Sweeney Todd’s Ancestors

A long post today, so bear with me (or go and make a sandwich, whichever seems more sensible). The wonderful Lee Jackson, onlie begetter of Victorian London website, and author of splendid Victorian mysteries, has written on the early days of the theatrical Sweeney Todd. I thought I would add to that with a history of Sweeney’s precursors, some early sightings of the cannibal-enabling barber, and his joke afterlife.


He killed dozens, if not hundreds. He disposed of their corpses in an unimaginably disgusting way. He murdered his accomplice. The only bright spot in this otherwise entirely unredeemed life is that he never existed. No emotions need enter, because neither Sweeney Todd – ‘the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ – nor his victims, nor the luckless Mrs Lovett, ever walked this earth.

Not that we would know it from the acres of coverage given to his non-crimes. In this he was no different from any other murderers stalking the country. For criminals were of all-consuming interest to most of the population throughout the century. Soon after Punch magazine began publishing in 1841, it noted that

…upon the apprehension of a criminal, we notoriously spare no pains to furnish the nation with his complete biography; employing literary gentlemen, of elegant education and profound knowledge of human nature, to examine his birthplace and parish register, to visit his parents, brothers, uncles, and aunts to procure intelligence of his early school days, diseases which he has passed through, infantile (and more mature) traits of character, &c….we employ artists of eminence to sketch his likeness as he appears at the police court, of views of the farm-house or back kitchen where he has perpetrated the atrocious deed…

This was true of real criminals, and as for Sweeney Todd, no one was going to let a little thing like non-existence trouble them. For the one way the imaginary criminal resembled his corporeal fellow point for point was the public’s response to their histories. Throughout the nineteenth century, huge leisure industries catered to the people’s love of the criminous. Newspapers were founded upon a fascination for crime; theatres thrived on a love of blood; magazines were saturated in it; cheap literature – broadsides, penny-dreadfuls, boys’-own stories – found their success in crimson tides; while melodrama and sensation fiction merged to produce a new genre, the quintessence of sudden death: the detective novel. And, back in the real world, crime and attitudes to crime were being reshaped, as the old Bloody Code was dismantled, the police and detective forces established on the lines we know today, and the legal system developed to accommodate a newly industrial world.


Like all good historical characters, there is some uncertainty over Sweeney’s place and date of birth, but it is most likely that he first appeared in the London Chronicle in 1774. Readers were told of a ‘journeyman barber’ near Hyde Park who, hearing a customer boast of receiving the favours of a local beauty, leapt to the conclusion that the faithless woman was his own wife, and slit the customer’s throat.

A second key element in Sweeney’s story may have developed from a 1793 biography of the 7th Earl of Barrymore (known as ‘Hellgate’ Barrymore, for his rakish life).[*] The book repeated what it claimed was an old Venetian tale, of the sudden disappearance of the children from the streets of the city. Only when a child’s finger is found in a pie baked by a pastry-cook in St Mark’s Square was the grisly truth revealed. The enraged citizens burst into the cookshop and found it straddled a vault piled high with the bodies of the missing children.

These stories had a market, for thirty years later, in 1824, the Tell-Tale magazine published ‘A Terrific Story of the Rue de la Harpe, Paris’, which it claimed was based on a series of murders revealed in Fouché’s Archives of the Paris Police. This was bringing a corpse to life with a vengeance. Fouché was notorious in a Britain only just recovering from the endless wars with France. (The Battle of Waterloo was a mere nine years in the past.) The word ‘police’ itself was a bogey to ‘freeborn Englishmen’, serenely satisfied with their much-vaunted liberties when compared to Continental neighbours. ‘Police’ did not yet mean a civil force paid to enforce the law. It meant, more loosely, ‘regulation’ (as in the related word ‘policy’), encompassing everything that concerned the state and its functioning. In France in the eighteenth century ‘police’ had begun to refer to the administration of a city, and the well-being that this administration ensured, but it was only during the French Revolution that it began to be linked to men who maintained ‘public order, liberty, property, individual safety’. In Britain, nothing like it existed. For the maintenance of public order, there was the army, and it was regularly called out to control mobs and quell uprisings, but there was no civil force whose job included what we now regard as its primary function, the prevention and detection of crime. Fouché’s police force was considered to be, rightly, one entirely made up of spies and agents provocateurs. Citing his archives, even for a piece of magazine fiction, added a frisson of horror to an otherwise implausible story.

In the Tell-Tale’s version, two men from the provinces arrive in Paris, and stop off for a shave at a barber’s shop in the rue de la Harpe. The first one to be shaved goes off, leaving his friend and their faithful dog behind. On his return, he finds the dog still patiently waiting, but his friend has vanished. On entering the shop, the dog flies at the barber ‘in a state of intellectual agony and fury’ (that’s the dog, not the barber), and makes for the cellar. There a false panel is discovered, opening into the cellar of the patisserie next-door, where the missing man’s corpse lies. The patissier, like the Venetian pastry-cook, was selling cannibal-pies.

This time the story had traction. The following year, the New Wonderful and Entertaining Magazine rehashed the story as ‘The Murderous Barber’, and soon two further French versions were in print, both claiming to be based on centuries’-old sources. Dickens too wrote of ‘Captain Murderer’, a childhood tale with a Sweeney-ish feel. Captain Murderer marries repeatedly, each time ending the marriage by ordering his wife to make a pie-crust, before chopping her up and cooking her in it. Before rolling out the pie-crust, his final bride takes ‘a deadly poison of a most awful character, distilled from toads’ eyes and spiders’ knees’. Captain Murderer eats the pie and ‘he began to swell, and to turn blue, and to be all over spots…and then, at one o’clock in the morning, he blew up with a loud explosion’.

This type of story, rooted in fairy-tales, was becoming old-fashioned. In the 1840s a new genre was developing, and it was quick to see the merits of demon barbers. The term penny-dreadful is actually a later one, from the 1860s and 1870s when the stories were mostly aimed at boys; in the 1840s and 1850s the tales were called penny-bloods, and they were for adult audiences. Each booklet, called a ‘number’, consisted of eight (sometimes sixteen) pages, with a single black-and-white illustration taking up the top half of the front page. Double-columns of text filled the remainder, which broke off wherever the eighth page finished – even in the middle of a sentence. (The rest of the sentence appeared the next week.) The numbers were published weekly, and could be bought either as they were issued, or in monthly parts with the four weekly numbers bound together, with a decorated, coloured wrapper.

The man who virtually invented the genre was Edward Lloyd (1815-90), a former stationer who had begun his publishing career as a penny plagiarist, specializing in Dickens knock-offs, such – Nikelas Nicklebery, Oliver Twiss and The Post-Humorous Notes of the Pickwickian Club. (In 112 numbers, this last was not only longer, notes the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, but probably also sold more copies than Dickens’ original at the time.)[†] In the 1840s Lloyd also became a publisher of newspapers and magazines, including Lloyd’s Penny Weekly and Lloyd’s Illustrated London Newspaper (a working-class rival to the just-founded, more up-market Illustrated London News).

The bloods’ astonishing success transformed the market, and many magazines, previously seen as ‘improving’ reading for the working-classes, now whole-heartedly gave themselves over to this type of tale. Lloyd faithfully mined his themes: The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, &c., possibly the first-ever penny-blood, had appeared in 1836, in 60 numbers. Soon Gentleman Jack appeared, running for 205 parts over four years, without too much worry for historical accuracy or continuity. (The historical Claude Duval, Dick Turpin and Jack Rann all appeared as contemporaries, despite the fact that their lives actually spanned a century; and Jack Rann is killed twice.) The illustrations, crude to modern eyes, were an essential element. The journalist G. A. Sala, in his youth an illustrator for Lloyd, quoted Lloyd’s standing instruction: ‘more blood – much more blood!’

The next development was the idea of a remorseless policeman hunting down criminals. Eugène Vidocq (1775-1857) had started his career as a not terribly successful criminal. After a number of convictions he became that loathed thing, a police spy, or informer. He worked secretly for the government while still imprisoned from 1808; in 1811 he became one of four ex-convicts to be made detectives. In 1812 he became the head of the newly created Brigade de Sûreté, with thirty men under his command. None of this would have been of more than passing interest in Britain, except that after his resignation in 1827 he began to publish his Mémoires, and the English version was a best-seller.

It is almost certain the Vidocq himself did not write his Memoirs. Nor can they precisely be called biography. The last two volumes borrow wildly from a variety of sources, including a fictional story previously published by one of his ghost-writers, and now reprinted as ‘fact’, and whole passages blatantly lifted from The Police of London, a non-fiction work of reforming policy by Patrick Colquhoun, a London magistrate and the founder of the Thames River Police, with French place-names substituted for Colquhoun’s original English ones. Nonetheless, the Memoirs were a work of brilliant PR, in which Vidocq transformed himself from an old-style ‘thief-catcher’ (a thief or receiver who betrays his accomplices for the reward: Jonathan Wild was the despised model in the eighteenth century), to a sympathetic outlaw, and then into a new thing altogether – both in literature and in life – a ‘detective’, although what he described barely resembled what was later to be known as detection. (It would be another twenty years before the word itself was to be invented.) Instead Vidocq and his fellow detectives simply intensified the spy system of the Revolution, keeping extensive records on known criminals, paying off informants and receivers. Mostly in the Memoirs Vidocq disguises himself – something that would later feature largely in detective literature (see pp. 000-00) – hangs about in low haunts in order to overhear criminals plotting, or bribes someone to tell him about a planned crime, which he then foils.

The books found a ready audience, though, and, more importantly for widespread dissemination, they were soon adapted and appeared onstage in two theatrical versions: at the Coburg Theatre, as Vidocq, the French Police Spy, by J. B. Buckstone; and, only down the road from the Coburg, at the Surrey Theatre, Douglas Jerrold’s rival version, with just an exclamation point’s difference: Vidocq! the French Police Spy.

The words ‘Police Spy’ had a particular resonance in 1829: this was the year that Sir Robert Peel finally managed to finesse through parliament the act that created the Metropolitan Police, replacing the old parish watch system, and creating what has been called the first professional police force. For a decade, this force operated in tandem with the Bow Street Runners, but in 1839 the Runners were disbanded. Three years later, the first ‘detective department’ was founded – the forerunner of Scotland Yard, and then the CID. Now, officially, police-work was about both prevention of future crime and detection of past ones.

It is in keeping with these times, with the general interest in police-work, and with the expansion of magazines and newspapers, which carried tales of murder and suspense next to crime-reportage, that Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ appeared in 1841, the same year that Tell-Tale magazine reprinted its the story of the cannibal-enabling barber. Poe’s tale, often put forward as the first detective-story, has many of the elements we now expect of the genre. Dupin is the prototypical amateur sleuth with the razor-like deductive abilities who outpaces the slow-thinking police, and whose obscure technical knowledge leads him infallibly to the truth. For example, Dupin recognizes that a small piece of ribbon left at the crime scene is tied with a knot ‘which few besides sailors can tie, and is peculiar to the Maltese’. Other elements of the story site it more firmly in the first half of the nineteenth century: the gothic window-dressing of the penny-blood peeps out of Poe’s description of the narrator’s house, ‘a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long decayed…and tottering’; the use of extracts from both the fictional newspapers, and the fictional inquests, which were appearing in reality in the same journals that printed these stories; and, finally, there is even a dig at Vidocq, whom Dupin sniffs at, claiming he was merely ‘a good guesser’.

In the same year as the publication of Poe’s tale, another important event in the life of Sweeney Todd occurred, although just how important would not become apparent until 1847. This was the opening of the Britannia Saloon (later to become the Britannia Theatre), in Hoxton, east London. Theatres across Britain had long been fiercely regulated, as places where the masses gathered, and therefore as places where sedition could be spread. From 1737, a Licensing Act had severely restricted the number of theatres that were permitted to stage spoken drama or comedy, generally referred to as ‘legitimate’ theatre. The act had not, however, included musical theatre, which included melodrama, pantomime and burletta (comic opera). These types of plays could be performed in theatres licensed by local magistrates, known as ‘minor’ theatres in London. Melodrama was musical theatre because the story was conveyed via dumbshow, songs, music, spectacle and, frequently, banners emblazoned with crucial information, rather as in silent films later on. Dumbshow by no means limited the imaginations of the playwrights. In Masaniello, or, The Dumb Girl of Portici, a melodrama by Henry Milner, a hack-playwright from the 1820s to the 1840s, the heroine, the ‘dumb girl’ of the title, not only escapes from prison, but, says the stage directions, explains her actions to the other characters by miming that ‘she has been confined in a dungeon, where she remained absorbed in grief, till the idea of effecting her escape suddenly flashed on her; that then, by means of forming cords of her bedclothes, she descended from her window to the earth; thanked heaven for her deliverance; but, being challenged by the sentinel, made a precipitate retreat, and, hearing the noise of pursuit, threw herself upon the protection of the princess.’

But there was nothing an East End audience liked more than watching a roaring good murder. In 1840, the year before the Britannia opened, a writer on theatre noted that at the Pavilion, ‘the Newgate Calendar [a multi-volume compendium of criminals through history] and tales of terror stand in the same place as Homer did to the ancient dramatists’. Punch, parodying this tendency, describes a leading man at the minor theatres as one ‘who is murdered at least twice a week, commits parricide several times in the course of the year, and is torn by remorse every night at about nine o’clock’.

Thus playwrights were always on the lookout for new murderous material, and two things may have pushed them towards Sweeney Todd. In 1843, Charles Dickens’ new novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was serialized and, like all his novels, it was immediately and ruthlessly cannibalized for the stage. As early as his very first novel, Pickwick Papers, Dickens was interested in cannibal food-traders. Sam Weller, the knowing Cockney servant, tells of a ‘Celebrated Sassage factory’, where a respectable tradesman mysteriously disappears. Mr Pickwick immediately assumes they were ‘burked’ – a reference to Burke and Hare, who killed their in order to sell their victims’ bodies to medical schools for anatomization. But like the missing Venetian children, nothing more is discovered until a customer finds trouser-buttons in his sausages. His ‘widder’ recognizes them and cries, ‘I see it all…in a fit of temporary insanity he rashly converted his-self into sassages!’

Dickens may have picked up on the magazine reprints of the Sweeney Todd story – Blackwood’s magazine had a version the year before he started work on Martin Chuzzlewit, but the Burke and Hare reference may indicate a more complicated intertwining of legends. In 1829 The Murderers of the Close was published, a fairly straightforward recounting of the Burke and Hare story with a few novelistic flourishes thrown in for good measure. In one scene, a crowd gathers to discuss the newly discovered murders, and ‘Some said that five old women had been murdered, and their bodies disposed of to sausage makers…’ It is of course impossible to know if Dickens ever saw this book, but he was sixteen at the time of the Burke and Hare murders; it is hard to imagine that a writer so much in love with murder in his work would have passed up anything that fell his way about such a notorious subject. On the other hand, it is hard to know how widely available this book was. (Library catalogues suggest that possibly only a single copy survives.)

Another possibility is that Dickens had seen, or knew the story of, a broadside published by the famous printer James Catnach. Broadsides were to play an important role in disseminating information about murders through much of the nineteenth century. These sheets had been around since the sixteenth century, but modern technology was making their production easier, cheaper and quicker. A typical broadside was a single sheet, printed in black on one side, which was sold on the street for 1/2d. or 1d., and broadsides had their heyday before the 1850s, while newspapers were still heavily taxed, putting them out of the reach of the masses. Crimes that caught the public’s imagination were the subject of several sheets each: on the first report of the crime, with further details as they were revealed, with the magistrates’ court hearing when an arrest was made; then there was the trial, and finally, and most profitably, a ‘sorrowful lamentation’ and ‘last confession’, usually combined with the execution sheet. These ‘lamentations’ and execution details were almost always entirely fabricated – the execution sheets found their readiest sale at the gallows, while the body was still swaying.

Another dreadful discovery! Being an account of a number of Human Bodies found in the Shop of a Pork Butcher. We have just been informed of a most dreadful and horrible discovery…On Saturday night last, the Wife of a Journeyman Taylor when into the shop of a Butcher in the neighbourhood of [Drury Lane] to buy a piece of Pork. At the time the Master was serving[,] a Man came into the Shop carrying a Sack. The woman thought by the appearance of the man that he was a Body Snatcher and when she left the Shop she communicated her suspicions to an acquaintance she met with; the news of this soon spread abroad and two Officers went and searched the house and to their inexpressible horror found two dead bodies wrapped up in a sack…

A butcher in a nearby market claimed that he could be identified as the butcher in the broadside, and ‘A riotous mob assembled…and could scarcely be restrained by a numerous police [sic] from destroying the shop and its tenant…Catnach, at Bow-street [magistrates’ court], yesterday confessed that there was no foundation for the rumour, and that he had published it merely by way of his trade, as a retail and marvellous treat to the vulgar.’ He was ordered to circulate another broadside, saying it had been untrue, and he was also sentenced to six months in jail.

So by the time Dickens got to Martin Chuzzlewit, cannibal-pies were on his mind. Tom Pinch, the small-town innocent in London for the first time, worries that his friends will ‘begin to be afraid I have strayed into one of those streets where the countrymen are murdered; and that I have been made meat pies of, or some such horrible thing.’ In the following chapter, ‘Tom’s evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalistic pastry who are represented in many standard country legends as doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis.’ And, in a final Sweeney Todd precursor, a minor character in the novel is Poll Sweedlepipe, a barber who, in Phiz’s accompanying illustration, has his shop next-door to ‘the celebrated mutton-pie shop’.[‡]

From Sweedle to Sweeney is a small step. And that step was taken when Lloyd published The String of Pearls: A Romance, in The People’s Periodical and Family Library between November 1846 and March 1847. The author of this version is unknown. One modern historian thinks that there may even have been a team of writers working on it at the beginning. The uneven quality of the writing does suggest that different hands wrote different chapters. And even more oddly several of the elements that make Sweeney Sweeney, don’t occur in the early chapters: instead, much of tale involves what later became the subsidiary love story. One suggestion is that a hack named George MacFarren wrote these early chapters, which were then handed over to the author who finally created Sweeney. For many years the contenders for that role were two prolific penny-blood writers: Thomas Pecket Prest and James Rymer. Prest was born in 1810, and had written such penny-bloods as Fatherless Fanny and The Maniac Father, or, The Victim of Seduction. His claim to fame was a penny-blood entitled Ela the Outcast, which remained in print for over two decades. Significantly, he had been the author of Lloyd’s Dickens plagiarisms, including the Pickwick knock-off.

Lloyd himself said that The String of Pearls was written by Rymer. Rymer, from Scotland, had trained as an engineer, but became a penny-a-liner instead, and was ultimately the editor of Lloyd’s Penny Weekly Miscellany. He wrote lavishly for Lloyd, and used many pseudonyms, often anagrams of his name – M. J. Errym, Malcolm Merry, and so on. His most famous penny-bloods were Varney the Vampyre and Ada the Betrayed, or, Murder at the Smithy (Sala later said that Rymer was known to his friends as ‘Ada-the-Betrayed’, although Sala, by then a very grand journalist with the respectable papers, claimed he couldn’t remember his real name.) From the original 1846/7 String of Pearls, 100,000 words long, a new version was published by Lloyd in 1850, now swollen to 732 pages, in 92 instalments, probably nearing 1 million words. This, when published as a single-volume, was advertised as written by Rymer. And now, after nearly three-quarters of a century, the many threads were finally pulled together: the barber is named Sweeney, he is located for the first time in Fleet Street, his hench-woman is Mrs Lovett, who sells pies that are made of human flesh, conveyed to her through cellars running beneath the two shops.

The most important event took place a few weeks before the end of the first serialization of The String of Pearls, in February 1847. This was the stage adaptation of the serial at the Britannia, by their house author, George Dibdin Pitt. This stage version followed Lloyd’s String of Pearls closely. Only the ending was, unavoidably, different, as the conclusion of the serial had yet to appear when Dibdin Pitt’s Sweeney first strode the stage. But there were no hard feelings: the stage version spread Sweeney’s fame, and when Lloyd published his 1850 version, many of the stage details were incorporated into the expanded serial story. But it was the play that completed our ideas of Sweeney’s story.

The story is set ‘when George the Third was young’, in ‘a small barber’s shop’ in Fleet Street. There Sweeney Todd employs a poor boy, Tobias Ragg, as his assistant, and in the opening scene threatens ‘to cut [his] throat from ear to ear’ if he gossips about anything he sees in the shop. Sweeney is ‘a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow’, with ‘a short disagreeable kind of unmirthful laugh’. A sailor, Lieutenant Thornhill, enters to ask for the address of Johanna Oakley, whom ‘the young bloods call the Flower of Fore-street’. He has a valuable string of pearls to give her, a last gift from Mark Ingestrie, her shipwrecked, presumed dead, fiancé. Thornhill sits down to be shaved, and ‘There was a strange sound suddenly, compounded of a rushing noise and then a heavy blow, immediately after which Sweeney Todd…looked upon the vacant chair where his customer had been seated…’ and crows, ‘I’ve polished him off!’ The famous revolving barber-chair (set over a trap-door onstage) has claimed another victim. We now learn that Sweeney kills and robs his customers, before taking the bodies through the interlocking cellars to Mrs Lovett’s, where they are ground up for pie-meat.

Two separate strands of the story now develop: one is of the missing Lieutenant Thornhill, whose faithful dog Hector leads the ship’s captain and his fellow-passenger, Colonel Jeffrey, on an epic search for him. The dog recurs from the old rue de la Harpe version of the homicidal barber, but on-stage Dibdin Pitt also incorporated elements from a popular melodrama, The Dog of Montargis, where the villain kills his victim, only to be attacked by the dead man’s loyal hound.

The other strand is the story of Johanna and her family, who provide the requisite comic elements, using many of the current stage conventions: knowing servants, a drunken preacher, and a snobbish, termagent wife who henpecks her husband. There are a raft of comic and melodramatic characters: Johanna’s best friend Arabella, who falls for Colonel Jeffrey; her cousin Big Ben, a warder at the Tower of London;[§] the Bow Street Runners led by the magistrate Sir Richard Blunt and his comic sidekick Crotchet; Tobias Ragg, the poor boy in the thrall of Sweeney, later decoyed into and then rescued from a madhouse; and Jarvis, a beggar who takes a job in Mrs Lovett’s cellars, making pies from meat that mysteriously appears in a cupboard, fresh every day. Finally the sailors, Johanna, Big Ben, Sir Richard and Crotchet team up to foil Sweeney; he murders Mrs Lovett, who has threatened to expose him to save herself, while Jarvis escapes, and turns out to be – Lieutenant Thornhill, not killed by his fall through the trap at all, and who furthermore is — ta-da! — Johanna’s missing fiancé!

In the expanded series, instead of a short-ish denouement and trial (or in some later versions, Sweeney in the condemned cell), Sweeney is captured, escapes from Newgate, only to be repeatedly cornered again, escape again, each time with all the characters setting off in pursuit. Finally Sir Richard, perhaps as exasperated as the reader by these endless extensions to the plot, gives up on the legal system and takes aim with his pistol: ‘I am sorry to defraud the gallows of its due…’ Mark Ingestrie peers hopefully down: ‘Is he dead?’ ‘‘No,’ said Todd, opening his eyes. ‘He still lives to curse you all!’  Finally, ‘With a horrible shriek, he rolled over on to his face, and then, after one sharp convulsion of his limbs, he lay perfectly still.’ Mark Ingestrie and Johanna marry, as do Arabella and Colonel Jefffrey, Tobias and his saviour from the madhouse. And finally, ‘Often as Johanna would sit on a winter’s evening, with her children climbing upon her knee, she would with a faltering voice, tell them what their dear father had suffered to procure for her and for them THE STRING OF PEARLS.’

By the 1860s, going to see Sweeney Todd in the East End was something that many from the middle classes did too, even if they regarded themselves as doughty explorers venturing into untamed lands. In 1880, Thomas Erle, a scenery-painter, recounted going to see The String of Pearls at the Britannia in about 1860. (It must be borne in mind that Erle, as a theatrical worker, was himself not far removed from the social milieu he describes here. His more derogatory remarks about the working-class audience can perhaps sympathetically be read more as attempts to reinforce his own somewhat tenuous inclusion in the middle class, than as a reflection of reality.) He retells the story, giving the various hairs, thumbs and buttons that are successively found in the pies. At this point,

The Barber is…taken into custody. But not by policemen. Not a bit of it! The R.B. [Royal Britannia] management knows better than that…[Instead a] party of supers rush in, attired in the uniforms in which they are accustomed to ‘do’ the Swedish army in Charles the Twelfth, and let off their muskets with signal intrepidity, firing earnestly upwards, as though anxious to hit some bird…

The apprehension of the wicked barber necessarily brings the drama to its conclusion, and…The scene is then illuminated with red fire….The whole of the characters then join in a patriotic song, in which…the discomfiture of the enemy by the gallantry of the Hoxton volunteers, together with any other points which may happen to be of general interest to the community at the particular moment, are very neatly and happily touched off.

Many other writers reported audience participation in the evening’s entertainment. One spectator remembered that, at a particularly tense point in a melodrama, when some papers relevant to the plot had been hidden by the villain down a well, ‘A character said, ‘If I could only find those papers!’ A gallery wit responded: ‘Look in the bucket, you old fool…’’ Audiences were generally good-tempered, content to take their pleasures where they could find them. The comic writer Jerome K. Jerome, who acted in melodramas as a young man, described a production where one set was economically made to serve for several different interiors. ‘The audience…greeted its second appearance with cries of kindly recognition…After one or two more appearances, [it] became an established favourite…indeed,…when two scenes passed without its being let down, there were many and anxious inquiries after it…Its reappearance in the next act…was greeted with a round of applause, and a triumphant demand [from the gallery], ‘Who said it was lost?’’

By the end of the century, the audience for Sweeney was enormous. In 1894 The Pick-Me-Up, a middle-class magazine normally focused on the West End, gave its ‘Through the Opera-Glass’ column to a performance of Sweeney Todd (as it was now re-titled) at the Britannia. By now, Sweeney was a much-loved institution, ripe for a bit of gentle fun. (And, as will be seen from the description below, the play had either been substantially adapted, or another version entirely was in use. There were by now at least half a dozen versions.)

The Pick-Me-Up columnist had a wonderful time, laughing both at and with the play. He describes how he first scene on the playbill is entitled ‘Lured to Death!’ and ‘in case this should not be precise enough for an ordinary person with a craving for artistic slaughter, a weird finger pointed out a genial subtitled: [drawing of pointing finger] ‘The Fatal Chair!’’ The opening scene starts with a sailor recounting how he was done out of his inheritance. He makes ‘the rather peculiar statement that against the wishes of his parents he had married a ‘good, honest girl’, from which one could only infer that his parents had chosen for him a girl of another sort…’ Together with Mark Ingestrie, returned from sea with the String of Pearls, the sailor is now looking for his long-lost son. ‘Then, amid wild applause, the right hon. Sweeney Todd appeared’ and sings a little song:

Our Jack’s come home again at last

From sailing on the sea,

And by-and-bye I’ll have him fast,

My victim he shall be!

I’ll catch him by the throat and squeeze

His little life away –

So waft the song across the breeze:

Our Jack’s come home to-day!

Mark Ingestrie goes to get a shave ‘in spite of the piteous appeals of several gentlemen in the gallery’, and sits in the chair: ‘This part of the business was superbly thrilling. In an instant the chair went down through a trap-door, and came back empty…’

Now we meet Mrs Lovett, who falls in love with Mark in the cellar where he has been deposited by the murderous chair. She begs Sweeney Todd to spare him, but Todd refuses, and she warns him, ‘I can turn King’s evidence.’ Sweeney is blasé: ‘Yes, and I can cut your throat.’ In this version Mrs Lovett tells Johanna that if she, Johanna, will agree to give Mark up, then Mrs Lovett will save his life. Johanna, rather unfeelingly, refuses, and Mrs Lovett flounces off ‘with a genial ha-ha! and the gallery hissed some more. At this point the management seemed apprehensive that the play hadn’t got enough wickedness in it, so they thoughtfully turned on a lunatic asylum in order that we might get a chance of witnessing a few of Sweeney’s victims undergoing extreme misery. Here we…enjoyed the pleasure of seeing [a] lad tied up to the whipping-post and beaten,’ while Sweeney looks on and makes helpful suggestions, ‘including the exciting experience of being gnawed by rats in an underground prison’, a scene the programme lists as ‘[pointing hand] ‘The Fiend and his Victim.’ [pointing hand] Ha-ha!’ Act III is enticingly offered on the programme as having a ‘[pointing hand] ‘Realistic Razor Struggle!’’ ‘Sweeney Todd appears, with razor, Mrs. Lovett shrieked for mercy, but by this time the excitement had got the better of us, and we joined in the touching appeal of the house that Sweeney would kindly wipe the lady out.’ After a brief struggle Mrs Lovett gives ‘a beautifully agonising shriek…and in a few seconds…was a sweet and peaceful corpse. It was the loveliest, blood-thirstiest bit of excitement I’ve had for weeks’, concludes the sated columnist.

Source notes:

the atrocious deed: Punch, ‘The Proper Time for Public Executions’, 1 Dec 1849, p. 214

property, individual safety: ‘Code des Délits et des Peines’, 1795; cited in Clive Emsley, Policing and its Context, 1750-1870 (Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1983), together with the derivation of the word ‘police’, p. 2.

in their Language: cited in Stanley H. Palmer, Police and Protest in England and Ireland, 1780-1850 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 69.

centuries’-old sources: Robert L. Mack, The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: The Life and Times of an Urban Legend (London, Continuum, 2007), pp. 170-71; and Michael Anglo, Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors (London, Jupiter, 1977), p. 51, cites Béraud and Dufey’s Dictionnaire historique de Paris (1832), which claimed a sixteenth-century origin, a barber and pastry-cook operating the now-familiar double act in the neighbourhood of Marmousets-en-la-Cité, and also M. Lurine’s Les Rue de Paris (1844), which simply called the story ‘medieval’.

blew up with a loud explosion: Charles Dickens, ‘Nurse’s Stories’, in The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens’ Journalism, vol. IV: The Uncommercial Traveller and Other Papers, ed. Michael Slater and John Drew (London, J. M. Dent, 1994-2000), p. 175. Modern scholarship traces Dickens’ source to ‘Mr Fox’, an English folktale that closely resembles the Brothers Grimm’s ‘The Robber Bridegroom’. See Shuli Barzilai, ‘The Bluebeard Barometer: Charles Dickens and Captain Murderer’, in Victorian Literature and Culture, 2004, pp. 505-24. My thanks to Robert Newsom for directing me to this reference.

‘respectable’ fiction: John Sutherland, Victorian Novelists and Publishers (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1976), p. 5.

much more blood: cited in Elizabeth James and Helen R. Smith, Penny Dreadfuls and Boys’ Adventures: The Barry Ono Collection of Victorian Popular Literature in the British Library (London, British Library, 1998), p. xvi.

did not write his Memoirs: Scholars have attributed the four volumes to Maurice Descombres and L. F. J. L’Héritier. See Howard G. Brown, ‘Tips, Traps and Tropes: Catching Thieves in Post-Revolutionary Paris’, in Clive Emsley and Hannah Shpayer-Makov, eds., Police Detectives in History, 1750-1950 (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2006), pp. 38-39

original English ones: Ian Ousby, Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 46. Ousby also suggests that Emile Morice might also have been involved in the latter volumes as one of the ghosts.

a good guesser: ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, in Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales (New York, Library of America, 1984), pp. 400, 412, 425.

protection of the princess: Henry Milner, Masaniello, or, The Dumb Girl of Portici, (London, John Cumberland, [1828]), p. 12.

the Britannia alone: Jim Davis, ed., The Britannia Diaries, 1863-1875: Selections from the Diaries of Frederick C. Wilton (London, Society for Theatre Research, 1992), pp. 203, 218.

the ancient dramatists: F. G. Tomlins, A Brief View of the English Drama (London, C. Mitchell, 1840), p. 65.

at about nine o’clock: ‘Mr. Ravenscaw of the Minor Theatres’, Punch, 10 June 1843, p. 239.

pies of dead bodies: G. W. M. Reynolds, Alfred de Rosann, or, The Adventures of A French Gentleman (London, J. W. Southgate, 1839), p. 41.

his-self into sassages: Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, ed. Mark Wormald ([1836-7], Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1999), p. 407.

disposed of to sausage makers: Anon., The Murderers of the Close: A Tragedy of Real Life (London, Cowie and Strange, 1829), p. 38. The single copy listed in WorldCat is held by the National Library of Scotland.

on their legs: Charles Dickens to W. H. Wills, 12 December 1850, Charles Dickens The Letters of Charles Dickens, The Pilgrim Edition, eds. Madeline House, Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson, et. al. (Oxford, Clarendon, 1969-2002), vol. VI, p. 231.

six months in jail: John J. McAleer, ‘Jemmy Catnach – Catchpenny Czar’, South Atlantic Bulletin, vol. 27, no. 4, 1962, p. 8; the broadside is reprinted in Robert Collison, The Story of Street Literature: Forerunner of the Popular Press (London, J. M. Dent, 1973), p. 5; The Times, 3 June 1818, p. 3.

business in the Metropolis: Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. P. N. Furbank ([1843-4], Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1986), p. 651, illustration p. 377.

mutton-pie shop: the Poll Sweedlepipe connection is made by Robert Mack in his very enlightening introduction to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007), p. xvii.

declining to complete her contract: Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, ed. John Holloway ([1857], Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985), p. 889.

at the beginning: this is the view of Robert Mack, Sweeney Todd, p. xvi.

his real name: cited in Helen R. Smith, New Light on Sweeney Todd, Thomas Peckett Prest, James Malcolm Rymer and Elizabeth Caroline Grey (London, Jarndyce, 2002), pp. 12-13.

written by Rymer: the authorship has been discussed at length, by Mack, in both his introduction to Sweeney Todd and in The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd pp. 101-3, 148; and by Helen R. Smith, New Light on Sweeney Todd, pp. 23-4.

the STRING OF PEARLS: the plot and all quotations are taken from the penny-blood in the Barry Ono collection in the British Library, c.140.d.5.

polished off their opponents: see Henry Downes Miles, Pugilistica, being one hundred and forty-four years of the history of British boxing…The only complete and chronological history of the ring ([no place of publication], Weldon, 1880-81), passim.

well, thank you: ‘Captain Merry’, Sweeney Todd, or, The Ruffian Barber, (New York, H. Long & Brother,  [1865]), p. 105.

happily touched off: T. W. Erle, Letters from a Theatrical Scene-Painter; Being, Sketches of the Minor Theatres of London as they were Twenty Years Ago (London, Marcus Ward, 1880), pp. 64-7.

you old fool: J. H. Barnes, Forty Years on Stage (London, Chapman and Hall, 1914), pp. 96-7.

Who said it was lost?: Jerome K. Jerome, On the Stage – and Off: The Brief Career of a Would-be Actor (London, Field & Tuer, 1885), pp. 56-7.

sated columnist: Pick-Me-Up, 1 September 1894, pp. 342-3.

[*] According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, his brother, who had a club-foot, was known as Cripplegate, and his sister, who was known for her foul language, as Billingsgate.

[†] This was a quick read, compared to what might be the most successful series the world has ever seen: G. W. M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London, which began to appear in 1844. After 624 weekly numbers, nearly 4.5 million words and a title change to Mysteries of the Courts of London, it was finally brought to a close only in 1856.

[‡] Dickens returned to this idea, in Little Dorrit, which he began in 1855, and which had nothing at all to do with cannibal barbers. In that novel ‘Mr F.’s aunt’ spends the afternoon in a pie-shop, much to the discomfort of the owner after ‘an idle rumour…circulated among the credulous infants of the neighbourhood, to the effect that an old lady had sold herself to the pie-shop to be made up, and was then sitting in the pie-shop parlour, declining to complete her contract.’

[§] Big Ben is not named for the clock in the Houses of Parliament, which was installed only in 1854. Instead it was the nickname of a noted pugilist, Ben Brian. Sweeney’s catchphrase, ‘I’ll polish him off’, also came from pugilism, where the favourites ‘polished off’ their opponents.