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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Oh yes he was! Oh no he wasn’t!

Although slow to emerge, the pairing of Whittington and cat proved so appealing that it survived, regardless of attempts to undermine it. In the 18th Century, for example, author Oliver Goldsmith wanted to "kill" the cat to make the story more moral and inspiring for industrious apprentices!

Various theories about the origins of "Tommy", Whittington's mythical cat, have been suggested: one that the that the association derived from the type of boat, called a "cat", that Whittington used when trading, another that Whittington's cat somehow emerged over the years from the old French word achat, meaning purchase.

Stained glass panel in St Michael Paternoster Royal
A contemporary stained glass interpretation of Dick Whittington
© Courtesy of 'The Mission to Seafarers'
Certainly there are similar folk tales in other countries of cats bringing fame and fortune to their masters, but the English version is slightly different in attaching a cat to a real, not fictional, man.

Enduring appeal

Today many people who know the story of Dick Whittington and his cat will never have heard of Richard Whittington, but even if the facts have been romanticised and the legend exaggerated over the centuries, all this has done is to distil the main theme of the story – the idea that people can go to London and make their fortune.

It is this part of the legend which has such enduring appeal. London has always been a people magnet and haven for migrants, and one of its main attractions is this idea that fame and fortune lie at the end of its "golden-paved" streets. This is probably why Richard Whittington went to London in the first place, and is certainly what many people still think today.

The tale of Dick Whittington and his cat, however removed it may be from historical reality by now, is an embodiment of this universal dream of making it big in the city. Surely it would be unfair at this point to deny Whittington his cat, as Oliver Goldsmith did, just because it was never real.

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