The story was first recorded in 1605. It rapidly became a favourite and was included in many fairy tale collections. Richard Whittington was a real person and the son of a knight.
He was born somewhere around 1350 at Pauntley Court in Gloucestershire and served three terms as Lord Mayor of London, 1397-99, 1406-07 and 1419-20. He did marry Alice Fitzwarren and did many good works in London including founding the Whittington School and rebuilding Newgate Jail, which had a figure of a cat carved over one of the gates. On Highgate Hill (the spot, where legend has it, he stood and decided to return to London) stands a statue of his cat, in front of Whittington Hospital.
As we see in the pantomime, Tommy the Cat defeats King Rat and his Rat Pack. It was very likely the shadow and spectre of the rats bring plague to London, which frequently made them the ideal villains for legend. Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary of 1668;
“To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet show of Whittington which was pretty to see.”
The Great Plague had only recently abated in London and Londoners would have no problem associating the rodents with arch villainy.
Why the ship and the visit to Morocco you may ask? The real Dick Whittington, rather than being penniless, was not only Mayor of London but also a wealthy merchant who traded in fabrics and spices with North Africa in vessels which were also known as “cats”. It is only a short leap of imagination to entwine the London Plague of rats and the Whittington trade into the story we have recounted to you today!