Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, had his shop at number 186 Fleet Street, which is now the Dundee Courier building with a Kwik copier shop below, as pictured here. 186 Fleet Street Dundee Courier building

On this site he is believed to have robbed and murdered over 150 customers, thereby making him the number one killer in London's history.

Sweeney was born on 16 October 1756, at 85 Brick Lane in London's East End. In those times Brick Lane was almost a rural country lane that led out to the brickfields of Bethnal Green. Todd's mother Elizabeth was a silk winder and his father Samuel Todd a silk weaver, working for the French Huguenots in nearby Norton Folgate, Spitalfields. In February 1770, aged only 14 years, Sweeney Todd was sentenced to a five-year term in Newgate Prison, wrongly accused of stealing a pocket watch. While in prison he met up with an old barber named Elmer Plummer, who was serving ten years for fraud. Plummer took a liking to young Sweeney and taught him how to cut hair and shave, and how to pick the pockets of customers. Sweeney was a keen learner and soon became Plummer's apprentice boy, lathering-up and shaving some of the prisoners who could afford their services.

After his release in 1775, with a few pounds he had stolen while at work in Newgate, and with the little knowledge of haircuts he had gained, Sweeney Todd opened his barber shop at 186 Fleet Street, next door to St Dunstan's Church, just a few blocks away from the Royal Courts of Justice. The shop stood at the side of the narrow alleyway named Hen and Chicken Court, at the corner of Fetter Lane.

Hen and Chicken Court next door to Sweeney Todd’s shop Hen and Chicken Court
Hen and Chicken Court, the alleyway beside Sweeney's barber shop.

Daily Courant plaque
The first murder account in the Daily Courant, London’s first newspaper, which had by this time merged with the Daily Gazetteer, described a murder that could well have been the work of Todd. It recounts that on 14 April 1785 a murder was committed near to Fleet Street of a gentleman from the country who was on a visit to London. The gentleman was seen arguing with a barber when the barber took from his white coat a razor and slit the throat of the man. The barber then ran towards Whitefriars Street, disappearing into the fog.

The story of the barber's shop tells of when customers were seated in a revolving chair, that stood in the centre of the small shop and over a trapdoor that led to a disused cellar. The chair, if swung over, would reveal an identical empty chair that would take its place. When committing his murderous act, Sweeney would exit through the rear door and down a flight of creaky stairs to where the customer would by now be lying unconscious after their fall. Sweeney would then take out his razor and slit their throats (through Sweeney Todd's act this type of razor became known as a cut-throat razor).

With his lover, the pie-maker Margery Lovett, he discovered a disused underground tunnel leading from the cellar of Sweeney’s shop, that ran beneath St Dunstan's Church and the burial crypt, finishing up under Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, making an ideal way of transporting the human meat used for pie fillings, from one shop to the other – making an ideal partnership.

The story of Sweeney Todd ended at the end of a rope on 25 January 1802. He was hanged outside Newgate Prison, before a crowd of thousands who had been waiting through the night to see Sweeney’s demise, so it is said. After his execution, his body given over for medical research by a group of hospital surgeons. Sweeney Todd ended up, like so many of his victims, with his entrails on a plate. And as for Mrs Margery Lovett, she was to cheat death by the hangman. She was found by prison warders poisoned in her cell in Newgate prison.

If you had been looking for a haircut and had been walking along Fleet Street in the year 1785, heading westwards towards the Temple Bar (a large gateway in the middle of the road), and the fresh air of Covent Garden, you would have crossed over Fetter Lane on your right and then immediately afterwards you would have noticed Hen and Chicken Court, a dark narrow passageway. Perhaps you may have paused, and if a young woman asked you to go down the alleyway with her for some sport, you would have felt the danger of walking down such a dark alleyway alone. You would not have been aware that the horror lurking inside the old barber shop at the side of the alley would be a great deal more dangerous than the girl beckoning in the alley. If you decided not to have a haircut or shave you would have passed by Todd's barber shop and had a lucky escape.

old shop This old wooden fronted barber shop would not have taken any of your attention whatsoever, as there was no window display, and the windows were misty with steam and dirt, and hard to see through. You may have noticed the red and white striped pole projecting out from the shop front, denoting the ancient role of the barber as a surgeon. If curiosity had got the better of you and you put your nose against the window, you may have seen some dusty wigs on wooden blocks in the shape of heads. You may have become alarmed by the number of jars containing rotten teeth. These displays were to advertise the skill of pulling out teeth, as barbers of the day acted as dentists too. Had you looked at the sign above the shop you would have seen the worn-out hand-painted yellow sign proclaiming 'Sweeney Todd, Barber'. If you had opened the barber shop’s door, a rusty old bell would ting to alert the barber, who may have been away from his chair. Once inside the shop, you would have noticed the bare wood floor creaking. Heavy brown wooden beams ran across the low ceiling, meeting up with the dark wooden walls that made it appear dark even on a sunny day. Oil lamps at either side of the shop would only be lit when a customer arrived. There was an old wooden bench near the chair where there were arranged razors, combs, brushes and shaving bowls. By the side of the chair was a leather strop (or strap) that was used to polish a razor or knife.

On the left side of the shop was a small open fire, with bits of coal and some smouldering burnt hair, that Sweeney would throw on from time to time. The chair, it is said, was made of oak with ornate legs, with a small step to rest your feet on when in the chair.

The barber himself was even more off-putting than his shop – a sullen figure with heavy eyebrows, a long hard mouth, and an awkward stance. Every day a few people would gather outside the barber's shop, to witness Gog and Magog, being the names given to the two statues above the clock on the church who every hour would hit the large bell of St Dunstan's Church with their clubs. The figures were installed in 1671 and are carved in wood, each holding a club; they would swing from side to side, with two hits each quarter. The crowd themselves would not have known of the tunnels that were beneath the church. They were part of the priory of Whitefriars Monastery, that stood opposite in what is today's Bouverie Street. Our barber-surgeon was most certainly aware of the tunnels; they may have been one of the reasons why he took the shop in the first place.

So from his small shop on Fleet Street with living accommodation for himself upstairs, Sweeney set about making his fame and fortune.

Going west along Fleet Street towards the Strand and opposite Temple Bar is Bell Yard, a narrow alleyway where Mrs Lovett, a widow and long-time girlfriend of Sweeney Todd, had her meat pie shop.
Lovett's pie shop site
Bell Yard. Mrs Lovett's pie shop site is the first shop on the left.

Bell Yard Thomas Peckett Prest was the first author to write the tale of Sweeney Todd and Margery Lovett shortly after their arrest and trial. He had worked on Fleet Street and was familiar with Lovett’s two-storey pie shop. In the basement of the shop was the bakery, and a false wall could be opened to reveal the catacombs behind. It was through this false wall that Todd would apparently deliver his ghastly pie fillings. Prest described the shop this way: “On the left side of Bell Yard, going down from Carey Street, was, at the time we write of, one of the most celebrated shops for the sale of veal and pork pies that London had ever produced. High and low, rich and poor, resorted to it; its fame had spread far and wide; and at twelve o’clock every day when the first batch of pies was sold there was a tremendous rush to obtain them. “Oh, those delicious pies,” wrote Prest (who had probably sampled one or two in his time). “There was about them a flavour never surpassed and rarely equalled; the paste was of the most delicate construction, and impregnated with the aroma of delicious gravy that defied description.” No one believes that Mrs Lovett was solely responsible for baking her renowned meat pies. A 1924 account states that she had a hired girl and a male pie maker who helped with the preparation. It was unlikely that either of them suspected where Mrs Lovett’s meat supply came from, and C.W. Biller, in that 1924 biography, asserts that anyone who began to suspect “they, too, became pie filling.”

ancient drinking fountain fleet street

The ancient drinking fountain built into the wall of St Dunstan's. You can see the site of Sweeney Todd's barber shop where the end of the railings meets the red building on the far right of our picture.

St Dunstan's-in-the-West. "Strike me ugly, if I should not find as much pleasure in choosing my mistress by the information of a lamp under the clock of St Dunstan's - The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith (1766).

The church was built in 1185, and the church clock, the first in the London to be marked in minutes, was erected in 1671 as a thanksgiving that the church was spared by the Great Fire of London in 1666. It features Gog and Magog, who come out to strike the hour with their clubs.

St Dunstans-in-the-west
St Dunstan's Clock, Fleet Street, next door to Sweeney Todd's barber shop.

Sweeney Todd Shop looking west
Sweeney Todd's barber shop, now the site of the Dundee Courier building, showing the close proximity to St Dunstan's-in-the-West

At number 55a Fleet Street, Louis Rothman took a lease on the shop in the 1890's, and sat there late of a night hand-rolling cigarettes to sell the next day to journalists. Business was so good that within ten years Rothmans moved to Pall Mall. Next door at 55 is the furthest west the great fire reached.

Hoares Bank No.37 Fleet Street.

The only remaining independent bank in London. Founded in 1672 by the goldsmith Richard Hoare and since 1676 has been located at what was then the sign of the golden bottle, and is now 37 Fleet Street. It was here on the 11th of July 1676 that the first cheque was written: 'Mr. Hoare ... pray pay to the bearer hereof Mr Witt Morgan fifty-four pounds ten shillings and ten pence and take for his receipt the same. Your loving friend, Will Hale, for Mr Richard Hoare, at the golden bottle in Cheapside.'
History of Hoares bank

Prince Henry's Room
Prince Henry's Room 17 Fleet Street, London EC4 - opposite Sweeney's Barbers shop.

Already a hundred and seventy-five years old when Sweeney Todd opened up his barber shop almost opposite this survivor of the Great fire of London. Built in 1610 and first used as a tavern, known as the Prince's Arms, and still displaying the three feathers motif on the façade of this original 17th century half-timbered front, the wood on its bay windows being preserved by century's of thick layers of paint which covered the whole front. The façade is still in its original form.

When Sweeney Todd first moved in opposite, it had already been occupied for ten years, by the well-known exhibitions of the legendary Mrs Salmon's Waxworks, who first opened her doors in 1795, and was the predecessor to ‘Madam Tussauds’ wax works. How many times Sweeney was a visitor here is unknown, but what is known is that below the stairs of his barber's shop, was a more life like chamber of horrors than the waxworks opposite could ever reveal. The Waxworks remained for another fourteen years after Sweeney was hanged, and displaying a wax effigy of Mr Todd and his famous original chair, until closing its doors for the last time in 1816.

Ancient Map of Fleet Street

London Time

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