London mayor Dick Whittington is a tough act to follow, discovers Boris Johnson

You think you know the story of Dick Whittington? Think again. That pantomime you see at Christmas at the Horsham Salvation Army Hall, starring TV’s Jason Donovan, with Ann Widdecombe as his furry feline friend, is in one sense an egregious piece of tabloid misreporting. But it is also a powerful lesson in how a top financier can sanitise his reputation and win the undying affection of the public.

The real Dick Whittington was not born poor. There is no evidence that he tied his possessions in a handkerchief suspended from a stick. He did not “turn again” at Highgate Hill, at the sound of Bow Bells. He was not a Mayor of London thrice, but four times. He did not have a cat.

He was born between 1354 and 1358 in Gloucestershire, and his parents were not peasants, but the lord and lady of the manor of Pauntley, with their own coat of arms. Richard Whittington’s only problem was that he was the youngest of three brothers. With no chance of inheriting, his options were (a) hang around Gloucestershire, hoping to meet a nice, rich girl; (b) study for the law at the Inns of Court; (c) enter the Church; (d) enrol for military service with a baron; or (e) become an apprentice.

He went for option (e). We don’t know exactly why he decided to become an apprentice mercer, but we do know that he made the four- or five-day hike to London, entering at Newgate in about 1371.

To be an apprentice was a serious business. You were required to attend Mass and absorb the sermon, and you had to turn out for archery practice at Smithfield. You might be of good family, but your existence was Spartan; a junior apprentice might sleep in the loft, and a senior apprentice would have to make do with a bale of hay in the house. You wore a flat, round cap and a very short haircut, with a coarse long coat, and you walked in front of your master or mistress at night with a lantern or with a long club about your neck.