I am sure you’ll be familiar with the claim that Dick Whittington was lured to London by rumours that the streets were paved with gold, but like most fables there just might be the slightest hint of truth in the story.
OK – I am speculating a lot here, but there are two separate stories that both mention gold and London’s streets, and are contemporaneous with each other.
Sir Martin Frobisher was an English seaman who made three voyages to the New World to look for the Northwest Passage. In his initial task he was a total failure, and reading about him suggests he wasn’t much good as a ship captain either. However, he somehow gained the favour of Queen Elizabeth I who financed three exploratory trips to the New World between 1576 and 1578.
On the first of these, he returned with a lump of ore, which was thought by one metallurgist to be gold bearing ore – although others disagreed with that verdict. On the second and third trips, he returned with hundreds of tons of ore to be smelted back in the UK.
Curiously, it was not until he returned on the third trip that any actual smelting was carried out. It then turned out that the ore was worthless Iron Pyrite – or fools gold.
Now, lets jump to Dick Whittington, the story of which is loosely based on Richard Whittington who served as Lord Mayor of London at times between 1397 and 1420.
Not much to link a Lord Mayor in 1420 and an Elizabethan Privateer of 1576?
Here’s the speculation…
In around the 1580s, the fools gold brought back from the New World was salvaged for use in road metalling – which is basically road aggregate used to provide a solid road surface. At the time, it should be noted that there were few roads in London of any significant quality, so the use of the “fools gold” in the roads would have been fairly notable in London society, especially considering how many people had lost money on his adventures.
It was only 20 years later that the first telling of the fable of Dick Whittington and his Cat was written down – in 1605.
Is it too much to speculate that the fable that a poor boy travelling to London because he had heard that the streets of London were paved with gold is actually based on the fairly recent decision to use fools gold in laying new streets?
We will probably never know, but it’s interesting to speculate.
The unfortunate Martin Frobisher redeemed himself though, he took a fleet to Spain and won a great prize from Spanish ships and was knighted by the Queen. He is buried in a church within the Barbican estate, which has a block of flats named after him.
Dick Whittington became a topic of Christmas pantomimes.
I wonder which came off better?