A close shave in Fleet Street

Sweeny Todd

For many years I’ve thought of Sweeny Todd as an urban myth, alongside Robin Hood and King Arthur, but a book by the late Peter Haining Sweeny Todd: The Real Story of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has gone some way to dispel that belief, although it must be said that many academics dispute his findings. He asserts that the 25th January 2012 marks the 210th anniversary of Todd’s hanging for crimes which if true would make him Britain’s most prolific serial killer.

His abused early life would match the profile for the makings of a psychopath. Todd was born on 26th October 1756 in Brick Lane to a mother who for a living wound silk in Spitalfields and a drunken father employed as a silk weaver and who would regularly beat his son and wife. Spoilt by the mother who as he later related “would make quite a pet of me”, kissing him and calling him a pretty boy. As he grew up hating his life at home Todd would visit the nearby Tower of London where instruments of torture were displayed to discourage miscreants.

[I]N THE HARSH WINTER of 1768 both his parents seem to have succumbed to gin, the cold or both and disappeared from the records and from Todd’s life. Two years later at the age of 14 Todd entered Newgate Prison for an unrecorded crime and was to spend five years within its walls working with a man called Plummer the prison’s barber. As his assistant Todd would soap the condemned men’s chins for shaving before they walked to the gallows. A tough life in Newgate for on one occasion he was left for dead after a beating for pilfering from a murderer.

On his release in 1775 semi-literate Todd had acquired new skills which he intended to put to good use. He set himself up as a street corner barber and within five years had opened a barbers shop near Hyde Park corner.

Violence surrounded him, his shop was within walking distance of the gibbet at Tyburn which was to be the principal place of execution in London for the next three years until Tyburn’s gallows were decommissioned in 1783 when Newgate was used as London’s principal place of execution as Todd would later discover. He hated his parents and abused his wife he had in short all the makings of a modern-day serial killer.

In December 1784 an annual news chronicle reported a story: “A young gentleman, by chance coming into the barber’s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned having seen a fine girl in Hamilton Street, from whom he had had certain favours the night before. The barber, concluding this to be his wife, and in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’s throat from ear to ear and absconded.” Todd would recount later after his arrest “My first ‘un was a young gent at Hyde Park Corner. Slit him from ear to ear, I did.”

He next appeared at 186 Fleet Street (now home to the Dundee Courier) in a dilapidated shop adjacent to St. Dunstan’s Church, just yards from Bell Yard, the two locations were connected by a series of tunnels beneath the church. Paying £125 for the lease he set himself up as a barber surgeon, with a red and white striped pole representing the bandages and blood of his profession, and above the shop a yellow painted sign reading “Sweeny Todd, Barber”. In the windows were jars displaying rotten teeth showcasing his prowess at extraction.

London’s first newspaper the Daily Courant then located in Crane Court just a few yards up Fleet Street from Todd’s barber shop reported the murder on 14th April 1785 of a young gentleman who had been seen in conversation with a man dressed as a barber stating “The two men came to an argument, and of a sudden the barber took from his clothing a razor and slit the throat of the young man, thereafter disappearing and was seen no more.”

Four other murders near his shop have been attributed to Todd, an apprentice who was carrying money for his master, a pawnbroker, a share dealer and a petty crook. Not wishing to be caught in the street committing his foul deeds he had now devised a way of dispatching his victims within the confines of his shop. Probably inspired by a waxworks exhibition in Fleet Street which featured revolving machinery which made the waxworks kick out to frighten visitors, his chair was positioned either side of a moveable square of floorboards. The only evidence of its use is of victim Thomas Shadwell, a watchman at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in the form of an incomplete document written by the victim’s son.

He now needed a means of disposing of his victims and a young widow called Mrs Lovett who had a penchant for strong, violent men and owned baker’s shop nearby fitted the bill. As with serial killers he repeated his method; after murdering he would take clothing and valuables and then would strip the body and carry the body parts in a box through the tunnels beneath St. Dunstan’s Church where Mrs Lovett would use the remains as filling for her meat pies.

In a city, which by the standards of today we would find nauseating, the stench of rotting bodies in the area prompted the Daily Courant to report: “The dreadful charnel house sort of smell would make itself most painfully and disagreeably apparent.”

Enter Richard Blunt of the newly formed Bow Street Runners being suspicious of Todd told his men to watch the shop and on several occasions he visited the barber’s himself and was shaved, but always had a companion.

It was when they entered the tunnels they found the evidence they needed of his crimes. His Blunt’s party entered a disused family vault to find the recent remains of human bodies and following a trail of footprints found themselves at the back of Lovett’s underground cookhouse. Later returning to Todd’s barber shop when he was out evidence of found including the valuables stolen from his victims before being turned into pies.

Lovett killed herself with poison before coming to trial, but in the Christmas of 1801 London witnessed “one of the trials of the age”. Todd was charged at the Old Bailey with a single murder that of Francis Thornhill, who had on his person before disappearing a string of pearls worth £16,000 intended for a young woman in London. He entered Todd’s shop to be shaved never to be seen again, Todd later pawned them for £1,000.

The Attorney General told the court that clothing from 160 people had been found in the shop, and a leg bone found in the church vaults belong to Thornhill. A surgeon, Sylvester Steers, who had treated Thornhill for a leg fracture, recognised the bone as his patient’s.

The jury took just 5 minutes to reach their guilty verdict. Sweeny Todd was not hanged at Tyburn but was taken from his cell in Newgate on the morning of 25th January 1802 and hanged in front of a crowd of thousands. He was 46 years old. After hanging for an hour his body was carried to the Royal College of Surgeons and ironically was butchered for the benefit of medical science.

The case of Britain’s most prolific killer inspired The Strong of Pearls, a serial published in a weekly magazine in 1846, it was dramatised by George Dibdin Pitt in 1842, in what is regarded as the first true life drama, and it has been the basis for numerous books, plays and films, and inspired Stephen Sondheim for write a musical. The term Sweeny has in turn become cockney rhyming slang for the Metropolitan police’s Flying Squad which then became a long running television drama The Sweeny 1975-82.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 25th January 2012

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