Tag Archives: victorian london

The Sweeney

Sweeney Todd has been very much on my mind lately. I recently saw a really excellent production of the Sondheim musical at Twickenham Theatre (ave atque vale). Then I heard that another production is to be staged at the venerable Harrington’s pie shop in Tooting, which also sounds like it’ll be worth seeing. And between these, I’ve been working on props and puppets for another Sondheim musical (come and see it, it’ll be awesome).

Sweeney Todd So who was Sweeney Todd? The tale has various forms, but the basic essence is that Todd is a murderous barber in Fleet Street (No. 186 to be precise) who kills his customers by means of a special chair (pictured left) and his trusty razor. The bodies are disposed of by his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, in the form of extremely tasty meat pies.

The story first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful called The String of Pearls: A Romance (“romance” meant something different then). Its enduring popularity led to its being retold in various versions over the decades, most of which played with the details a little – maybe Mrs Lovett was actually his lover, for instance. Oddly, the detail that he sliced his victims with a razor while preparing to shave them, which you’d think would be a pretty good starting point for such a horror story, was added in later versions. Christopher Bond’s 1970 play recast Todd as an anti-hero with a revenge motive, and this was carried over into Sondheim’s 1979 musical and the Tim Burton film version thereof.

Some folklorists would have you believe that Todd was a real figure, and certainly he shares with Sherlock Holmes the honour of being a London character so vivid that he almost seems to transcend fiction. But one thing we can be almost certain of is that he was not real. There are no surviving contemporary accounts of such a man, and the concept of a barber who kills his victims with a descending chair like some perverted version of a Thunderbirds launch sequence prior to serving them in delicious pie form would definitely be the sort of thing that would make the papers.

Stories of cannibalism were nothing new even then, and even the gruesome detail of the unwitting cannibal declaring the meat delicious was pretty long in the tooth – Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Historia Regum Britanniae of a king marooned on an island whose servant was so loyal that he gave the king a slice of his own leg, which the king declared to be the most toothsome thing he’d ever eaten, and he had the good taste not to say, “I’ve heard of self service, but this is ridiculous!”

A popular suggestion is that the inspiration came from the legend of Sawney Bean, the 15th century patriarch of a family of cannibals who preyed on unwary travellers in Galloway. The fact that “Sweeney” sounds very much like an Anglicised version of “Sawney” leads me to think they’re on to something here, although admittedly other than the cannibalism, the two stories have little in common.

However, I wonder if there might have been a source of inspiration closer to home. I’ve written before about the epidemic of food adulteration in the 18th and 19th centuries – suppose our unknown author took this to its logical conclusion? Looking for a name for the chap who’d do such a thing, he recalled an old Scottish tale. Perhaps he even adapted it from an already existing urban legend.

I’d love to explore this further, but my dinner’s ready.


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Filed under 19th century, Crime, Food, Literature, The City

Talk about burning your bridges

There’s a rather pleasant bridge on the Regent’s Canal, a short distance beyond the Zoo as you go from Camden. It’s known as the Macclesfield Bridge or, unofficially, as the Blow-Up Bridge. The reason for this latter nickname is, surprisingly, because this one time it got blown up. Allow me to explain.

See, legislation in the 19th century concerning explosives seems to have been based not so much on the question, “How can we prevent accidents?” as “Has an accident happened yet?” If yes, consider legislation. If not, well, let’s not rock the boat. For example, into the mid-19th century, it was all-but-legal to manufacture fireworks in your own home. Technically it was illegal, but the law was never really enforced. An Act was passed to control explosives in 1860, but it was wholly inadequate – it only specifically covered gunpowder, not the newer and more powerful explosives that were starting to appear on the scene. And again, it was not properly enforced and therefore widely ignored. In 1864, an explosives factory at Erith went up. More than twelve workers were killed, but so complete was the explosion that the final death toll is unknown – a disembodied head was found in a garden a mile away and the explosion was heard fifty miles away. The blast actually produced a mushroom cloud. Subsequent investigation revealed that gunpowder was carried around the works in open wagons, workmen wore iron-soled shoes and used iron tools, barrels leaked and, most facepalm-worthy of all, people smoked inside the powder magazines. It wasn’t so much a case of determining a cause of the blast as determining which cause. It’s still not known, as anyone who saw what happened was part of the aforementioned mushroom cloud.

And so Parliament went back to the drawing board. A new Act was brought in in 1875, despite massive and predictable opposition from the explosives industry. Unfortunately, the Act came a little too late for the crew of the barge Tilbury.

The Tilbury was one of five barges being towed by the tug Ready along the Regent’s Canal up towards the Midlands. The barge was owned by the Grand Junction Canal Company, and was used for various general cargoes. On 2 October 1874, it had two cargoes in its hold. One was six barrels of petroleum, the other was five tons of gunpowder. That enough for you? The Ready was a steam tug and the Tilbury was the first barge in the convoy. Oh, and the crew were in the habit of lighting a fire in the cabin to keep warm.

Slightly before 5.00 AM, beneath Macclesfield Bridge, what now seems inevitable happened. The Tilbury exploded. The explosion was heard as far away as Woolwich, and buildings up to a mile away were damaged. The Tilbury and the Ready were obliterated, part of the latter’s keel being found embedded in the wall of a house 300 yards away. The second barge was sunk but, fortunately, the crew escaped with minor injuries. As you might imagine, the first two vessels’ crews were not so lucky, being killed instantly.

Among the many buildings damaged were the cages at London Zoo, with several exotic birds escaping. A detachment of soldiers from Albany Barracks soon arrived on the scene, though accounts differ as to whether this was to keep order, due to fear of a Fenian bomb attack or even to protect people from escaped wild beasts. The fire brigade also arrived, though by this stage all the damage that could be done had been done.

Major Vivian Majendie of the Royal Artillery carried out an investigation into the disaster, which came to the conclusion that a naked flame had ignited petrol vapour, triggering the explosion – it was known that the convoy had been stopped just before the bridge while the crew of the Ready investigated a blue flash seen aboard the Tilbury.

Macclesfield Bridge was demolished and sunk. The canal was drained while its rubble was recovered. However, Majendie remarked that while the damage was severe, it could have been a lot worse – fortunately, at that point, the canal passes through a cutting, which served to force the worst of the blast upwards. Given the amount the blast did do, the fact that it could have been worse doesn’t really bear thinking about. Majendie finished by observing that the incident proved the necessity of the forthcoming Act.

The canal was back in use four days later, and the bridge was, of course, rebuilt. But even now, it’s never quite managed to shake off the nickname of Blow-Up Bridge.


Filed under 19th century, Baker Street and Marylebone, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Disasters, History, London, Politics, Transport


Prior to tomorrow’s actual entry, I’ve been surfing YouTube for documentary footage. I love old public information films and I can’t explain why. Here are some items that may be of interest to London-liking folk.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fABILtla_lE&feature=channel – Blackfriars Bridge, 1896

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJi7x2QIO-8&feature=channel – London Bridge, thirty years later, in colour. Gives you a brief snapshot of just how busy the Pool of London was in those pre-war days.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9_gjh_YTJ0&feature=channel – The Houses of Parliament, 1926, again in colour. Surprisingly little has changed since this was filmed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipAYUpqDVNI&NR=1 – Some Bright Young Things in Hyde Park. This colour footage was all shot by Claude Friese-Green for a film called ‘The Open Road’.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzeBDcmrjjY&feature=channel – Petticoat Lane, London. Some fine footage of what the gentleman-about-town was wearing in the Roaring Twenties. Hats, mostly.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwvX8P0ZRKE&NR=1 – Taking in the sights at St James’s Palace.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LGavykBbxM&feature=channel – ‘Colour on the Thames’ from 1935. Highlights include Richmond and construction of the ugly Hungerford Bridge. The heavily industrialised Pool of London is unrecognisable but for the few landmarks that survive. As for the Docklands, you wouldn’t know it was the same place today.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Slk1KCQPolE&feature=related – The London Underground in 1963, including Upminster Depot, Loughton Station and signalling at Camden Town.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B92MnoPVtGs&feature=related – Coffee shops in London in the 1960s. Some fine footage of Soho. I particularly like the square narrator trying to be “down with the kids” and the supremely wooden proprietor complaining about overheads.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvFeZqv7WuQ&feature=related – King’s Road, Chelsea, 1967.

That’s all for now, chums, but stay tuned tomorrow for another exciting installment of London Particulars! G’bye now!

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Arts, Buildings and architecture, Camden, chelsea, East End and Docklands, Film and TV, Food, Geography, History, Kingston, London, london bridge, London Underground, Psychogeography, Richmond and Twickenham, Shopping, Soho, Suburbia, Thames, The City, Transport, Waterloo and Southwark, Weird shops, West End, Westminster

How to be a Victorian domestic goddess

  • Do you have an infestation of black beetles? Try keeping a pet hedgehog.
  • Are you a woman planning on taking the Omnibus into town? Don’t, or everyone will think you’re a whore.
  • The solution to bedbugs is a solution of mercury on the joints of the bed. Or consider one of those new brass bedsteads that are all the rage these days.
  • If your child has the whooping cough, try rubbing snails on it. Better still, get a servant to do it.
  • Sadly, it is no longer permitted to send a child up the chimney in order to keep it clean. If you have a slightly-built maid, send her up instead. Failing that, try discharging a shotgun up there. Some choose to do this naked in order to protect their clothes from falling soot – if you take this course, ensure no daguerrotypists are present.

maidI’d love to say that I’d made some or any of these up, but they are all bona fide pieces of advice from Victorian guidebooks for women living in the city. Well, except the bit about daguerrotypists.

Anyway, for more of this sort of thing, I recommend Liza Picard’s Victorian London. Ms Picard is the author of a series of books on everyday life in London, the others being Elizabeth’s London, Restoration London and Dr Johnson’s London. They’re a brilliant source of historical information, even if London isn’t your thing. More-or-less every detail of period life is covered, to the extent that you’ll be able to watch costume dramas and mutter “Oh please,” with a roll of the eyes.

The style is also very lively and readable, and Picard isn’t afraid to throw in her own opinions where appropriate. As a result, the books never drag and are just as enjoyable for reading on the Tube as they are for the researcher.

So yeah.


Filed under 19th century, History, Literature, London

Bijou note-ette #3: Okay, after this, no more Dickens

Yeah, I know, but while I was out and about in Bloombury, I found this place:

IMG_0554As you can see, it possesses yet another blue plaque (there’s about two per street in Bloomsbury on average), which commemorates yet another Dickens location.

This makes an appearance in one of Charles Dickens’ lesser known works, ‘The Bloomsbury Christening’. Dickens’ first published work was a series of sketches in the Morning Chronicle under the pseudonym “Boz”. These were collected and published under the title Sketches by Boz, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

The building you see before you was the residence of Mr Charles Kitterbell in said tale, introduced to us thus:

In addition to these characteristics, it may be added that Mr. Charles Kitterbell was one of the most credulous and matter-of-fact little personages that ever took TO himself a wife, and FOR himself a house in Great Russell-street, Bedford-square. (Uncle Dumps always dropped the ‘Bedford-square,’ and inserted in lieu thereof the dreadful words ‘Tottenham-court-road.’)

It’s a very Londony story, condensing pretty much everything I said about Dickens and London yesterday. Could have saved me a lot of trouble if I’d known about it earlier. Hi ho.

Further reading:

Here’s the story. http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/7854/

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Filed under 19th century, Bloomsbury, Buildings and architecture, History, Literature, London, Notable Londoners