Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street | Stephen Basdeo

This post has been adapted from a chapter in my MA Thesis which was completed under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore.

Sweeney Todd's Chair [Source: Yesterday's Papers].

Sweeney Todd’s Chair [Source: Yesterday’s Papers].

The tale of Sweeney Todd, the ‘demon barber,’ (originally entitled A String of Pearls) is perhaps one the most famous penny bloods of the nineteenth century. The story is set during the 1780s ‘when George the Third was young’. It begins when a young gentleman returns from overseas intent on marrying his fiancée, Johanna. He is carrying a gift of a string of pearls which he intends to give to her. Before visiting her, however, he decides to go for a shave. Both the gentleman and the pearls go missing. Investigations begin into the missing gentleman’s whereabouts, and suspicions are raised in London when Todd attempts to pawn a matching set of pearls because he cannot give ‘satisfaction as to how he came by them’. Subsequent investigations into Todd’s business reveal that there are many valuable items of all descriptions kept within his residence. The outcome of the subsequent investigations reveals a horrifying truth. The owners of the valuables have all been killed by Todd. With the collusion of his neighbour, Mrs. Lovett, who runs a pie manufactory in which she has imprisoned numerous subterranean workers, the victims’ bodies have been served up as meat in her veal pies.

If you are interested in reading the original novel, click the link to purchase Dennis Mack’s recently edited critical edition

The mystery of the novel centres around the chair in which his unfortunate customers sit to be ‘polished off’, for ‘there is some horrible mystery connected with the chair’. The chair is revealed to be a mechanical device which facilitates the speedy disposal of the victims’ bodies into an underground vault:

There was a piece of the flooring turning upon the centre, and the weight of the chair, when the bolt was withdrawn, by means of a simple leverage from the inner room, weighed down upon one end of the top by a little apparatus, was to swing completely round, there being another chair on under the surface, which thus became the upper, exactly resembling the one in which the unhappy customer was supposed to be ‘polished off’.

There was an image which accompanied the text that illustrated exactly how the intricate machine worked (see above).

Todd’s modus operandi may have had particular resonance for working-class readers whose lives were beginning to be dominated by machinery and manufactory. Thompson writes that ‘one after another, as the nineteenth century ran its course, old domestic crafts were displaced’ by machinery. Indeed, anxiety over the effects that machinery was having upon working-class people’s livelihoods in the early nineteenth century led to Luddite rebellions between 1811 and 1812, and machine breaking riots amongst farm labourers in the 1830s. The chair, the intricate mechanical device which takes away people’s valuables (their livelihoods), and finally disposes of them in the subterranean ‘pie manufactory’, represented ‘an expression of profound social anxiety…the growing perception that the sanctity of selfhood is threatened by the aggressive commercial forces generated by the industrial city’. Nevset explains that the use of the term ‘pie manufactory’ is significant:

Todd runs an extremely tiny corporation…he murders his barber shop clients and sells their bodies as ‘veal pies’ with the help of Mrs. Lovett…and a nameless sequence of subterranean ‘pie manufactory’ workers who may not leave the factory floor and are quietly killed when they become exhausted or unmanageable.

Penny dreadfuls, targeted as they were towards the working classes, thus expressed working-class fears surrounding urban living and industrialisation. This is true in both The Mysteries of London and A String of Pearls where these fears were as Crone says, ‘clothed in everyday dress’.

  • Crone, R. Violent Victorians (MUP, 2012).
  • Hobsbawm, E. (1952). ‘The Machine Breakers’. Past and Present 1(1).
  • Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848:2005). The Communist Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nevsett, R. (2014). ‘Welcome to the Pie Manufactory: Sweeney Todd and The String of Pearls’. ETHOS. [Internet] [Accessed 04/08/2014].
  • Powell, S. (2004). ‘Black Markets and Cadaverous Pies: The Corpse, Urban Trade and industrial Consumption in the Penny Blood’.
  • Prest, T.P. (1846). ‘A String of Pearls: A Romance’. Mack, R.L. ed. (2007). Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Thompson, E.P. (1963). The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin

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