Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sweeney Todd

Fleet Street Shop

Several years after this first murder, Sweeney Todd had managed to scrape together enough capital to buy a shop on Fleet Street near Temple Bar, where the Strand and Fleet Street intersect. The choice of Fleet Street for a barbershop was unusual, for it was not the section of town where barbers normally practiced their craft. However, Todd probably was unable to afford a shop in the more gentrified sections of London, and being one of the few barbers on Fleet Street ensured less competition.

Early maps of London show that St. Dunstan's and Sweeney Todd's shop were on the north side of Fleet Street, just a few blocks away from the Royal Courts of Justice. Fetter Lane curved in from the east, and Chancery Lane came in from the west, providing a narrow triangular shape to the block where Sweeney's shop was located. One block over from Chancery Lane lay Bell Yard, which intersected the Temple Bar and provided a perpendicular demarcation between Fleet Street and The Strand.

A typical cavern under Fleet Street
A typical cavern under Fleet Street

The church next door to Todd's shop had been rebuilt several times prior to 1785, and had one time occupied more land on the narrow block. Beneath the church lay forgotten and seldom used tunnels, some of which served as catacombs for long dead parishioners. One of these tunnels fortuitously ran on a 45-degree angle beneath the church, passing under Chancery Lane between Bell Yard and Fleet Street. Somewhere, Todd had learned of these tunnels, whether it was before or after he purchased the lease on 186 Fleet Street will never be known.

Fleet Street would later be known as the heart of London's famed newspaper community, but when Sweeney Todd rented his shop there in 1785 it was a haven for gin drinkers, harlots and cut-throats. Temple Bar was already a historic site by the time Todd set up shop within spitting distance of the landmark. The bar marked the western edge of the city of Augusta, little more than an old Roman military camp, which later became known as Londinium and later, of course, London. The location was the site of several churches, and a huge edifice erected by the Knights Templar, which gave the area its name. Fleet Street took its name from the filthy Fleet Ditch, which at one time ran parallel to the street and served as a dumping ground for all sorts of waste and garbage. Fleet Ditch still courses through London today, albeit underground in the city's extensive sewer system.

Londoners used the city gates as prisons and spots for punishment, and Temple Bar was no different. At the time Sweeney Todd moved in, the heads of three executed traitors adorned the pikes atop the Bar. Years after the three were beheaded, their grisly remains still attracted visitors, as did the gibbet that held the decaying corpse of the latest executed criminal. Obviously, the gruesome reminders of the folly of a life of crime held no sway with Sweeney Todd.

Three hundred years before Sweeney Todd moved in, Fleet Street was one of the more respectable addresses in London, and was the home to many nobles as well as a large number of churches. In fact, St. Dunstan's was still used for many services involving London's well-to-do. One of the most notable items buried in St. Dunstan's is the head of Sir Thomas More, who was beheaded by Henry VIII for refusing to recognize his marriage to Anne Boleyn. But by the time Sweeney Todd moved in, the nature of the neighborhood had changed drastically.

"The presence in the street of a large number of taverns had much to do with this state of affairs and the defective means of policing the streets made it an easy matter for the lawless to perpetrate their daring deeds, and then to hurry off to the asylum of the contiguous byways and alleys, or to seek shelter in the wilds of Whitefriars," wrote E. Beresford Chancellor in the most complete history of Fleet Street.

 

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