"You t'ink-a you smart
you foolish-a boy
Tomorrow you start
In my-a employ!
You like-a my plan ?"
Pirelli the Barber in "Sweeney Todd" by Stephen Sondheim.
History would have been much different if the parson had found a different tradesman in need of an apprentice in the weeks following the disappearance of Sweeney Todd's parents. Somehow, the Bloody Blacksmith of Bowler Street doesn't have the same ring to it as the Demon Barber. But shortly after he became a ward of the court, Sweeney was turned over to a cutler, the trade responsible for, among other things, manufacturing and sharpening knives and razors.
Under the sign of the "Pistol and C" in Great Turnstile, Holborn, the aptly named John Crook had set up shop, fashioning any number of articles from backgammon tables to gunpowder, but specializing in razors. Apprentices in the 18th century were little more than slaves to their masters, and foul treatment at the hands of the teacher was the norm. The students lived in disheartening poverty, and those orphans who had no one to stand up for them, were most cruelly used.
"Any person, master or journeyman, man or woman, housekeeper or lodger, who would undertake to provide food, lodging and instruction, could take an apprentice," wrote Dorothy George. "All the earnings of the apprentice, whether they were for the master or a third person, became the property of the master."
A report issued by the government around the time of Todd's apprenticeship to Crook, reveals a common practice: "The master may be a tiger in cruelty... (and) few people take much notice. The greatest part of those who now take poor apprentices are the most indigent and dishonest, and it is the fate of many a poor child, not only to be half-starved and sometimes bred up in no trade, but to be forced to thieve and steal for his master, and so is brought to the gallows into the bargain."
Young Sweeney Todd almost fell into that common trap, when two years after he joined Crook's shop he was arrested and convicted of petty larceny. The details of the crime are scarce, whether Crook was the victim or co-conspirator was never recorded. Sweeney could have walked the steps to the hangman's noose for a theft conviction, but since he was just 14 years old, the judge at Old Bailey took pity on the orphan and sentenced him to five years in Newgate Prison. The mercy shown to Sweeney Todd was, as noted above, unusual. Children trained as pickpockets were hanged for as little as the theft of a handkerchief, and any kind of shoplifting was punishable by death.