The Whittington Stone, interpreting migration to London.19 minute read

An Introduction to Representation

The concept of representation has become more relevant than ever (Hall, 1997). With the earth’s digital capabilities expanding as our attention spans are simultaneously contracting, symbols have come to occupy a vital space in society (McSpadden, 2015). Indeed, symbolic objects have become increasingly valuable in both the rapid dissemination of information as well as conveying meanings that our words cannot. The flag, for instance, has, for centuries, awakened passions that the simple patterns and colours shouldn’t (Marshall, 2016).

figure one the governor Austin Lane Crothers in a top hat
Figure 1: The governor Austin Lane Crothers in a top hat (UpClosed, 2015)

We must be careful, then, and recognise that it is the message wrapped up in these images that are important and not the literal object. Although Saussure, the father of semiotics, limited his work to that of linguistics, his extensive theoretical research on unpicking the relationship between what is seen and what is observed is applicable when observing visual symbols (Saussure, 1916). For instance, the simple Top Hat is, at least from a British perspective, representative of the quintessential upper-class man (Crane,2000).

Figure two the symbol of Macron's political party
Figure 2: The symbol of Macron’s political party (En Marche !, 2016)

Further, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! logo, below, is spectacularly unspectacular, but it can be deconstructed as, depending on your political persuasion, “an adventure with no future” or the exciting project of a dynamic European leader (The Economist, 2017). Both examples are effective in illustrating both the complexity of representation as well as why dealing with such a topic of discussion is necessary.

Before we investigate a specific case of meaning-making, it is worth recognising that there are three main approaches to representation: the reflective, the intentional and the constructionist (Hall, 1997). It is the latter, and the strand known as semiotics that we are interested in. This approach posits that social actors “use the conceptual systems of their couture and…other representational systems to construct meaning, to make the world meaningful and to communicate about that world meaningfully to others” (ibid.; pg. 25). Barthes elaborates on this point, proposing that objects are texts to be read (Barthes, 1957). In doing so, he makes it clear that the interpretation of signs should occur and in conjunction with the wider realms of social ideology (Hall, 1997).

As a direct result of being an opinion-based analysis, there is no generally agreed practice for conducting a semiotic analysis (Beasley and Denesi, 2002). Indeed, as Cook (2001) outlines, semiotics does not have the control, structure or rigidity of content analysis. In an attempt to overcome such an issue, this essay will take the fundamental principles of semiotics as outlined by Saussure and later streamlined by Hall. According to Geursen (1997 in Communication Knowledge Center 2012), a semiotic analysis involves three key steps: an analysis of verbal signs; an analysis of visual signs; an analysis of symbolic message. As such, this paper will begin with a deconstruction of the objects literal value, which will subsequently be followed by an exploration of its symbolic relevance. To appraise whether such symbolic meaning is prevalent and thus of value, this essay will end with a discussion over whether this object and what it represents is resonates for London’s 1950s Afro-Caribbean and post-2004 Roma immigrants.


The Signifier

The production of meaning is fundamentally dependent on language (Culler, 1986). This language, however, need not be communicable solely via written word. Objects too can function as signs (Ponzio and Petrilli, 1993). To Saussure, these things acted, in the first place, as the signifier. As will be explored later, the associated ideas that accompany that particular object is the signified. These concepts are not mutually-exclusive, however, and their unison produces what is referred to as a ‘sign’ (Hall, 1997).

The object, or signifier, this essay has chosen to analyse in the context of semiotics is the Whittington Stone statue located at Highgate Hill. It is the image of Dick Whittington’s Cat, in combination with the text below it, which fire associations in our minds and result in the formation of meaning.

Figure three the whittington stone on highgate hill
Figure 3: The Whittington Stone on Highgate Hill (Talking Statues, 2017)


It is also worth acknowledging that there is “no natural or inevitable link between the signifier and the signified’ (Culler, 1986; pg. 19). As such, specific signifiers can mean a multiplicity of things depending on who gazes upon the object. Indeed, As Hall himself points out, this approach to language “unfixes meaning” (Hall, 1997; pg. 31). By this, he means that the inevitable tie between the signifier and signified is broken and thus opens up the “slippage of meaning” (ibid.; pg. 32). In the context of the Aldgate Cat, this means that there are three overriding manners in which we can ‘decode’ the object’s meaning, each of which will be explored shortly.  I acknowledge, however, that because the meaning that viewers take has to be meaningfully interpreted or decoded by the receiver, we can never screen out all the other, hidden meanings (Hall 1980).

Having said this, the text in combination with instantly-recognisable statue as well as the fact that this is part of the new ‘Talking Statues’ venture, makes its association with the Dick Whittington’s migratory tale almost unmissable and thus its prevailing motifs rather obvious. This venture involves answering the question: ‘If statues could talk what stories would they tell?’, by allowing passers-by to receive calls from famous actors playing out the tales the statues embody (Talking Statues, 2017). The tale of this London hero is thus concretized in the physical landscape, as well as audibly impressed into our minds. Recognising this, the essay will now explore what this folklore, projected by the Cat, symbolises for those that encounter it.It is also worth acknowledging that there is “no natural or inevitable link between the signifier and the signified’ (Culler, 1986; pg. 19). As such, specific signifiers can mean a multiplicity of things depending on who gazes upon the object. Indeed, As Hall himself points out, this approach to language “unfixes meaning” (Hall, 1997; pg. 31). By this, he means that the inevitable tie between the signifier and signified is broken and thus opens up the “slippage of meaning” (ibid.; pg. 32). In the context of the Aldgate Cat, this means that there are three overriding manners in which we can ‘decode’ the object’s meaning, each of which will be explored shortly.  I acknowledge, however, that because the meaning that viewers take has to be meaningfully interpreted or decoded by the receiver, we can never screen out all the other, hidden meanings (Hall 1980).

Acknowledging My Positionality

Before I begin my analysis of the Cat’s symbolic qualities, I must acknowledge that my inferences are influenced by my own perceptions and conceptual map (Aiello, 2006). In an attempt to mitigate against this, I have chosen to include a range of secondary sources to support my interpretation of the messages emitted by this cultural symbol. In doing so, I hope that my analysis can capture the overwhelming types of responses to this particular London object.

The Signified

The tale of Dick Whittington, although twisted and remodelled throughout history, has an unchanging narrative core. The crux of the story is as follows: Dick heads to London from a rural Gloucestershire village with his trusted cat Tommy; Dick finds London life burdensome and leaves; Dick hears bells ringing telling him to return and he becomes Mayor of London (Smith and Lethbridge, 2015).

London then, in the context of this folklore, is depicted in three ways. Initially, the city is held up as this land of great opportunity. Following this, London is a harsh and difficult place to make a success of oneself. Finally, though, London is the place where dreams are realised.

The story, however, is rife in ambiguity both in its retelling and interpretation. Helen Lederer, the English actress, writes that there are “conflicting versions of the story” but this is what helps to keep the story timeless (Talking Statues London, 2017). It could thus be inferred that the type of message emitted varies by those that gaze upon it. Whilst Saussure ignored questions of power in representation, the above assertion is reiterated by the words of Gombrich (1960; pg. 87) who writes that there is no “innocent” ways of looking at something for our perception is inevitably influenced by existing knowledges. This is supported by Hall who distinguishes between the encoding and decoding of images (Hall, 1980). The encoding occurs during the production process but the decoding depends on the viewers and their positions. There are theorised to be three types of reading one can undertake: a dominant-hegemonic reading, a negotiated reading and an oppositional reading (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009).

Connotation 1: London as a City of Opportunity

The apocryphal tale of Whittington and his Cat is often held up as a metanarrative of London and the wealth of opportunities that it can provide those who venture to it. Approximately six centuries after the original Dick Whittington made his way to the City, London is still hailed as a place where anyone can make their fortune. Indeed, a 2016 report by PwC revealed London to be ‘the best city for opportunity’ (Sile, 2016).

The location of Whittington Stone also plays an active role in the message it emits to those that gaze upon it. As relayed in the folklore, during Dick’s departure from the city he had higher hopes for, the bells of London toll and tell him to turn back and try his luck again. It is upon Highgate Hill, the exact location of the monument, where this epiphany is theorised to have occurred (BBC Gloucestershire, 2005) (see below).

figure four the location of whittington stone
Figure 4: The Location of Whittington Stone (Google Maps, 2017)

As a Geographer, I must first express my concern that Dick chose to head towards Gloucestershire via North London. However, the pertinent point is that from this location, the entire cityscape of London is rendered visible (see below). Such a decision directly echoes the idea that London is a city of opportunity – a city where you can literally see the opportunity laid out in front of you.

figure five the view from highgate hill
Figure 5: The View from Highgate Hill (Anstiss, 2012)

Furthermore, the Cat’s street position is also noteworthy. The statue, encased in a metal superstructure, sits almost casually on the pavement. It is, however, conspicuous in its inconspicuousness. The monument, like a cat, sits in the relative shadow of the city but is an unmoving present of the landscape. This, in turn, echoes, the dreams and aspirations of working immigrants. These dreams swim around this urban space, seemingly requiring one to only pounce to grab them.

At the same time, though, they are notoriously elusive. Statistics on the UK’s unemployment rate show that between the years of 1993 and 2015, those of foreign-birth were more likely to experience hardship in finding work (Migration Observatory, 2017). Such a pattern is further exacerbated in the city of London where employment rates consistently average rates below those of the national average (Rozario, 2017).







Connotation 2: London as a Challenging City

Just as Dick found then, London can be a demanding place. Such an assertion can be supported by more than just statistics though. Indeed, Hall attests that the implications and effects of symbolic objects “have very real effects in the material and social world” (Hall, 1997; pg. 28). Bearing this statement in mind, I travelled to Highgate Hill on the 26th November 2017 to record how individuals interacted with this object. My findings can be divided into two relatively clear-cut categories: the apathetic and the luck-seekers.

Whilst this experience may, to some extent, undermine Hall’s assertion, it is clear that the statue has an effect in the material world of a select number of individuals. Indeed, I noted that between 2pm and 3pm, 10 different individuals rubbed the Cat’s head. This was quite clearly a luck-seeking act. Because of it, then, we can infer some degree of identify with the story the statue embodies. Even if they didn’t, and presumably if they were foreign they may not, the rubbing suggests that they need some good fortune. These interactions then, support the notion that the statue represents a certain hardship faced by London’s migrants.

We need to be careful, however, in drawing quick conclusions. As Hall himself concedes, a semiotic analysis is a practice which cannot be “studied with the law-like precision of a science” and so perhaps it is unnecessary to try and infer a relationship based on simply observing the actions of a few individuals during a snapshot in time (Hall, 1997; pg. 35).

Connotation 3: London as, ultimately, a Place of Success

Last year, Battersea Arts Council relaunched their highly successful 2013 London Stories project, shining a light on the successes of migrants (Battersea Arts Council, 2016). Attending such an exhibition made it clear that success can be measured in multiple dimensions and not just in the financial and reputational treasures that Whittington uncovered. Ben Judah’s almost ethnographic exploration of London’s contemporary migration stories in his book, ‘This is London’, also celebrates the success of a number of immigrants, namely a Polish builder who now has almost a monopoly over the Kensington decorating market (Judah, 2016). Such tales of relative triumph, however, occupy a mere fraction of the book. The rest, primarily, deals with the documentation of countless migrants whom have been devastated by the misalignment of expectation and reality.

This supporting evidence, however, is not comprehensive enough ground to conclude whether the symbolic qualities of the Aldgate Cat do resonate with the immigrant populations of London. As a consequence, this essay will now examine two migrant case studies to dissect which interpretations of the Cat resonate and from which position such interpretations are observed from.

Relevance in Reality

The Roma Migration Post-2004

Whilst Britain’s immigration make-up “has conventionally been characterized by large, well-organized…communities of citizens originally from Commonwealth countries or formerly colonial territories” such as the… which will be explored below, the UK today, and London in particular, has such a range of ethnic groups that it can be characterized by ‘super-diversity’ (Vertovec, 2017).

A large piece of London’s cosmopolitan patchwork is the Roma population. Although the Roma people have a long and arduous relationship with London, rates of their immigration have soared since the 2004 EU accession of a number of Eastern European nations (GRTHM London, 2017; Fremlova and Anstead, 2010).

Whilst in the era of Whittington only the wealthy could choose to relocate, it has become much more accessible to undertake large scale relocations (Humphries and Leunig, 2009). Today, it is administrative barriers that prevent the frictionless movement that our collective rise in wealth and free movement area suppose we are empowered to have (Belot and Ederveen, 2011).

Echoing the motivation of Dick, the Roma population’s movement is fundamentally based on the desire to make a similar fortune. In fact, a 2009 study found that 58% of Roma respondents said their primary reason for moving was work (Fremlova and Anstead, 2010).

The overriding pattern of experience once they arrive, however, is defined by a certain fixity. They are unable to transition into jobs that they hold up to the esteem Whittington may have held Mayor up to. The reasons for this, aside from an absence of appropriate qualifications and stark rise in employment polarization, is that they cannot afford to be out of work (Dickens et al., 2003). This is due to the fact that to make their migration and pursuit of their dreams possible, they overwhelmingly had to take high-interest loans (Judah, 2016).

Therefore, the Whittington Stone fails to capture the cost of starting a life in London. Unlike the Dick, the vast majority of the immigrant Roma population had to leave all they knew behind – turning back is an almost impossible option for them. As such, the Cat, from a Roma perspective, is read in a negotiated way in that the motivation for the migration is extremely similar but the outcome and costs of such movement are wildly different.

The 1950s Afro-Caribbean Migration

Between 1955 and 1962, it is estimated that around 250,00 Afro-Caribbean people arrived to settle permanently in the UK (itzcaribbean, 2016). The motivation for this migration has largely been seen as a movement of labour (Chamberlain, 1999). However, various scholars have since written against such theorisation, citing social networks and increasingly close cultural ties as the true cause (ibid.).

In this way, the Caribbean migrant population may have, to a degree, an oppositional reading with regards to Whittington Stone for while it was individuals that migrated, the “wider family were implicated in the endeavour either at the point of departure or destination” (ibid.; pg. 251).

figure six london's first public statue of an african caribbean woman
Figure 6: London’s first public statue of an African-Caribbean woman, Stockwell (BBC, 2008)

Success has also been achieved in a rather different way. The image (right) shows another signifier, but what is signified is the deep and impressive integration of Afro-Caribbean’s into the fabric of London’s communities rather than their individual economic prowess. In this way then, the Caribbean community has a negotiated reading of Whittington Stone for the city and this ethnic group seemed to have formed a mutualistic relationship but one that is less based on fortunes and more on family.

Concluding Remarks

In closing, the Aldgate Cat is an object that’s meaning is derived almost exclusively from its association with the Dick Whittington folklore. As a direct result, the primary connotations that are drawn from our gaze are summarisable to the following: London as a city of opportunity, challenge and, ultimately, success.

Both case study groups, however, seem to take a negotiated stance when they read through these lenses. For the Roma people, their motivations for migration are much aligned with those the Whittington Cat have come to symbolise but their successes in realising such hopes have been wildly different. On the other hand, London’s Afro-Caribbean population of the 1950s have enjoyed similarly great success to Dick although their triumph has come in the arena of community rather than coin.

Despite these differences, however, it is overwhelmingly clear that the Whittington Stone does resonate with onlookers. The object is more than the point at which the bells tolled for its symbolic messages ring, albeit in various ways, for other migrants of the city.


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