Monthly Archives: July 2016

Dick Whittington’s Magical Cat

At the beginning of this week, there was an article in The Guardian about a bequest to the Guildhall Library in London, from an American lady who’d lived in England since the 1950s, Ellery Yale Wood. She died three years ago, and it sounds like her executor is still in awe of her. Only a part of her bequest is about Dick Whittington and his famous cat – the rest is an eclectic mix of Harry Potter, children’s books, cameras, Manchester United … the list goes on.

And the library, of course, was the one founded by Dick Whittington himself, in 1425, so her bequest makes absolute sense. Some of her material will be included in the 900th anniversary celebrations to be held in 2025, and in the meantime, I hope we’ll be able to see some of it very soon.

I was at the Guildhall Library a few years ago, and part of their lovely statue of Dick Whittington and His Cat is my header! Here it is in full:

The wonderful mog is all over London, hospitals and pubs and everything in between is named after him. There are intimate little touches too: on the stairwells over the busy roads that lead to the Museum of London, Dick and his cat are ever present:

There are a few I haven’t photographed yet: the one in Archway, and the inside of the window at St Michael’s (I’ve got a photo of the outside, where you can see the cat, but it looks like it’s in shades of grey: not a very interesting photo!). There are some great pantomime adverts too, it’s one of the favourite panto titles in the UK.

Honouring the two of them isn’t a modern fashion by any means. The Bodleian in Oxford holds an eighteenth century board game, and there’s a seventeenth century woodcut held in Boston that shows them as well.  That’s easier to see than the others, so here it is, with Dick carrying the cat in case the dog goes for it:

Sir Richard Whittington by Thomas Fleet via Wikimedia
Sir Richard Whittington by Thomas Fleet via Wikimedia

What was the real story? Our Dick was Lord Mayor four times, did some good works including rebuilding Newgate Prison, and didn’t have a cat. That’s it!

As an assessment of the myth and it’s magic, I can’t better Nick Green’s analysis in his guest post at the utterly amazing steelthistles blog. But the myth itself is that his childhood was poverty stricken, and he went to London because he’d heard the streets were paved with gold. He lodged in the attic of a wealthy merchant named Fitzwarren, and bought a cat for a penny (earned by shining shoes) because there were so many mice and rats.

Then Dick consigned the cat for sale on a voyage to the Barbary Coast (that is, he gave it away to be sold abroad, for profit). But he was disenchanted with London and started to return home to his poor village. And thats when he hears the voice, “turn again, Whittington”.

All ends well for Dick: he goes back to London, the cat has been sold on the Barbary coast and earned Dick a fortune, whereupon he marries the daughter of the family he works for.

Nobody talks about the cat! She’s been sold abroad (to the Barbary Coast, i.e. Africa, where cats actually come from), and that’s where she seems to have lived for the rest of her days. She’s better off there than with Dick Whittington, if you ask me.

All of this was very, very unexpected to me, and I’m almost relieved to go with the magic of the myth.

After reading the steelthistles blog, by the way, I was so impressed, I’ve just bought the fantasy novel Cat Kin, by Nick Green, so I’m really looking forward to that. Youngsters in London, cats are involved … it’s kinda sorta Dick Whittington! I’ll write a review on here later, but here’s a link for now.

 

A railway cat

Chloe is the queen, that’s the basic truth.  And her servants at Horsted Keynes obviously know this truth very well.

I haven’t been writing for a few months, I’ve had a lot of things going on – some good, some bad – but way back in March, I had a little trip to Horsted Keynes Station, on the Bluebell Railway Line, a tourist steam train that travels through some of the most beautiful countryside in England. The stations are pretty beautiful too – Horsted Keynes itself can be seen as Downton Station in the Downton Abbey series.

There’s a long history of railway cats on the Bluebell Railway: the brilliant Purr-n-Fur has a piece about five cats through the years that lived at various stations on the Bluebell line. The current cat at Horsted Keynes, Chloe, is pretty new, as her predecessor Gizmo only died in 2014, but she’s taking to it as to the manor born. It was raining hard the day I was there, so I mostly went to the carriage works facility, where the volunteers refurbish all the old rolling stock that they can lay their hands on – most of it was abandoned in the 1960s or earlier, so it’s in quite a state. Wonderful to see it being rescued now, and it’s a very popular attraction in a county of popular attractions.

Repairing the carriages
Repairing the carriages
Chloe avoiding fans
Chloe avoiding fans
Cat biscuits, in the carriage being repaired
Cat biscuits, in the carriage being repaired

I was desperate to get a good picture of Chloe, and she wasn’t at all interested that day, so the kindly volunteer I was chatting to told me that her biscuits were kept at a certain spot. I managed to restrain myself from rushing towards her just long enough to get a lovely snap of her finding the cat biscuits in their usual place … and later, of course, the only picture about cigarettes that I’ll ever publicise, advertising Black Cat Virginia tobacco cigarettes.

Black Cat Virginia cigarettes
Black Cat Virginia cigarettes

Even though the weather was so bad, I had a great day!