Bow bells, elbows, and Dick Whittington

On 13 October 1397 Sir Richard Whittington was first elected Mayor of London. (That is, Lord Mayor of the City of London: a post that still exists as opposed to the Mayor of London, which is a post encompassing Greater London.)

There is much in the way of legend surrounding Dick Whittington; the main points of the folklore are that he was a poor boy from the north; that he went to London with his faithful cat to seek his fortune; that he attempted to flee the city in order to escape a menial job where he was beaten; and that he was persuaded to return by the sound of the Bow Bells promising him that he would be Mayor of London.

That’s all very well, and I hate to be a spoilsport, but it appears that the real-life Whittington was born in Gloucestershire in the Forest of Dean into a wealthy family and sent to London to learn the trade of mercer (cloth merchant). And there is no evidence that he owned a cat.

Even more disappointing, there is no real consensus on where he is supposed to reached before he was lured back by the sound of the bells. The most popular version is Highgate, and there is a Whittington Stone at the foot of Highgate Hill to commemorate the event. Other versions say Bunhill or Holloway.

The bells are the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in Bow Lane; tradition dictates that someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of those bells. That then begs the question as to how Dick Whittington managed to hear the bells all the way from Highgate. (Incidentally, unlike Bow Street, the name of Bow Lane has nothing to do with its shape: the church was originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches upon which it was built.)

All of which brings us, in a suitably roundabout way, to Elbow Lane in the City of London, now called, less interestingly, College Street. In the 16th century it a street that ran west and then suddenly turned south, according to London historian John Stow, and was “therefore of that bending called Elbow Lane”.

The lane later became Great and Little Elbow Lanes and then, in 1839, was renamed College Street to commemorate the college established by Whittington. That was the College of St Spirit and St Mary; Sir Richard felt that the founding of the college would ensure that his soul would be well received by the right parties after his death. (The college was yet another institution dissolved by Henry VIII.)

8 thoughts on “Bow bells, elbows, and Dick Whittington

  1. beetleypete October 16, 2014 / 12:33 pm

    As someone from ‘South of The River’, so definitely not a Cockney, I agree that he was unlikely to hear the bells from so far away. Shame about the cat too…Best wishes, Pete.

  2. Becca Meyer April 17, 2019 / 3:32 pm

    The photo near top of page captioned “The church of St Mary-le-Bow” is not Bow.

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