One of the traditional British pantomime tales, Dick Whittington tells the story of a young man (Dick) and his cat, who travels to London to seek his fortune after hearing that the streets are paved with gold in the city. After spending a miserable few days and nights trudging around and discovering that there certainly aren't any gold paving stones there, Dick despondently sets out to return home. As he rests his weary legs on Highgate Hill he hears the bells of the city churches ringing out, and what he hears in their melody is:

"Turn again Whittington, thrice mayor of London"

He returns to London, where after a series of adventures he meets the girl of his dreams, makes his fortune and does indeed become Lord Mayor of London three times.

The true story upon which this tale is based is also worth telling. Richard Whittington, far from being born a poor man, was the son of of Sir William Whittington, a wealthy landowner from Gloucestershire. We know that Sir William died in 1358 and not long after that his teenage son travelled to London where he was apprenticed in the Mercer's (Merchants) Guild -- a very respectable trade in medieval London and a position which he would not have got were his father not so well-known.

Whittington turned out to be an excellent merchant, and their main goods were rich silks, velvets and other valuable Oriental imports. Their main customers were therefore the élite of London society, as well as the royal court, and Whittington became both very wealthy and very well-known. In 1393 the king recognised this by making him an alderman of the City of London, and in 1397 he was appointed Lord Mayor, a position which he did indeed fill a further two times.

Dick Whittington was for many years the richest merchant in London, and three successive English kings appointed him their banker. However he did try to use some of his vast fortune for good: he personally funded the following, all of which were badly needed in early 15th Century London:

As if all this weren't enough, Dick Whittington ensured that his name would be forever remembered fondly by Londoners by making bequests in his will. After his death in 1423 his estate paid for: Although the name of Dick Whittington has been known to all Londoners for many centuries, very little of his influence remains in the city today. Most of the public works he helped build were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, by which time the tale had already metamorphosised into the pantomime version mentioned at the top of this writeup. A wall plaque marks the location of his old house on College Hill in central London and a stone has been erected on Highgate Hill where the legend tells he heard the church bells tolling.

Whittington College is still in existence, although its physical location has moved twice since Whittington's time: the first time to Highgate in north London, and again in 1965 to Felbridge in West Sussex near the south coast of England.