Some Fleet Street Killers

John Strype, Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1720: Adjoining to St. Dunstan’s Church, Eastwards, is a small Place of two Houses, which bears the Name of Hen and Chicken Court. And near unto this Court, Fetter lane falleth into Fleetstreet. Flower de lyz Court, or rather Alley, being long, narrow and ordinary, with a Freestone Pavement; hath three Out-lets, two into Fetter lane, and another into Three Leg Alley. This Court is of very small Repute, being but meanly inhabited; the Buildings are on the East side, the West being the back Yards to the Houses in Fetter lane. It is of some Note for the Mousetrap House, being the Receptacle for leud Persons.

Hen and Chicken Court remains an actual address in 21st century London, a dingy survivor of ‘The Great Wen’ amidst gleaming corporate anonymity. Sadly, The Mousetrap House has vanished, so if it’s lowlife drinking you’re after you’ll have to go elsewhere. There are more than a few websites that list this spot as the site of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop, a joint where you risked getting turned into a savoury pastry for the sake of a shave. Sweeney Todd is, of course, entirely fictitious, a character created for a mid- 18th century Penny Dreadful called The String of Pearls. But the era didn’t need fictional killers, it had more than enough real ones.

Sarah Malcolm was a 22-year old laundress of Irish extraction who lived above a local pub and did laundry for various Temple residents. One of these was Lydia Duncomb, a rich 80-year old who lived in a house with her two maidservants. One morning in February 1733, Miss Duncomb and her maids were found dead, variously strangled or stabbed, and the house ransacked. Sarah was quickly connected to the murders by a stolen tankard and some bloodied clothing found in her room. At her brief trial (lasting all of five hours) she maintained that she’d only kept watch for the gang and hadn’t killed anyone, and said that her clothes were bloodied with her own menstrual blood. But in the absence of other culprits, she was convicted and hanged on the corner of Fleet Street and Fetter Lane. Days before her execution, Hogarth visited Sarah in Newgate Gaol and painted a celebrated prison portrait of her. She’s holding a rosary in the picture, which is significant: catholics weren’t too popular in England at that time. The great artist thought she was capable of any vice, although it seems that her hangman thought she was innocent. She maintained her innocence to the end (her confession became a posthumous bestseller) and was pitifully distressed that she was to be executed on Fleet Street, where her death would be witnessed by neighbours and acquaintances.

The Fleet Street/Fetter Lane junction had long been a busy venue for hangings, with a gibbet on the spot since at least the 16th century. Sarah was executed there in accordance with the convention that criminals hanged close to the scene of their crimes might be a warning to other likely offenders. But public executions functioned as a spectator sport, and the advent of the ‘bloody code’ in the 18th century increased the number of offences that carried a death sentence, offering greater opportunities for popular entertainment. At this time Temple Bar * was festooned with the decaying heads of miscreants stuck on poles and displayed as examples of justice exacted. Horace Walpole wrote in a letter in 1746 about seeing the ‘new heads’ on Temple Bar, ‘where people make a trade of letting spy glasses at halfpenny a look’. (* Christopher Wren’s elegant gateway, removed in 1878 as an impediment to traffic. It languished in the grounds of a brewer’s mansion in Hertfordshire until it was finally moved back to London in 2004. It now gleams white and pristine in the environs of St Paul’s cathedral, its associations with past horrors seemingly expunged.)

In 1767 a further address mentioned by Strype became associated with another notorious murder case. Mary Clifford was a fourteen year-old apprentice killed by her employer, Elizabeth Brownrigg, a midwife who lived in Fleur-de-Lis Court. Mary had been placed at Mrs Brownrigg’s establishment by the newly-established Foundling Hospital in Coram’s Fields, Bloomsbury. The Hospital was looking to find apprenticeships for the adolescent orphans in its care, but they were not bothering to vet the employers too thoroughly. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Brownrigg was a violent sadist who abused the three girls in her care in horrific ways: chaining them up and beating them, starving them, locking them in the coal cellar, cutting their tongues with pincers and so on. Mary was treated so badly that she died of her infected wounds. Mrs Brownrigg was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and was duly hanged at Tyburn. This was a cause celebre in its day, highlighting the plight of orphans and the extent to which they were prey to slavery and cruelty, even when they were under the care of a charitable institution like the Foundling Hospital.

One final word on Sweeney Todd: the following Georgian news item has an eerie echo of the mythical barber …

The Annual Register, December 1st, 1784: A most remarkable murder was perpetrated in the following manner by a journeyman barber that lived near Hyde Park Corner, who had been for a long time past jealous of his wife, but could no way bring it home to her. A young gentleman by chance coming into his master’ s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned his having seen a fine girl home to Hamilton Street, from whom he had certain favours the night before, and at the same time describing her person. The barber concluding it to be his wife, in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’ s throat from ear to ear and absconded.

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