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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Dispelling Some Myths: Sweeney Todd

Updated: Feb 16

Fact or Fiction? Despite some believing he was a real person, the murderous ‘Barber of Fleet Street’, Sweeney Todd, is in fact an entirely fictional character who first appeared in a story titled ‘The String of Pearls: A Romance’. This iconic English villain was popularised in a Victorian penny dreadful [1], published in 18 weekly parts, in Edward Lloyd's The People's Periodical and Family Library [2]. The original tale became a staple of Victorian melodrama and London urban legend. In it Todd murders his customers with his barber’s straight razor before handing over their bodies to Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime, who bakes their flesh into meat pies.

Authorship of the story is unknown, but in February or March 1847, before the serial was even completed, a minor 19th-century playwright, George Dibdin Pitt, adapted ‘The String of Pearls’ as a melodrama for the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton, East London. It was in this alternative version of the tale, rather than the original, that Todd acquired his catchphrase: ‘I'll polish him off’.

A Georgian tale As today, and like many other works of historical fiction, 'The String of Pearls' employs an earlier age to explore current fears. The Industrial Revolution in England, which started in the 18th-century, saw many rural folk move from small villages or towns to the large cities, like London, Birmingham and Manchester. The populace shifted from growing its own food or buying from local farmers, bakers, and butchers to relying on third-party retailers. This disconnect led to uncertainty as to where their food came from. The rapid population increase in the urban centres also meant more mouths to feed leading to the unscrupulous adulterating of foods.

In the 19th-century there was an unmistakeable increase in the reported instances of adulterated foods. Some contemporary commentators ascribed this to lower ethical standards in business and government. Others attributed it to developments in the science of analytical chemistry. In simple terms advances in the microscope enabled chemists to better identify foreign substances in foods [3]. The widespread addition of alum to bread flour, for example, was confirmed by Dr A H Hassall, a physician who used the microscope to reveal adulterations to foods. His investigative reports, published in The Lancet in the early 1850s, went so far as to list the names and addresses of merchants guilty of the practice [4].

A capital crime It is perhaps with the uncertainties about industrialisation in mind that some might interpret Sweeney Todd as symbolising the fear generated by such rapid change. In fact, the social and economic changes in the 18th-century saw the number of capital offences, punishable by death, grow to over 200. England’s law makers, the Members of Parliament (MPs), were all landed aristocracy increasingly scared by the rise in crimes threatening their property. It was believed that punishments should be as harsh as possible to deter people from committing the crime, remove the worst offenders through execution and provide retribution to victims. These changes were known as the Criminal, or Bloody, Code which, probably unintentionally, may have desensitised the populace to death and, ironically, incentivised murder. Clearly, some, like Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett, would have killed their victims regardless, but if petty criminals knew they faced execution for so many different crimes, then escalating to murder was explicable. Capital punishment as a deterrent simply failed to work in practice.

The story of Sweeney Todd has endured for over 250 years because it draws on primal fears and taboos. Within the tale is murder, the desecration of bodies, cannibalism, and being forced to participate in it unknowingly. Even today it amplifies fears about public health; is the food we eat safe? In more modern versions of the story even Mrs. Lovett’s chimney makes London more polluted. Ultimately, the fear of being attacked or murdered, with no one to help or even notice, makes ‘The String of Pearls’ a timeless horror story and Sweeney Todd a timeless villain.

And finally If you are inspired by the story of Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett, then Hannah Glasse’s book ‘The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy’ [5] written in the reign of George II gives several recipes for pies such as this one for ‘A Beef Steak Pye’:

As to where you source the 'rump steak', we leave that entirely up to you...Bon appétit!



1. ‘Penny dreadfuls’ were stories published in weekly parts of between eight and sixteen pages, each costing one penny. They were very popular in nineteenth century Britain.

2. The People's Periodical and Family Library, Issues 7 to 24, were published from November 21st, 1846 to March 20th, 1847.

3. Hart, F.L., (1952), ‘A History of the Adulteration of Food Before 1906’, Food, Drug, Cosmetic Law Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, Food and Drug Law Institute (FDLI), p. 13, Available online (accessed December 13th, 2021).

4. Op. cit., p. 16.

5. Hannah Glasse, (1747), ‘The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy’, Chapter VII ‘Of Pies’, Prospect Books, p. 71 (ISBN 978-1-903018-88-0).


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