Look Behind You

It’s pantomime time again, when small children get their first experience of live theatre and for those of you who aren’t lucky enough to experience this Christmas treat, a small explanation is necessary. Panto originated about 16th century and in the tradition of the time audience participation was to be encouraged, another essential ingredient today, as then, is trans-gender dressing with a shapely young woman dressing up as the best “boy”, while middle aged male actors don outlandish female clothes as the ugly sisters. The narrative is usually based on a children’s story or fable and a perennial favourite is Dick Whittington and his Cat, drawing inspiration from the poem:

Turn again, Whittington,
Once Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Twice Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London!

Dick's cat The story of Dick Whittington is a familiar one, poor boy comes to the metropolis thinking the streets were paved with gold and seeking his fame and fortune. Unable to achieve his goal he leaves London travelling northward accompanied by his black cat. Upon reaching Highgate Hill (about three miles north from the City of London) he turns for one last glance and hears the bells of Bow Church in Cheapside, itself very improbable given the distance involved. Believing the bells are sending him a message, telling him to turn back, he returns to the City, becomes Lord Mayor of London and makes his fortune.

At the bottom of Highgate Hill a small stone plinth with a cat marks the spot where Dick Whittington is said to have heard the sound of the bells and a nearby hospital still carries his name.

The story of Richard Whittington (1354-1423) is somewhat different from the fable and if anything is more fascinating.

Born into a rich aristocratic family in the Forest of Dean, Richard Whittington entered the City in the 1380s, and was apprenticed as a Mercer (a dealer in cloth). After completing his apprenticeship he quickly established himself as a merchant and became a major importer of European fabrics. An appointment to the royal court firmly established him as a gentleman of repute, and with astute commercial enterprise he amassed a huge fortune, becoming a money lender counting sovereigns among others as his clients. Whittington was now at the height of his powers among London’s elite and was awarded many titles including four times Lord Mayor, Alderman, a Member of Parliament and a High Court Judge.

For someone so wealthy, Richard Whittington was a man of conscience, but his charitable work among the City’s poor and disadvantaged is little known. In his lifetime Whittington gave to a variety of good causes, a ward for unmarried mothers at St Thomas’ Hospital, rebuilding of the Guildhall, installing the first public drinking fountains and drainage systems for the city streets. He left the majority of his huge fortune to charity, providing in his Will a sum of £7,000 (£3 million today) to be used for good causes, also the buildings and repair of many City Institutions were benefactors of Whittington’s legacy. London’s poor were not forgotten with the building of almshouses and a hospital in the street that his house stood. These charitable dwellings still exist and are located in Felbridge near Surrey; its occupants consist mainly of elderly women and the Whittington Charity continues to disburse its funds to the disadvantaged through the Mercer’s Company.

But perhaps for the Pantomime Season his revolutionary scheme for public hygiene should be recreated. Located close to where Southwark Bridge now stands Whittington engineered his grand project to improve personal hygiene for the poor, building all-purpose latrines across the River Thames foreshore; there was enough seating for 40 people in one sitting (so to speak), and using the tide to flush to effluent downriver. Ironically the Corporation of London later built their health and hygiene department of works on this site.

2 thoughts on “Look Behind You”

  1. Hi David – like your blog. I wrote a piece about panto on my Kent Today & Yesterday blog – oh yes I did – after taking my little boy and his cousin to their first one.

    Will be adding your blogs to my favourites and will check back from time to time.

    If you ever want to know something about sarf of the river, please check out my blog…..



    1. I really liked your Kent blog, sarf of the River, surely you are writing about the Garden of England, not Catford et al . . .
      Your piece:
      was interesting with the church stained glass window, I have a post coming up a the end of the month entitled London’s Zoo which includes a feature of Thomas Gresham in the City.
      I will definitely be checking out your posts in future . . . you never know I might get a few ideas for South of the River.


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