his business and married his daughter Alice, and in time became the Lord Mayor of London three times, just as the bells had predicted.
The first recorded pantomime version of the story was in 1814, starring Joseph Grimaldi as Dame Cecily Suet, the Cook. The pantomime adds another element to the story, an arch villain, the Pantomime King (or sometimes Queen) Rat, as well as the usual pantomime fairy, the Fairy of the Bells. Other added characters are a captain and his mate and some incompetent pirates. In this version, Dick and his cat "Tommy" travel to Morocco, where the cat rids the country of rats. The Sultan rewards Dick with half of his wealth. Sybil Arundale played Dick in many productions in the early years of the 20th century.
The pantomime version is still popular today. Other notable pantomime productions included an 1877 version at the Surrey Theatre described below, as well as the following:
Non-pantomime stage versions included versions by H. J. Byron in 1861, Robert Reece in 1871, and one with music by Jacques Offenbach and English text by H. B. Farnie at the Alhambra Theatre over Christmas 1874–75. An 1895 comic opera version, Dandy Dick Whittington, played at the Avenue Theatre, written by George Robert Sims and composed by Ivan Caryll.
Dick Whittington and His Cat; Or, Harlequin Beau Bell, Gog and Magog, and the Rats of Rat Castle, by Frank Green, with music by Sidney Davis, was produced at the Surrey Theatre in London, 24 December 1877. It starred the comedian Arthur Williams. Miss Topsy Venn was Dick, and Master David Abrahams was the cat. The Harlequinade featured Tom Lovell as Clown.
The Era reviewed the piece, writing, "it completely put in the shade everyone of its predecessors... it would be found well worthy the patronage of the crowds of sight-seers certain to patronise it.... It is all life, bustle, briskness, brightness, beauty. There are sweet sounds for your ears, pretty pictures for your eyes, and no end of comicality to make exactions upon your risible faculties."
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