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Richard (Dick) WhittingtonLondon
c. 1357-1423

 

 

The nursery rhyme depicts Dick Whittington as a poor country boy who went to London accompanied by his talking cat and made his fortune.

Of course, there was no talking cat, but part of the story is true.

Early Life
Dick Whittington was born in the tiny village of Pauntley, just 10 miles (16 kms) north-west of Gloucester. His father was William Whittington, Lord of Pauntley but because Dick was the third son, there was no chance of him inheriting the estate so he had to have an occupation.
 
Apprenticeship
At age 13 he was sent to London and apprenticed into the trade of Mercer (cloth dealer). Dick’s apprentice master was not just anyone; he was Lord Ivo Fitzwarren, Master of the Mercer’s Guild.

Mercery was an excellent trade to be in because the populace would always need material for clothing and in medieval times England’s wealth came from the production of wool and the manufacture of cloth which was exported.

Dick was an excellent apprentice and learnt his trade well. He was that unusual combination of astute business man, honest and trustworthy, and benevolent humanitarian.

Becoming a Mercer
Nine years after starting his apprenticeship he started his own business trading in luxury goods which he sold to the King and members of the King’s Court. He also made his first philanthropic gift – money towards the building of Westminster Abbey’s nave.
 
By 1388 he was a successful trader, importing valuable silks, velvets, damasks and cloth of gold. He was probably also a major exporter of English wool cloth. It was at this time he began his money-lending business. He preferred this discreet way of using his wealth to the more obvious method of buying property.
 
Dick Wittington the Moneylender
In 1392 King Richard II seized the City of London’s lands alleging mismanagement. Dick Whittington was sent by the City to Nottingham to negotiate with the King. He was so trusted by King Richard II that by 1397 he was lending the king large sums of money.
 
Civic Appointments
By this time Richard (Dick) Whittington had been appointed an alderman of the City of London, as well as becoming a member of the Mercers' Company. From 1393-1394 he was elected Sheriff of London, and in 1395 was made Master of the Mercers' Company for the first time.
 
Lord Mayor of London 1397
In 1397 the Lord Mayor of London died and the king illegally appointed Whittington to the vacancy. Within a few days of the appointment Whittington negotiated with the king to buy back the ‘Liberties’ that had been taken away from the City in 1392. The grateful City then confirmed his appointment as Lord Mayor.
 
In 1402 he married his apprentice master’s daughter, Alice. Unfortunately she died prematurely and childless and he did not marry again.
 
A Stellar Career
When King Richard was deposed Whittington was sufficiently trusted by the subsequent kings that he lent them large amounts of money and was entrusted with supervising Henry V’s expenditure on Westminster Abbey, collecting of the papal revenues and import duties.
 
He was made a Member of Parliament and although a money-lender himself was appointed as a Judge to the Usuary Court. He was also made Lord Mayor a further two times.
 
Humanitarian & Philanthropist
He showed his humanitarian side as an Apprentice Master by accommodating his apprentices in his own house. When young apprentices were dying of hypothermia and drowning in the River Thames while washing animal skins in the cold weather, he passed a law prohibiting this practice.
 
Much of his profit was spent in providing civic amenities for the poor. He provided a public water tap at Cripplegate, a public toilet which was cleansed by the river’s high tide, a ward for unmarried mothers at St Thomas’s Hospital, and drainage systems around Billingsgate and Cripplegate. He rebuilt the City’s Guildhall, provided the bulk of the books for Greyfriars Library, and rebuilt his local church of St Michael Paternoster Royal on College Hill where he is buried in the graveyard.
 
His own village of Pauntley was not forgotten with a donationa to rebuild the church tower of St John the Evangelist. When Richard Whittington died in 1423 he left £7,000 (a fortune in those days) to charity.
 
The Whittington Bequest
Some of the Whittington Bequest was used to rebuild Newgate Prison, the first Guildhall Library, provision of public drinking fountains and repairs to St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
 
Felbridge Almshouses
He also left instructions for almshouses and a hospital to be built. In 1966 these almshouses were moved to Felbridge in West Sussex and still house aged pensioners. The Mercer’s Company annually disburses money to the needy from the Whittington Charity. It is humbling to think that in the 21st century, people are still benefiting from the philanthropy of this self made man, Dick Whittington, who died over 600 years ago.