Sweeney Todd Week! Tidbit #3 ~ Sweeney's London

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Sweeney Todd Week! Tidbit #3 ~ Sweeney's London

Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Wed Dec 19, 2007 8:52 am

Today we will be revisiting some old tidbits from our previous discussion to give you a feel for what Sweeney’s London was like. We’ll start with an overview of life in London, visit Fleet Street and end up at Newgate Prison.

The Great Pit

"There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth
what a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London."


"No Place like London" by Stephen Sondheim from Sweeney Todd



By the end of the eighteenth century London was the largest city in the world with perhaps the world's most diverse population. It encompassed the slums that dominated its eastern reaches, and the wealth of its aristocratic West. It gave home to the beggar, the trader, and the baronet.

Life was cheap in 18th century London. As the industrial revolution gathered steam and refugees from the shires flocked to the great city in search of work, the city, which was still reeling from the recent plague years, was unprepared, civilly and morally, for the great influx of population. Poverty and decadence were widespread, and the separation between the classes was distinct.

In the beginning of the eighteenth century London had a population of just fewer than 600,000. By 1800 this had reached over a million. It had become the largest city in the world. In the first half of the century it also came to encompass an increasing percentage of the population of the country as a whole. This inexorable growth, this seemingly unstoppable urban bloat, was almost entirely the result of migration. High mortality rates and unhealthy living conditions, in combination with a relatively late age at marriage, ensured that Londoners could not rely on nature to fill the shoes of the dead.

For all intents and purposes, there were three classes of people in London at the beginning of the industrial revolution: the gentry, who included those with land and title, the merchants, or shop and factory owners, and the working class, which was by far the largest of the three classes. Within the working class were those who worked either in the factories or stores, and those who subsisted through service to the other classes. Beneath all of these was the underclass of beggars, thieves, and prostitutes and common criminals. Movement between classes was rare, except in a downward spiral, and many working class people were forced by situations into the beggar and criminal underclass.

Although the city had managed to survive the late 17th century plague, disease was prevalent in London as sanitary conditions in the growing municipality were less than ideal. The Thames River was considered the dirtiest river in Europe: raw sewage and industrial waste was dumped into the street without second thought. Smallpox, plague, fever and consumption were the most common causes of death — not including accident.

The nature of the built environment that filled these once rural fields was both squalid and grandiose. Up until at least the passage of the London Building Act of 1774, many suburban developments were haphazard and of poor quality, the work of speculators -- poor carpenters and bricklayers, using even poorer materials. During periodic depressions in the building industry houses put up in hope of attracting middling sort and rich occupants were let out room by room to the very poor. House collapses were common, with whole families occasionally crushed in their beds. To the East and North of the City, the huddled extramural communities of London suffered poor housing and poor infrastructure, made tolerable only by the almost unbounded demand for casual labor on the quays and wharves and in the service industries of the city.

In an effort to survive, whole families, including children, would work for just pennies a day in the mills and factories that had sprung up around the city. Tenements housing dozens of families in small apartments dotted the landscape creating a dismal scene of poverty and chaos. Thieves, ruffians and "sturdy beggars" plagued the streets of the capital, and no one dared walk the streets at night, for fear of his life.

Charles Dickens summed up life for the working class and London in general in Oliver Twist: "The street was narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours... Drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands."

In contrast, the West End was built to a higher standard. The urban palaces of the aristocracy stood shoulder to shoulder around the formal squares that came to characterize Westminster. Chains, iron railings and padlocks increasingly served to segregate the rich from their neighbors. At the same time the back streets and mews that filled the areas between the squares retained a diverse community of artisans, service workers and paupers.

The East End became the home of manufacturing, of brewing and distilling, sugar processing and textiles. In combination with the ever-hungry maw of the port, its industries consumed the lives of generations of workers. Besmirched by the smuts and odors sent skyward from the warm coal-fired hearths of the West End, East Enders struggled in poor conditions, at difficult jobs, in a poor environment. In the ring of suburban parishes along the City's northern borders other groups of the poor similarly eked out a hard working life. In St Giles in the Fields and Farringdon Without, large families rented small rooms in badly built tenements, and made a living in the precarious service industries of the capital -- as porters and needle women, chairmen and street hawkers.

Witness to the greatest change, the West End evolved in response to the growing importance of the London Season, and its increasing role in the lives of Britain's elite. Here the palaces of the aristocracy were served by well-appointed shops and skilled craftsmen. Communities of service workers, coach makers, and dancing masters filled the interstices between the parks and squares, town houses and royal residences, creating perhaps the wealthiest single community in Europe.
Eighteenth-century London dominated the culture of the English-speaking Atlantic. The vast majority of Britain's printing presses and newspapers were sited here. It was possessed of a huge number of coffeehouses and theatres and was home to Britain's greatest authors and scientists, doctors and thinkers. In intellectual terms it far outpaced the near moribund Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, while the existence of the Royal Society, the great hospitals, and a wealthy and leisured class ensured a vibrant and diverse world of ideas.



On to Fleet Street…

According to the stories, Sweeney Todd had his shop at number 186 Fleet Street, which is now the Dundee Courier building with a Kwick copier shop below as pictured here.

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Fleet Street began as the road from the City of London to the City of Westminster. The length of Fleet Street marks the expansion of the City in the 14th century. At the east end of the street is where the river Fleet flowed against the medieval walls of London; at the west end is the Temple Bar stretched to that point when the land and property of the Knights Templar were acquired. 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. In 1878, Temple Bar was dismantled stone by stone in order to widen the roadway. It was reassembled as the entrance to Paternoster Square and reopened to the public in 2004.

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Temple Bar

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 Fleet River (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.

In the 15th century, 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 Moore, who was beheaded by Henry VIII for refusing to recognize his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

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St. Dunstan’s

Publishing started in Fleet Street around 1500. In March 1702, the world's first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, was published in Fleet Street from premises above the White Hart Inn. Fleet Street would later be known as the heart of London's famed newspaper community, but in 1785 it was a haven for gin drinkers, harlots and cut-throats

"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.
Fleet Street was traditionally the home of the British press, up until the 1980s. Even though the last major news office, Reuters, left in 2005, the street's name continues to be used as a synonym for the British national press. It is now more associated with the Law and its courts and chambers, most of which are located in little side streets off Fleet Street itself.

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Fleet Street, 2005

Last but not least, Newgate Prison…

Newgate Prison was probably the most notorious prison in all England. A prison has stood on the Newgate site for almost a thousand years. The first prison was nearly as old as the Tower of London and much older than the Bastille. It is first mentioned in the reign of King John and in the following reign of Henry the III, (1218), the King expressly commands the sheriffs of London to repair it, and promised to repay them from his own exchequer. This shows that the prison was under the direct control of the King at that time. The prison itself was originally above the gate or in the gatehouse.

London was anciently a walled city with four gates. It has been argued that Newgate was one of the original four, and conversely, that it was indeed a "new" gate, being the fifth to provide entry to the city. This is somewhat substantiated, according to Stowe, by the fact that in 1086 the old cathederal church of St Paul was destroyed. In building a new cathederal, Mauritius, Bishop of London, wanted a building so large and so grand plus a cemetery and churchyard that he blocked the then great thoroughfare from Aldgate in the east to Ludgate in the west. This resulted in traffic having to make long and dangerous detours. The remedy for this was to make a new gate which allowed a route from Aldgate through West Cheape to St Paul's. It was rebuilt and modified several times, once after the great fire of London in 1666.

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With over 350 crimes punishable by death in the 18th century - and transportation, branding and other forms of public penance taking care of many of the rest - long prison sentences were almost unheard of. However, many stayed in prison until they died, despite receiving a short sentence or no sentence at all. With no police force, catching criminals was very difficult. Execution was supposed to deter other would-be lawbreakers.

Of the 150 prisons in London, Newgate was the largest, most notorious and the worst. Because prisons were privately run, any time spent in prison had to be paid for by the prisoner; gaoler in those times was a lucrative position, and one that had to be paid for. 'Garnish' had to be paid on arrival; payments for candles, soap and other supplies had to be made. Heavy manacles - often painfully constricting - were attached to prisoners and then secured to chains and staples in the floor. The prisoner could pay to have lighter manacles fitted ('easement of irons'), or have them removed entirely. The freedom to walk around could also be bought, if enough money changed hands. Prisoners were also housed according to their ability to pay, ranging from a private cell with a cleaning woman and a visiting prostitute, to simply lying on the floor with no cover and barely any clothes. Lice were everywhere, and only a quarter of the prisoners survived until their execution day. Infectious diseases like typhus - the so-called 'gaol-fever', which was spread throughout the prison by lice and fleas, killed far more people than the gallows.

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Food was provided by the authorities, and by charities to those who could not pay, but cooking wasn't included and so it was often eaten raw. Drink was also available - the prison had a bar - although the prices were extortionate. Leaving prison was not simply a matter of finishing a sentence and walking out. A departure fee had to be paid and, until it was, prisoners could not leave. Those who died inside had to stay there as a rotting corpse until relatives found the money for it to be released. The stench was unimaginable, and unavoidable for the incarcerated. Nearby shops were often forced to close in the summer because of the unbearable smell. It wasn't unusual for children to be conceived and born inside the prison, for the women found that they could swap sex for food; if they became pregnant they could 'plead the belly' in an attempt to avoid hanging. Surviving children were taken to the workhouse, where their chances weren't much better. Prisoners often had their entire families inside the prisons with them, including any family pets.

To society, the prisoners were little more than zoo animals. It was a common practice in the 18th century for Londoners to pay a three shilling entrance fee for a chance to see the wretched inmates in their 9 by 7 foot cells. Dickens, who was one of the tourists to Newgate, was so taken with the young convicts he encountered that he was inspired to write Oliver Twist.

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The Ordinaries (Chaplains) of Newgate often published accounts of the lives of those who passed through the prison. They included such information as the crimes committed, previous convictions, trial information; life leading up to the stay in Newgate, as well as a description of the sorts of punishments that individual was to suffer. It is because of these writings that Newgate Prison has become the most well-documented prison of eighteenth-century England, allowing modern scholars to understand the system of justice during the time. They also held the service for the condemned. Gathered around their coffins, the prisoners would listen to a lengthy sermon on the Sunday before they were taken to the Tyburn tree, with the fee-paying public in the gallery.

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The tenor bell in the bell tower at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate was rung on mornings when there was an execution. The 'execution bell' was a hand bell that was rung for other services concerning condemned prisoners; it was also rung outside the condemned cell at midnight. The bellman would repeat the following verse three times as he paced outside the condemned cells. A merchant taylor, Robert Dove, gave £40 to the parish in 1604 to ensure that this was done, in the hope that the prisoners would seek redemption.
All you that in the condemned hold do lie

Prepare you, for tomorrow you will die.
Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near
That you before th'Almighty must appear
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
That you may not t'eternal flames be sent;
And when St Sepulchre's bell tomorrow tolls,
The Lord have mercy on your souls!


Up until the mid-nineteenth century there were many offenses that could incur the death penalty, not just murder. Many were hanged for comparatively minor crimes. Masses of people used to assemble outside Newgate to watch the executions, the wealthy even paid for ringside seats. After 1868 all hangings were carried out inside the prison, away from public view. 'Dead Men's Walk' was the burial ground for those executed here, under the stone flags of the corridor that connected the prison with the adjoining courts.

In 1877 it ceased to be used for carrying out sentences imposed by the courts. It was to house only prisoners waiting to go to trial, and for those who had received the death penalty. This made the task easier, as all major crimes were to be tried at the Old Bailey, which was then, right next door to the prison.

In 1902, after George Wolfe, the last man to be hanged there, met his death on May 6th, Newgate was closed. Pentonville jail became the home of the existing male prisoners. The women were transferred to Holloway prison. Newgate jail was demolished, and the Central Criminal Court built on its site. The court is still world famous, and kept its more familiar name of The Old Bailey.


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Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -
Wow! What a ride!

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Unread postby Parlez » Wed Dec 19, 2007 7:56 pm

Wow, DitHoT, thanks for the in-depth tidbit! :cool: Fascinating stuff... That period in London's history certainly isn't a pretty one; I sure wouldn't want to be living there then, at least not outside the upper classes. Down below, it sounds like an altogether unpleasant scene; one in which 'desperate measures are called for' indeed. :ohno:
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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Wed Dec 19, 2007 10:11 pm

Thanks, Parlez. London definitely sounds like a pretty gnarly place back then, especially for the "lower" classes. I can't wait to see how Tim & Co. portray it!
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -

Wow! What a ride!

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Unread postby gemini » Wed Dec 19, 2007 10:23 pm

In an effort to survive, whole families, including children, would work for just pennies a day in the mills and factories that had sprung up around the city.

London was certainly not a pretty picture for the underclass.
Even their lives if they were able to stay out of prison were awful. I would imagine stealing to eat was one of the most common ways to find yourself in Newgate prison.
Still a very enlightening tidbit of the times.
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Unread postby e_phemera » Thu Dec 20, 2007 4:42 am

Thanks DitHoT :reader:

On to Fleet Street…
According to the stories, Sweeney Todd had his shop at number 186 Fleet Street, which is now the Dundee Courier building with a Kwick copier shop below as pictured here.


Is the church in the picture St. Dunstan's?
"Between two worlds life hovers like a star, twixt night and morn, upon the horizon's verge."
~Lord Byron

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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Thu Dec 20, 2007 8:58 am

Hi, e_phemera :wave: The church in the picture is St. Dunstan's.
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -

Wow! What a ride!

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Unread postby Gilbert's Girl » Thu Dec 20, 2007 8:59 am

gemini wrote:
In an effort to survive, whole families, including children, would work for just pennies a day in the mills and factories that had sprung up around the city.

London was certainly not a pretty picture for the underclass.
Even their lives if they were able to stay out of prison were awful. I would imagine stealing to eat was one of the most common ways to find yourself in Newgate prison.
Still a very enlightening tidbit of the times.


I doubt it was much different from any big cities in the same period throughout the world.

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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Thu Dec 20, 2007 9:01 am

I agree GG. Urban living wasn't pretty anwywhere in those days.
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -

Wow! What a ride!

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Unread postby Gilbert's Girl » Thu Dec 20, 2007 9:06 am

DeppInTheHeartOfTexas wrote:I agree GG. Urban living wasn't pretty anwywhere in those days.


Yes, and certainly over here with the move out of the countryside into the big towns and cities slums became common place, but I'm sure as is often today its was only a minority that turned to crime.

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Unread postby suec » Sat Dec 22, 2007 8:58 am

Very interesting information!
The smell alone would be unimaginable. We had a problem one day at work with fawlty sewers and it was horrendous. I pity anyone living with that every day. :yuck:
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Unread postby Gilbert's Girl » Sat Dec 22, 2007 9:02 am

suec wrote:Very interesting information!
The smell alone would be unimaginable. We had a problem one day at work with fawlty sewers and it was horrendous. I pity anyone living with that every day. :yuck:

But they would have got used to it so that they wouldn't have noticed :-/

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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Sat Dec 22, 2007 12:17 pm

I'm not sure you would ever get used to that!
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -

Wow! What a ride!

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Unread postby Parlez » Sat Dec 22, 2007 12:21 pm

Agreed! Hence the resolute and unyielding need for perfume!
But that's another story, and another movie! :lol:
"Belay that! ...Do something else!" ~ Hector Barbossa

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Unread postby Gilbert's Girl » Sat Dec 22, 2007 12:44 pm

DeppInTheHeartOfTexas wrote:I'm not sure you would ever get used to that!


You don't think, but maybe you are thinking of it from our modern day perspective.

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Unread postby fansmom » Sat Dec 22, 2007 1:43 pm

Caution: Yucky bit ahead-- :yuck:

We've had a problem in the past at work with small animals (bats, we've been told, but that's a long story) dying behind the walls. There's not a lot that can be done about the smell; it takes about two weeks for a body that small to decay and the reek to go away.


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