Rumours abound about the real Sweeney Todd and whether he existed or not. What I love about London is its legends, characters and stories which get passed down and recycled through the ages.
People can believe what they like about the true identity of Jack the Ripper or what really happened to Lord Lucan, but I believe that it doesn’t really matter once the story gets turned into legend.
Although there is no mention of Sweeney Todd in the Old Bailey online records, I don’t believe that this necessarily means he didn’t exist.
As this is Joolz Guides, I will tell you what this particular Londoner thinks of it.
The story I heard was that Sweeney Todd was born in Brick Lane and did a stretch at Newgate Prison for theft and whilst he was in there he got a job as a soap boy working at the prison barber.
Once he was let out he opened a string of barber shops, the most famous being at 185 Fleet Street.
In those days the barber would carry out more than just a haircut. He might perform simple medical procedures like boil removal and tooth extractions. In fact, the window of a barber shop would look more like an apothecary with some rather gruesome looking specimen jars and equipment.
Imagine walking into once these places and having your throat slit. The fellow I met said that the chair tilted back and actually broke their necks, rather than slitting their throats, but there is some rumour that a tunnel was discovered leading from 185 Fleet Street to Bell Yard where Margey Lovett, Sweeney Todd’s lover, had a pie shop.
It was from this tunnel that awful smells started to emanate causing the congregation at St Dunstan’s church above to raise the alarm.
It seemed that Sweeney Todd, a sullen looking man with deep-set eyes, had been robbing his clients and disposing of their clothes in the tunnel below, and after suspicions had been aroused the police spotted a gentleman called Francis Thornhill entering the shop but not coming out. Of course, it wouldn’t have been unusual for a barber to have blood on his floor, but when they discovered the clothes of 250 people Todd was arrested, put on trial and hanged. It is said that his body was donated to medical science but Margery Lovett cheated the hangman’s noose by poisoning herself in prison.
The first report of these murders appeared in the Daily Courant in 1785 when a man was reported to have been having a conversation with a barber before having his throat slit. I have no doubt that some of the details and names may have been embellished or altered over the years, but I believe that Sweeney Todd did really exist and his shop was here. And if you want to get a feeling of how gloomy and spooky in must have felt to visit a barber in those days, try walking down one of those alleys at night time, like Hen and Chicken Court, and then imagine no street lamps on a long winter’s night!
Anyone for a pie?!