It’s pantomime season! One of my favourite panto’s is Dick Whittington which has an underlying pest control story about a rat infestation. Reputed to be of the few pantomime’s based on a true story, Dick Whittington has been captivating audiences since the 17th century. Samuel Pepys wrote in his Diary of 1668 “To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet show of Whittington, which was pretty to see.”
Dick Whittington is a classic rags to riches tale which follows the journey of a penniless boy who leaves his home for London in search of streets paved with gold. Whittington takes along a cat who comes in handy for getting rid of rats in the low-budget inns he stays in along the way.
All panto’s have a villain and in Dick Whittington this is the King Rat. Dick Whittington gets shipwrecked in an exotic kingdom which is overrun with rats under the leadership of the King Rat. Luckily Whittington’s loyal cat comes to the rescue and destroys all the rats in the Kingdom. This makes the Sultan very happy and he rewards Dick Whittington with a fortune in gold and his daughter’s hand in marriage (which he politely refuses because he has a girlfriend back home).
The story is likely to have been influenced by the plague of London. In 1348 black rats jumped off a ship, plague infested fleas jumped off the rats and starting biting Londoners. In such a densely packed city the plague spread rapidly. The real Dick Whittington became Lord Mayor of London under the reign of King Richard II in 1397, in the shadows of the plague. Dick Whittington was Mayor again in 1406 and 1419. He became a member of parliament in 1416.
Like all densely populated cities, London still has rat problems but today we are much better equipped to get rid of rats.