Dick Whittington and His Cat is the name of English folklore surrounding the real-life Richard Whittington (c. 1354–1423), wealthy merchant and thrice Lord Mayor of London, alleging he escaped his poverty-stricken childhood and made his fortune thanks to the ratting abilities of his cat. However, the real Whittington did not come from a poor family of common stock, and there is no compelling evidence that he owned a cat.
Another element considered essential to the legend is that Dick attempted to flee his service as a scullion one night, but was dissuaded by the tone of the church bells, which promised he would become mayor of London one day.
Written forms date from the early 1600s, long after the death of the historical Whittington. A drama play (1604–5) and ballad (1605) are lost, and Richard Johnson's ballad of 1612 is the earliest surviving piece. A prose rendition occurs in The Famous and Remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington by "T. H." (Thomas Heywood), first published 1656. Chapbook editions of the legend more or less after T.H.'s version appeared after 1730 into the 19th century. (See #Publication history below).
These chapbook editions were embellished by a number of "amplifications" leading to factual consistencies, for example, later chapbooks assert that Dick reached Holloway on the night he fled, even though it has been noted that this was too far to be within earshot of the bells of Bow Church, or for a child on foot to double back during the course of one night. However, the legend has propagated among the populace exactly in embelished forms such as this. Thus, the landmark Whittington Stone at the foot of Highgate Hill (which belongs within the confines of "Upper Holloway") is commonly perceived to be place where Dick Whittingon stopped and heard the famous bells.[a]
The story was adapted into puppet play by Martin Powell in the early 18th century. Later, it has been performed as stage pantomimes and children's plays. It has also been retold as a children's story by a number of printers and authors to this day.
The tale represents Aarne–Thompson (AT) tale type 1651, "Whittington's Cat". A number of foreign and medieval analogues exist to such a tale where the protagonist obtains his riches as recompense for his cat ridding some infested place of its rodent population.
The following summary gives a comparison of three textual sources (B=Johnson's ballad, H＝T.H.'s The Famous and Remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington (Wheatley ed.); C=Chapbook version (18th-19th-century printing by J.Cheney)):
Dick Whittington was a poor orphan boy, languishing in Lancashire (B), or some unnamed place in the country (H, C).[b] He set off to seek his fortune in London (B, H, C), enticed by the rumor that its streets were paved with gold (C). But he soon found himself cold and hungry,[c] and fell asleep at the gate of the home of a wealthy merchant named Fitzwarren (H, C).[d] Fitzwarren hired him to be the scullion in the kitchen (B, H, C), giving him lodging (B, H, C).
In the prose versions, an account of the Dick Whittington's cat subsequently follows, but in the ballad, it is preceded by Dick's flight and church bells episode.
In the prose legend, Dick is provided quarter at the Fitzwarrens' garret (room in the attic) (H, C), which was infested with rats and mice (H, C). But Dick owned a cat (B, H, C), that the prose versions say he had bought for a penny which he made shining shoes (H, C).[e] The cat controlled his rodent problem, which made her an indispensable companion.
When Fitzwarren organized a trade expedition sending the merchant ship Unicorn (H), Dick's cat was "ventured" to this mission to be sold for profit abroad (B, H, C). The versions also differ regarding the circumstances: either Dick relinquished the cat of his own volition, hoping its sale in a foreign land might reap a "store of gold" towards the fullfillment of the omen of the bells (B), or, Dick was compelled to do so by Fitzwarren, who maintained a steadfast rule that everyone in his household should have some article of worth riding on the venture, with due dividends forthcoming from the proceeds (H, C).
Dick became disenchanted with the scullion's lot and attempted to flee, either because he received room and board for his labors and received no monetary wages towards his savings (B), or because the kitchen maid (H) or female cook named Miss Ciceley (C) abused and physically beat him beyond his tolerance. He ran as far away as Bunhill (H) or Holloway (C), where he heard the bells of Bow Church, that seemed to be telling him,
"Turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London" (H).
which persuaded him to retrace his steps. (The wording of the bells' message differ slightly according to the textual source).
The ship was driven off course to the Barbary Coast, where the Moorish king purchased the entire cargo for a load of gold, and insisted on entertaining the English traders with a feast. But the banquet was swarmed with rats and mice, whereby the English "factor" (business agent) informed their hosts that they were in possession of a creature which could exterminate these vermin (H, C). Thus Dick Whittington's cat was immediately put to the test, chasing and destroying the rodents. The Moors, even more pleased to learn that the cat was pregnant, paid more (H) (or ten times more (C)) for the cat than the rest of the cargo combined.
The ship returned to London and Fitzwarren who was apprised of the success of the venture (at his home on Leadenhall (H)), summoned the besmirched scullion Dick Whittington to the parlour (H) (or compting-room (C)) and sat him in a seat, addressing him in dignified fashion as Master (H) or Mr. Whittington. Dick was upset at first that this was being done in mockery, but Fitzwarren insisted it was all in earnest, explaining that the profits from the ship now made Dick a richer man than himself (C, H). Dick married his former master's daughter Alice Fitzwarren (C, H), and joined his father-in-law in his business (H). In time, Whittington became the Lord Mayor of London three times, just as the bells had predicted. Whittington's acts of charity include the built a college and a church (B, H, C), Newgate Prison (B, H, C). He also burnt the bonds he owned, which the Crown had issued to fund the war (B, H).
The earliest recorded instance of the folklore in written form is a registry notice dated 1604-5 for a theatrical play.
The drama The History of Richard Whittington, of his lowe byrth, his great fortune was licensed for the stage 1604-1605. Based on the only remaining evidence, which comes from the record at the Stationers' Registers, there is no proof beyond doubt whether the play accounted for Dick's rise from "lowe birth" by means of a cat, but it is considered likely, since a play from the contemporary period entitled Eastward Hoe (1605) makes an explicit cat association with the line: "When the famous fable of Whittington and his puss shall be forgotten." This line also stands as the earliest surviving literary reference of Whittington and his cat.
A lost ballad is also known to have existed from a registry record of 1605. It was entitled "The vertuous lyfe and memorable death of Sir Richard Whittington, mercer, sometymes Lord Maiour of the honorable Citie of London," licensed on 16 July 1605 to be printed by John Wright. The earliest surviving complete text of the legend in any form, is the ballad written by Richard Johnson on the subject. The 17-octave piece, included in Johnson's Crowne Garland of Goulden Roses (1612), begins with the following lines:
"Here must I tell the praise / Of worthie Whittington.. ",
The ballad goes on to tell how Whittington had a very humble past working as a kitchen scullion, but that he "had a cat.. And by it wealth he gat." This ballad was sung to the assigned tune of "Dainty come thou to me".
Of intermediate date is a version titled "An Old Ballad of Whittington and his Cat," printed and sold in Aldermary Church Yard, London, catalogued ESTC N68225, dated 1750?. Several copies of this exist in the Bodleian library (which was bequeathed the Francis Douce collection), as well as U.S. libraries.
A number of broadside ballad printings have been made into the 19th century, with substantially identical lyrics and the same tune. Many feature woodcut illustriations. A version entitled London's Glory and Whittington's Renown; or, A Looking-Glass for Citizens of London, printed for R. Burton at the Horse-Shoe, in West Smithfield, c. 1650 has been reprinted from the Roxburghe collection.
The Famous and Remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington by "T.H." (first edition, 1656,) is the earliest extant text of the prose tale in the estimation of its editor Henry B. Wheatley.[f] The author's identity is only given as "T. H.," but the work is ascribable to Thomas Heywood. Heywood certainly knew the cat story, for it is spoken of by the cast of characters in his play If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody (1606).
Chapbook editions appeared beginning in 1730, and went through a number of printing. Perhaps the latest chapbook examples is The Adventures of Sir Richard Whittingon, printed by J.Cheney, 1788–1808 which is quoted in full by Wheatley in his introduction.
There is an early record of puppet performance of the legend, dating to Samuel Pepys's diary of Sept. 21, 1668, which reads: "To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet show of Whittington, which was pretty to see".
At Covent Garden, performances of "Whittington and his Cat" were put on by the puppeteer Martin Powell (fl. 1710–1729). Powell was a successful showman, providing such a draw that the parish church of St. Paul would be drained of its congregation during hours of prayer when his plays were on. An advertisement bill of the puppet show has been copied out in Groans of Great Britain, once credited to Daniel Defoe but since reattributed Charles Gildon (d. 1724), which gives two titles for the features:
"At Punch's Theater in the Little Piazza, Covent-Garden, this present Evening will be performed an Entertainment, called, The History of Sir Richard Whittington, shewing his Rise from a Scullion to be Lord-Mayor of London, with the Comical Humours of Old Madge, the jolly Chamber-maid, and the Representation of the Sea, and the Court of Great Britain, concluding with the Court of Aldermen, and Whittington Lord-Mayor, honoured with the Presence of K. Hen. VIII. and his Queen Anna Bullen, with other diverting Decorations proper to the Play, beginning at 6 o' clock." 
The puppet play Whittington and his Cat was reviewed by an anonymous correspondent in The Spectator, No. 14, dated March 16, 1711, soon after it opened.[g] It featured Punch (of the Punch and Judy shows) as did all of Powell's puppet plays. Punch danced a minuet with a trained pig in the opening scene, and later gave his "reflections on the French" that was a breach of "the Moral". As was King Harry (Henry VIII) resting his leg on his queen in an immodest manner. Little else on the performance can be gleaned, except that the hero's role was performed in a squeaky high voice, just like the lead of the Italian opera Rinaldo and Armida, the rival draw at the time at Covent Garden which the anonymous reviewer was simultaneously critiqueing. The reviewer concludes "as the Wit of both pieces are equal, I must prefer.. Mr Powell, because it is in our own language."
An opera production that never came into realization was a topic in Joseph Addison's piece in The Spectator (1711). Addison states he was "credibly informed that there was once a Design of casting into an Opera the Story of Whittington and his Cat, and that in order to it, there had been got together a great Quantity of Mice," but that Mr. Rich (Christopher Rich) who was proprietor of the playhouse (he managed several including Drury Lane theatre[h]) objected that the rodents once released will not be thoroughly collected.
Later Whittington and his Cat, an opera written by Samuel Davey, was performed at the Theatre in Smock Alley, Dublin, 1739.
The artist George Cruikshank published an illustrated version of the story in about 1820. The American Joseph Jacobs printed a version that is a composite of three chapbook texts in his English Fairy Tales (1890).
Commentators have also listed pieces of art and architecture which might be allusions to the legend of Dick Whittington and His Cat that predate the literary productions of the early 1600s.
Allegedly there was a portrait of him depicted with a cat dating to 1536. The painting was in the apartment of the clerk of Mercers' Company at Mercers' Hall, as reported by James Peller Malcolm (d. 1815) in Londinium Redivivum, Vol. 4 (1807). According to Malcolm, who evidently examined it, this portrait of Whittington's had "on the left hand of the figure is a black and white cat, whose right ear reaches up to the band or broad turning down to the shirt of the figure." He admits that the 1536 date had been repainted at a later date after the canvas was cropped, but commented that "it is hardly to be supposed" that this date "was then invented".
This painting has apparently since disappeared, and could not be located by Lysons who published the mayor's biography in 1860. Wheatley considers this disappeared artwork "can scarcely be put in evidence."
But Lysons owned a copy of an engraving by Reginald Elstrack (1570 – after 1625), which Lysons adduces must be a faithful copy of the same artwork. This engraving, entitled the "True Portraicture" or Vera Effigies Preclarmi Domini Richardi Whittington Equi Aurat is reproduced in the inset of Lyson's work. The engraving cannot be definitely dated, though Lysons noted that the printmaker flourished c. 1590, and this is the date assigned by Besant & Rice.[i] On this museum copy can be read "R. Elstck Sculptit" at bottom, which is truncated in Lysons's reproduction. It has also been noted that the engraving originally depicted Whittington with a skull under his hand, but had been replaced with a cat underneath, to cater to public taste, "as the common people did not care to buy the print without it".
Whittington's statue with a cat stood at Newgate Prison, attested by a record from 1776 (or 1766), claimed by biographers to have stood at the time of the Great Fire of 1666, possibly having erected according to the mayor's own will after his death in 1423(?). But the notion that the statue stood before the Great Fire has been criticized as "an unsupported assumption." (See §Whittington's statue with the cat).
Also a chariot with a carved cat, purportedly presented by Whittington's heirs to the merchant's guild in 1572, was available for the biographer Samuel Lysons to examine. 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.
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. It is unknown how the cat story came to be attached to Whittington. The "ingenious" suggestions were made by Henry Thomas Riley that the cat may be a corruption of the French achat or purchase, or else may come from "cat," name for a coal-carrying boat that Whittington used for trading, but downplayed as implausible by later commentators.
Antiquarians have noticed similarities to foreign tales of medieval origin that also relate how a character made his fortune through his cat.
Two Italian examples are noted. One was told by Lorenzo Magalotti (d. 1732), regarding a 16th-century merchant Ansaldo degli Ormanni who made his fortune from a cat off the king of the isle of Canary. Another, recorded as a tale Novella delle Gatte ("Tale of the she-cats") told by Piovano Arlotto (d. 1484), published in the collection of witticisms (Facetiae) attributed to him.
It has been remarked by one of the biographies that a similar tale is "also found in a German chronicle of the thirteenth century." Albert von Stade in his Chronicon Alberti Abbati Stadensis records such an anecdote, localized in Venice, and Keightley who provides account of it notes that the cat story of this kind "was apparently an old one in Italy," for it purports to have taken place to two of the earliest citizens of Venice after its founding.[j]
A Persian story localized around Keish (Kish Island) tells of a certain widow's son who lived in the 10th century and made his fortune in India with his cat, occurs in Tarik al-Wasaf, a 13th-century chronicle. The similarity was noted by James Morier, Second Journey (1818), and William Gore Ouseley, Travels (1819).[k]
A convenient source of the parallels is Thomas Keightley devotes his Chapter VII of his Tales and Popular Fictions (1834) boasting he has made the largest compilation of these parallels, though he was not the first to make note of the parallels in published form.
It is considered an analogue of Grimms' tale KHM 70 Die drei Glückskinder ("The Three Sons of Fortune"), and Bolte and Polívka's Anmerkungen lists various parallel folktales across the globe. In modern folkloristics, the tale is classified as Aarne–Thompson (AT) tale type 1651 "Whittington's Cat".
At one time, Whittington's statue with a cat was erected at Newgate Prison. The one primary evidence given is a "diurnal" (journal) from when the prison was being demolished in 1776 (or 1766), which stated that "on Tuesday, July 9th, the statue of Whittington and his cat was taken down from Newgate; that statue with the others are to be placed in the new prison in the Old Bailey." So Thomas Pennant's statement that "his statue, with the cat, remained in a niche to its final demolition" was ostensibly referring to that demolition in 1776.
Yet several subsequent biographies seizing on this statement insist that Pennant meant the destruction of the prison by the Great Fire of 1666. Hence according to Besand and Rice, the statue of Whittington with the Cat, on the authority of Pennant, "remained on the gate in a niche until the fire," and Samuel Lysons is "(led) to suppose that the Cat was placed there by Whittington's own executors" (i.e., executors of his will). But this "assertion that a carved figure of a cat existed on Newgate gaol before the great fire is an unsupported assumption," or so pronounced by historian Charles Lethbridge Kingsford.
Whittington, who deplored the squalor of the prison, did indeed leave a will for the West End prison and its gate to be pulled down and rebuilt as Newgate gaol. But a copy of Whittington's will kept at Guildhall that prescribes this fails to mention a statue, or him and his cat.
A century after the demolition, English antiquarians were making inquiries of the statue's whereabouts, and one of the respondents replied it was "doubtless destroyed in the fire." Another responded that the statue of Liberty that once used to have a figure of Whittington's cat at her feet could still be seen, mounted on the south face of the modern Newgate. The stone Liberty was one of a set of seven, the others being Peace, Plenty, Concord, and Justice, Mercy, and Truth. It was given as the opinion of this respondent that "any one at a glance must see (the Liberty figure) was never intended for Whittington's likeness". William Maitland, The History and Survey of London (1756) too made it clear that this was a female figure, stating that the human-size figure "representing Liberty, has carved on her Hat the Word Libertas, and the Figure of a Cat lying at her Feet, alluding to the Figure of Sir Richard Whittington." although the "her" has been altered to "his" in the doctor quotes of some biographers.[l]
It was purported that in 1862 at the site of the former residence of Whittington, there was unearthed a piece of stone, possibly chimney stone, bearing a basso relievo of a boy holding a cat. It was allegedly of 15th-century workmanship. Besant and Rice called this "remarkable proof" that the cat story was in the family, but Wheatley thought it "suspicious". The relic came into the possession of Samuel Lysons.
The first recorded pantomime version of the story was in 1814, starring Joseph Grimaldi as Dame Cicely 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."