Up on Highgate Hill can be found an old stone, Dick Whittington’s stone, surrounded by an old fence, with a cat sitting on top.
There are arguably two Dick Whittingtons, the real man, rich, successful and generous, and the pantomime character, fun, joyful and keen on cats.
The stone is for the Panto character.
The stone you see today was put here in 1821 — so a shade under 200 years ago, and is said to mark the spot where the pantomime Dick leaving London forlorn turned around and returned to the city.
The story goes that as he was climbing Highgate Hill having left London after failing to make his riches, he heard the bells of St Mary Le Bow in Cheapside and believes they are sending him a message to return to London.
A traditional rhyme associated with this tale is:
Turn again, Whittington,
Once Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Twice Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London!
He returned, with cat, and became the subject of many a town hall panto season since the 19th century.
Now here’s a curiosity — most reports will say the stone was put there in 1821, and that’s pretty much it, but…
The stone of 1821 was not the original, and it was a replacement for a much older stone.
An engraving, A Prospect of Highgate from Upper Holloway made in 1745 is occasionally cited as containing an early image of the stone – as a pyramid with a small cross on top.
A report in Beauties of England, published in 1776 reports that the stone is a small pyramid mounted on top of a larger pediment, which also matches a drawing of a stone in the Annals of Hampstead.
There’s also a suggestion that the original stone was related to the Lepper hospital which used to be on the other side of the road, as a sort of marker that the hospital was here.
If true, then Dick Whittington’s stone was originally a lepper stone.
Citing other sources, the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1824 says that there was a stone, with a large pavement around it which was in situ at least until 1795, when a Mr S, parish officer of Islington “had it removed and sawn in two, and placed the halves on each side Queen’s Head Lane, in the Lower Street, Islington”
With the usual caveat of not seeing what you want to see, there are indeed two large stones on either side of Queen’s Head Lane in a number of drawings of the pub, such as this one from 1829.
They may be the stones, or just some stones. It’s not possible to be certain.
It’s later suggested that when the pub was rebuilt in its current style, the stone was removed by the builder, Mr Foster, who carved it into a “sort of pinnacle” and was installed in the King’s Arms pub on Liverpool Road, Islington.
Sadly, the pub closed down a long time ago, and the interior gutted, and as the pinnacle lacked any marks to indicate its heritage, it was probably chucked out.
The reports of the older stone being chopped up were confirmed in the same Magazine by another correspondent confirmed that the “officious interference of Mr S, removed the stone and pavement surrounding it, a new one was immediately placer of smaller dimensions”
That smaller stone was later removed by the Churchwardens of St Mary Islington and in 1821, the current stone was installed.
The stone vanished again in May 1854, and according to some reports, the stone was removed to a local stonemason for restoration works. Whether it returned immediately, or much later is unknown, but the stone had a since lost inscription that indicates a restoration took place in 1869, which is also when the railings and a lamp were installed.
As restoration could mean either a repair, or a reinstatement, there’s a not unreasonable possibility then that the stone today is not the 1821 “original”, but a later stone installed in the 1850s-60s as a replacement for the one taken by the stonemason.
Thrice Lord Mayor
1397. Richard II.
1406. Henry IV.
1420. Henry V.
Sheriff in 1393.
If the story isn’t muddled enough, in a curious twist, the railings and the lamp over the stone were owned by the Whittington Stone pub that stood next to the stone at the time, and were not part of the “property” of the stone itself.
The stone and railings were repaired again in February 1935, and again in 1950.
You might have noticed through all this – no cat on the stone.
The cat arrived later, in May 1964, when Dennis Biddett unveiled the cat upon the stone. The cat was carved by Jonathan Kenworthy, in polished black Kellymount limestone, looking back at London.
The real Dick Whittington probably didn’t have a feline, but may have had a catte, a type of boat, or that his purchases were called exchats. To my mind though, if legend says the man had a cat, then he had a cat, and who cares about tedious facts getting in the way.
The debate about the origins of the cat can at times get a bit catty.
The real Dick Whittington though was a very rich and successful merchant and money lender to Kings, three times Lord Mayor of London, and once Mayor of Calais. He died childless and left his fortune to charity, and Dick Whittington’s charity still exists. Today it’s worth around £113 million, and was able to give £4 million to worthy causes in 2018/19.
The man, the real one, died in 1423, so 2023 marks the 600th anniversary of his death.
Although there is a stone statue of him as Lord Mayor in an overlooked niche on the Royal Exchange, and of him as a panto character in the Guildhall – it would be nice to see the man given a prominent statue in the City he bequeathed so much to when alive to be unveiled on the anniversary of his death.