Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

takes place in London in 1846.

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London 1846 engraving

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The young Queen Victoria has been on the throne for nine years and Sir Robert Peel was coming to the end of his second term as Prime Minister. Jack the Ripper won’t strike the East End for another 42 years.

We can only imagine the spectacle of the 19th Century metropolis of London: the gnarl of rooftops, the labyrinth of streets and alleys, the black trails of smoke reaching up like skeletal fingers from a thousand chimneys.

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The City of London in the early years of Victoria’s reign teamed with a grim and terrifying reality: poorhouses, madhouses, freak shows and slums, populated by the poor, the infirm and the mentally ill in a world of unspeakable abuse, ignorance, misery and starvation.

Uncontolled disease was another factor that made life in Fleet Street intolerable. Diseases like cholera, typhus, typhoid, and influenza were more or less endemic at the time, erupting into epidemics when the right climatic conditions coincided with periods of economic distress. The frequency of concurrent epidemics gave rise to the belief that one sort of disease brought on another; indeed, it was widely believed that influenza (flu) was an early stage of cholera. There were other contagions, however, which yearly killed thousands without becoming epidemic. Taken together, measles and “hooping cough” accounted for fifty thousand deaths in England and Wales between 1838 and 1840, and about a quarter of all deaths during this general period have been attributed to tuberculosis or consumption.

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beames

The Fleet River

The Fleet River

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Named after the disgusting Fleet River, which became known as the Fleet Ditch due to it being clogged up with human and animal faeces, offal and all manner of detritus, Fleet Street was the centre of filth and crime.

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The Fleet Ditch

The Fleet Ditch

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Just imagine the Stygian, foetid, sulphurous, smoke-filled air, the stench of corruption and death is everywhere, accompanied by the metallic odour of rotting blood.

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fleet-street-and-water-lane-from-john-rocques-map-of-london-1746

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Fleet Street, carved in half by the Temple Bar which had the heads of executed criminals displayed on spikes atop of it, was a broad but busy thoroughfare long before its name became synonymous with the newspaper industry.

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The Temple Bar in Fleet Street

The Temple Bar in Fleet Street

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It was almost the only thoroughfare between the two ancient Londons: to the West, the City of Westminster, home of Parliament, the Abbey and the Court and to the East, the City of London with its merchants and manufacturing, its banks, finance-houses and shipping.

In Shakespeare’s day, the mile dividing the two cities was still largely open pasture and orchards but, due to its role as a linking route, by now very built up.

Because it was just outside the City, Fleet Street became renowned for offering the sundry services Londoners needed but preferred not to have within city limits such as the legal profession (lawyers weren’t welcome in the City itself), a rowdy street theatre, waxworks, fire-eaters, puppet shows, freak shows, vendors and hawkers of every kind as well as being London’s busiest red-light district.

There were scores of eating houses and coffee shops including the Mitre (Dr Johnson’s favourite) and celebrated Cheshire Cheese (frequented by Dickens) as well as a multitude of fast food outlets such as Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop.

Not surprisingly, the area attracted the rabble, the insane, the disenfranchised and criminals of every kind, including pickpockets, money lenders, thieves, fences, rogues, beggars, vagabonds, vagrants and their molls. It even had its very own prison, so vividly described in The Pickwick Papers.

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The Fleet Prison

The Fleet Prison

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Even more intimidating was ‘Alsatia’, a sort of no-go area between Fleet Street and the river, inhabited by all sorts of desperadoes, outcasts and convicts on the run. It was described as “a dangerous place policed by gangs of ten or more burly thugs armed with poles and knives that stood for the only law that applied there.”

Fleet Street was also known for the many passages, lanes, alleys and courts – “rookeries” as they were known at the time – sprouting off it, many of which are still there today. This maze of “byeplaces” formed a breeding ground of crime as observed by Henry Fielding, novelist, magistrate and in instigator of London’s first law enforcement agency, the Bow Street Runners, 87 years before the ‘Peelers‘, “the whole appears as a vast wood or forest, in which a thief or other ne’er-do-well may harbour”.

One of the more notorious of the area’s shady and illicit activities was the “Fleet Marriage”. Venal priests and parsons would hang out in the taverns, prepared to marry anyone on demand, no questions asked, for a suitable consideration. Although an end was put to this practice by this period, the shenanigans in Sweeney Todd over Johanna’s nuptials continue to lie under a cloud of matrimonial ill repute. Marrying pretty children was quite normal at this time. It was not until 1929 that Parliament raised the age limit to 16 for both sexes in the Ages of Marriage Act.

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A "Fleet Marriage"

A “Fleet Marriage”

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Due to all of this, the area was considered ungovernable and it is into this “ghetto” that Benjamin Barker enters, soon to rename himself as Sweeney Todd.

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The Old Fish Shop by Temple Bar 1846

The Old Fish Shop by Temple Bar 1846

'Wentworth Street, Whitechapel'

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Nobody cared about anything. It was a world of filth, disease, corruption, hardship, loneliness and madness.

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